By blaming violence on video games, the media misses its mark
In December 1980, Mark David Chapman fatally shot John Lennon four times in the back. In February 1993, ten-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables kidnapped, tortured and killed two-year-old James Bulger, and in April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold inscribed themselves into history by staging a brutal and meticulously planned attack on their high school: the Columbine High School Massacre.
Multiple threads tie these violent attacks together: the accused were all men, suffered from mental health issues, and experienced social seclusion and distress as well as violence. Furthermore, aside from being elevated to media sensations themselves, each of the incidents was linked to a media article. Press coverage yoking dangerous media to real-life violence flourished: while Chapman brandished The Catcher In The Rye as his defence, it was the horror film Child’s Play 3 that ostensibly induced the Bulger murder, and musician Marilyn Manson and goth culture that lead Harris and Klebold astray.
There are some violent crimes that threaten to dismantle the veneer of civic cohesion built around us. Despite a comprehensive knowledge of the barbaric tendencies of human history, there endures a fundamental unease concerning the deepest and darkest extent of our violent actions. Actions command an explanation or an excuse. Justice and justification are the holy grails of human dignity, and in pursuit of these, moral panics shroud the media in a blanket of distrust and hysteria.
Thus “media”, the entirety of human communication, knowledge, and imagination, become our own Pandora’s box of possibilities: a source of worry, envy, hatred (ad infinitum), but also of hope. Simultaneously heralded as both instructive and destructive, engaging and isolating, certain media have always held a contended position in society.
Since the late 20th century, technology, and our understanding thereof, has developed, with clear links between violent media and real-life violence becoming only more tenuous. Rarely do we see a news outlet draw causal relationships between a specific act of violence and a corresponding piece of media. Nor do these accusations bear the weight they once did. Social anxieties have shifted, with current worries extending into the more general risks of excessive media engagement: social withdrawal, gaming addiction and grooming. Concerns linger, and contemporary interactive immersion in video games and virtual reality easily revive old fears.
The most recently mediated public uproar bears witness to these itchy, eager fingers. Fortnite, a multiplayer shooter game, triggered a number of articles in news outlets across the globe, such as The Sun, The Independent, Forbes and The Guardian, all discussing the potential impact of video games on children. Stories abound with violent outbursts, loss of control and in one particular case, incontinence.
What is more, the World Health Organisation’s classification of “gaming disorder” as a mental health issue has added further layers to the debate. Indeed, it would be naïve to assume that there are no dangers involved. However, it would be equally fruitless to shirk away from the digital progress that envelops our existence, and the positive advantages it can bear.
The internet is an endless vortex of human experience, offering limitless opportunities. Just like any other form of media, it can be used to instruct, entertain, and go further than our physical restrictions may allow. It is easy to focus on exorbitant gaming behaviour or to worry about distorted perceptions of violence through comic misrepresentations, although doing so neglects the opportunities of social bonding and friendship incorporated into a digital environment. It is also worth noting that many misgivings converge around the misuse of video games, rather than the oversaturation of negative news reporting.
Virtual spaces allow for exploration and investigation of the self in a (mostly) safe environment. This can follow the line of delving into multiple identities, creative performing and problem-solving. These are digital arenas constructed for play, qualities that to those who may struggle to do so in public spaces appreciate immensely.
There is evidence that individuals on the spectrum can benefit from games in order to enhance social skills, and research indicating games that allow soldiers to grapple with PTSD in a therapeutic way. Virtual reality has been used recently to strip away physical disabilities and allow disabled individuals to experience the ordinarily simple pleasure of a walk in the woods.
Video games and media provide another platform for people from all corners of the earth to come together, building new cross-cultural and national communities. A history of doubt and scepticism swirls around the mediated world, not without reason. It is these diverging ways in which media, specifically new interactive media, can impact, shape and contribute to contemporary discussions about mental health, that The Glasgow Guardian hopes to explore.
This is the first in a series of articles by Isabella Eastwood on how games, traditionally vilified as many forms of recreational media have been, are being used for good.