American Culture

Of Virginia Tech and video games: will somebody please do the math?

Video games killed those kids at Virginia Tech!!! So said self-credentialed media scholar Jack Thompson, whose uninformed hissy fit commenced roughly eight seconds after the shooting ended. Of course, FAUX News was happy to hand him a mic and point a camera at him.

If only they’d taught math at Jack Thompson’s school. Hard to blame him too much, though, because when it comes to the myth of powerful media effects the whole country seems incapable of parsing even the most basic statistics.

Let’s leave aside, for just a second, that Seung-Hui Cho was apparently driven into a homicidal rampage by a game he didn’t even play (that would be some powerful influence right there). Let’s just examine the plausibility of the assertion.

Assume, for the sake of argument:

  • a million kids play Counter-Strike, the game in question;
  • one of them goes nuts and commits a mass murder;
  • the other 999,999 … don’t.

What can we conclude from this set of circumstances, class?

The answer: in 99.9999% of cases, Counter-Strike players don’t go out and kill people. (Somebody double-check my math and make sure I have enough 9s after the decimal point, would you?) But in America, we form conclusions and propose policy based on the .0001% exception instead of the 99.9999% rule. In fact, we’ve been trying to do it since the late 1920s, when researchers first took up the question of media effects on behavior. 80 years later the attempt to make that case is as weak as it ever was. Can mediated stimuli contribute to anti-social behavior in some subjects if a number of other factors are also present? Sure – but there’s a buttload of ifs and variables in that equation, and with severely disturbed cases like a Cho or an Eric Harris (just tossing out a name here – according to a lot rocket surgeons out there it was the devil KMFDM that made him do it) even if you establish a correlation of some sort you still have indicated direction: did violent media make him do it, or was he attracted to violent media because of a homocidal disposition? (And spare me the Bobo Doll, okay? As staged lab stunts go that was a good one, but I’ve never seen anything credible that ties it to real-world behaviors like we talking about here.)

Violence in American media and society is an ungodly complicated soup of millions of factors, and witless demagogues like Thompson do us no favors when they try and reduce massively complex issues to inanely simple pronouncements (although that’s certainly how one goes about grabbing attention and power in an undereducated society).

When Thompson’s 15 minutes are up, though, I want to invite him over for a night of high-stakes gambling. He looks like a guy with money and I figure if I can get somebody with his head for odds and probability to bring his wallet I can pay off the house in no time flat.

[Thx to Jade23 for the tip.]

8 replies »

  1. A few weeks ago this discussion came up in one of my classes, though I have no idea why. It absolutely amazed me how many of my classmates were quick to jump on the causation bandwagon and seemed genuinely surprised by my suggestion that if there were a correlation at all, perhaps it could be that violent individuals were drawn toward violent games. It worried me that otherwise incredibly bright people had bought into the “bad” media making bad kids story without question.

  2. That’s Jack Thompson’s position on everything. We’re just lucky that Hurricane Katrina had enough angles that the media wasn’t hard up enough to let Thompson on the air to explain how video games caused it.

    And WTF, Jack? I thought Grand Theft Auto was the root of all evil.

  3. This is a major peeve of mine – people blaming violent TV, games, books, movies, etc. for all of society’s ills.


    Let’s throw in the loonies who believe that role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons leads otherwise God-fearing Christians away from Jesus and straight into the waiting arms of Satan while we’re at it. Loonies like William Schnoebelen….

  4. Look at the logo for S&R. Remember our boy, George Gordon nee Byron? His defense of those Luddites? Remember how they were protesting machines which were destroying a “better” (read older, “traditional”) way of life?

    Well, in a very real way, blaming media for what it chooses to expose the public to – whether the effects of jazz records, Fitzgerald stories, Steinbeck social criticism, Capra populism, gangsters, unions, and the radio (1920’s-40’s); rock and roll, beatniks, Bradbury and Ginsburg, FM rock, drugs, hippie/counter culture, The Beatles, the Kennedys, Brautigan, Vonnegut, civil rights activists, television, and student demonstrations (the 1950’s and 1960’s); feminism, disco, casual sex, porn, LCD television, investigative journalism, Jong sexual liberation of feminism, Steinhem politicization of feminism, AIDS, latch key kids, and role playing games, (1970’s and 1980’s); the Internet, video games, liberals, and Xer slackers, Millenials, blogging, instant messages, neocons, corporate thievery, and reality television (the 1990’s and 2000’s) is Ludditism.

    We know that sometimes Ludditism is justified – the problem is that Ludditism is easily used as a ruse for wanting to protect the status quo for one’s own benefit – or explain away one’s own lack of understanding – or, worst of all, to turn the public’s eye from the ball….

    As Shelley warned us nearly 200 years ago (it’s still National Poetry Month) mutability is one of our constants. Too often Ludditism is merely resistance to mutability.

  5. Not to be a purist, but what you’re describing isn’t “real” Luddism – at least not in the Romantic Original sense of the term. What you’re describing is basic reactionaryism – that isn’t a word, is it? – masquerading under another guise.

    We live in an age of compressed progress. Progress breeds resistance by nature, but when you have X amount of progress and its resultant Y amount of resistance spread out over a century, it’s manageable. You accelerate progress so that X occurs in 18 months, then realize that you’re going to get Y in 18 months, too, and that begins to explain the curious age in which we live.

    These are obviously the perfect conditions for those who pander fear to profit and they’re ideal for those selling simple solutions….

  6. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about the rock and roll being an influence on Cho’s rampage. That seems to be a common response after school shootings–it’s the evil death music!

    Actually, I was at a metal/goth show the other night and I got to thinking that artistic expression of grotesque and violent thoughts and feelings through music are more beneficial than harmful. Isn’t it better to portray your anger through music than violent actions?

    If someone has really violent thoughts about killing his/her classmates but is able to express those feelings through music, then why should that be discouraged? Furthermore, if other angry teenagers find a release through listening to that music, shouldn’t that be encouraged as well, instead of making them bottle up those feelings to eventually boil over someday into something horrible?

    Perhaps video games serve the same purpose for some people.