Video games and shooting: Is the NRA right?

The NRA says the problem with mass shootings like the recent one at the Sandy Hook grade school in Connecticut is not too many unregulated guns but violent video games. But most academic and government research does not support the gun lobby's charge.

By MARK GUARINO | The Christian Science Monitor

posted December 23, 2012 at 9:16 am EST

After a week of silence following the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 20 first graders and six staff in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association blamed the entertainment industry – specifically the producers of violent video games for inciting what has become a pattern of gun violence in the United States.

In describing the industry, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, “There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.”

Mr. LaPierre faulted the news media for failing to report on “vicious, violent video games” such as “Grand Theft Auto,” “Mortal Kombat,” and “Splatterhouse” as egregious examples. He also singled out “Kindergarten Killer,” a free, fairly obscure online game.

“How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn’t or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it?” he asked reporters.

Most academic research, as well as studies by the FBI and the US Secret Service, examining the link between violent video games and incident of violence does not support the gun lobby’s charge.

For example, a 2008 report by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital funded by the US Department of Justice found that violent video games may increase bullying or physical fighting in schools, but not mass gun violence.

“It's clear that the ‘big fears’ bandied about in the press – that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world; that they will engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games – are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form,” the report states.

Joan Saab, director of the visual and cultural studies program at the University of Rochester in New York, says the gaming industry should share in the blame for promoting military weaponry to young people, but adds that the popularity of such games reflect the “larger culture we live in, which is heavily militarized,” in the midst of lengthy combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ms. Saab says that the NRA’s call for armed guards in schools would make that kind of military culture more pervasive for children.

“If there are more armed guards in schools, kids are exposed to more guns. That’s when fantasy and reality aren’t blurred. When there are guns in schools, it becomes real life and the day-to-day environment becomes more dangerous than the game,” she says. In Newtown, as in Aurora, Colo. and the sites of other mass shootings, the gunman was outfitted in military-style dress.

By blaming video games for gun violence, the NRA also puts itself in a vulnerable position because, as Mother Jones reports, the company partnered with gaming producer Cave Entertainment in 2006 for “NRA Gun Club,” a PlayStation 2 game that allows users to fire over 100 different brand-name handguns.

LaPierre did not specify if Congress should move forward in regulating the gaming industry, perhaps because previous attempts were not successful.

A US Supreme Court ruling in 2011 struck down a California law that made it a crime to sell or rent what it classified as violent video games to minors. The ruling said the law, signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2005, violates First Amendment protections.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill that calls for the National Academy of Sciences to examine the possible links between violent video games and violent incidents caused by children.

Overall, gun-based video games do not wholly represent total gaming industry sales, according to data from VGChartz, a UK-based research firm that tracks gaming sales. In 2011, for example, just seven of the top 20 best-selling games in the US involve warfare simulation. The other titles – “Just Dance 3,” “Kinect Adventures!” “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” “Madden NFL 12,” and “Pokemon Black/White” – are designed around sports, dance, and children’s cartoon characters.

All of the games LaPierre mentions are more than 15 years old, with some dating back to the 1980s, with their popularity waning. For example, total unit sales in the US for the “Mortal Kombat” franchise dropped 70 percent in 2012, compared to the previous year total. The game debuted in 1992.

Gaming experts say that the majority of the games LaPierre cited do not portray gun violence – “Mortal Kombat” involves hand-to-hand combat, for example. They say they do not understand why he did not single out “first person shooter” games such as blockbuster franchises like the “Call of Duty” series, which is based on simulated gun action and is considered one of the most hyper-violent on the market. In fact, according to news reports, the game was also a favorite of Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman who spent hours at home playing it.

“Some of those games [LaPierre mentions] are older than the [Newtown] shooter,” who was 20, says Christopher Grant, editor-in-chief of, an online site based in New York City that covers gaming news and trends. “I have no idea why he chose them. My theory is he didn’t want to pick anything too modern [such as ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Doom’] that might overlap unfavorably with something their own members might enjoy.”

“Call of Duty” is known as a favorite of the military and is often credited for driving up recruitment. Activision Blizzard, the company behind “Call of Duty,” has donated thousands of copies to the US Navy; the company also created a non-profit foundation to help returning US military veterans.

According to the NPD Group, a global market research firm, retail gaming sales in the US plummeted 20 percent in the first eight months of 2012 compared to the same time period the previous year, a trend that follows years of declining sales. Between 2008 and 2011, total sales of industry software and hardware dropped 20.5 percent. According to the gaming industry website Gamasutra, 2012 sales are expected to be the lowest since 2006.

The sales drop is representative of major shifts in the gaming industry, which is slowly moving away from console-based games to those that are played via smartphones, digital tablets, and online through social networks.

The change has produced a new type of gamer: They are generally older, more ethnically and economically diverse, and they feed their gaming appetite in smaller bites and on-the-go, as opposed to the traditional gamer profile of a few years ago, which tended to be young males playing for hours in one sitting.

The Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group based in Washington, reports that the average gamer today is 30 years old, the most frequent game purchaser is 35 years old, and that almost half (47 percent) of all gamers are women.

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