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The great video game moral panic

Posted by Timothy Loew  February 6, 2014 09:06 AM

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By Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., associate professor and department chair, Stetson University

For years, some scholars argued there are problems with arguments linking violent video games and other media to acts of violence in society. The concern is that attempts to blame societal violence on video games is a moral panic; an emotional distraction akin to a witch hunt. From comic books to rock music, media have often been the target of such moral panics. In the recent, tragic case of Adam Lanza, we had the opportunity to watch a moral panic unfold in real time.

Lanza was the 20-year-old perpetrator of the horrifying mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012. His crimes immediately reopened dormant debates on media violence, particularly video game violence (VVG). According to moral panic theory, moral panics are promulgated in part by social narratives constructed to give people a sense of understanding of the incomprehensible and control over the uncontrollable, and in part on various stakeholders, particularly journalists, politicians and scholars, who benefit from the moral panic.

With a moral panic, society seeks "folk devils" - things that are not valued that can be blamed for apparent social ills. In the case of Sandy Hook, we want to know why someone would be motivated to commit such a heinous act. The narrative that Lanza was lost in a fantasy world of violence fueled by an obsession over VVG provides an easy to understand narrative, particularly for people who don’t know much about or like video games. It doesn’t matter if it’s "true", and in fact evidence is absent to link mass shootings and VVG. It matters only that it explains and gives a sense of control as we could just get rid of the VVG and all would be well! Indeed, recent research by Andrew Przybylski at Oxford University confirms that concerns about VVG are a generational and experiential issue. Older adults and people who don’t play games tend to be the ones who believe they can be harmful.

As mentioned, societal stakeholders may take advantage of moral panics. Soon after the shooting the National Rifle Association held a press conference attempting to shift the blame for the shooting from real guns to the imaginary ones in VVG. I’m not advocating against the Second Amendment, but the cynical motives in this attempt where obvious. Unfortunately, the NRA were joined by a number of politicians who used bombastic language to link games to violence, and proposed various legislation and "studies" (usually advertising what they wanted the results of the studies to be) to demonstrate the "harm" of VVG. Politicians benefit from moral panics by looking like they are "doing something." Scholars can (and have) exaggerated claims of harm, because alarmist claims are likely to get them both news headlines and grant funding. Anti-media advocacy organizations also get more funding by scaring people. And news media get subscribers and page clicks. Although some news outlets, in fairness, were careful to solicit views from more objective scholars who cautioned against making links, many headlines were happy to focus on apocryphal claims of Lanza’s VVG obsession that did not originate with any official sources in the investigation.

Unfortunately, it took Connecticut investigators almost a year to release its findings and when it did it made all of those claims by politicians, journalists and scholars moot. Like most other 20-year-olds, Lanza did indeed own both violent and non-violent video games. But, contrary to the rumors, he spent most of his time playing non-violent games. The state’s report specifically mentioned Super Mario Brothers and Dance, Dance Revolution as two of his favorite games. It made no mention of him being "obsessed" or "enthralled" with VVG, nor linked the shooting to such games even in part. Beliefs that Lanza’s gaming habits indicated an unusual pattern for a 20-year-old male appear to have been largely a hoax.

Part of the problem is that almost all men under 40 now play VVG, at least occasionally. So, if one is inclined, it’s possible to link almost any crime committed by young males to VVG. This is about as meaningful as linking crime to wearing pants rather than dresses, growing facial hair, having testicles, or anything else almost all men do. Unfortunately, in the case of Sandy Hook, all the hyperbole progressed without bothering to wait for actual information. That, of course, is the essence of a moral panic.

In Massachusetts, the crucible of one of our nation’s most notorious moral panics, legislation has been filed which would establish a commission to develop recommendations about VVG. I’ve spoken a bit with state Sen. William Brownsberger, the sponsor of Senate Bill 168 and, although I don’t support his legislation, I found him to be refreshingly honest about the lack of clear links between VVG and the Sandy Hook case or violence more generally. He is, if anything, more candid and reasonable than some scholars who have a moral agenda! But I do worry about the language in the bill (such as use of the prejudicial term "killing games") and a commission can be "stacked" to make it say whatever one wants it to say. This bill remains problematic, but I’d be happy to work with Sen. Brownsberger on something less focused on worrying about non-existent links between VVG and societal violence, and perhaps something more akin to a calm educational campaign on the existing ratings systems, controls, and opportunities for parents to become more involved in their children’s media lives.

In their recent review of research on mass shootings authors Fox and DeLateur specifically refer to proposed links between VVG and mass shootings as a "myth." Similarly in their review of VVG research as part of the Brown v EMA case in 2011, the US Supreme Court concluded evidence did not support a link between VVG and societal violence. Such myths have real harm. Whilst we debated VVG, we did nothing to address the issue of our country’s woefully inadequate mental health system, of poverty or educational disparities. That is the risk of moral panics; they ultimately distract us from more pressing issues we really need to fix. The focus on VVG following Sandy Hook represents a failure of our political leaders to lead and keep society focused on things that actually matter. This pattern will continue until we demand better from our politicians, journalists and scholars.

Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., is an associate professor and chair of the department of psychology at Stetson University. His research interests include examining the effects of media on behavior, such as video game violence, thin-ideal media or advertising effects.

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The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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