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The Media, Tragedy and Gaming

Why does the media attempt to link games to real-world tragedies, and how should the games industry react?

The mass media covering the Aurora Colorado shooting has been searching for a reason behind the killings. Reporters have been scouring the past of the killer and everyone who knew him, looking for something to explain this horrific crime. Fox News, as reported by Kotaku, tried to tie World of Warcraft to the killer and the psychiatrist he had been seeing, Dr. Lynne Fenton.

As Fox News reports in the piece on the shooter being charged with the crime, "On May 30, 2012, Fenton and two graduate students presented a Student Health Case Conference talk called World of Warcraft: The Use of Archetypes in Psychotherapy during the university's psychiatry department's grand rounds. World of Warcraft was reportedly one of the video games that James Holmes frequently played."

Should we be surprised that video games are being targeted as somehow related to this incident?

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Associate Professor of Computer Science at UCSC, wasn't surprised. "Of course violence is connected to the wider culture," he said. "And it's probably no surprise that the media tend to think that games, or rock music, or TV, or rap - things that are also media - are the most powerful ways that culture implicitly condones violence. But if we take a step back from media, it seems clear that it is things like our gun laws that more powerfully endorse and enable tragic violence in the US."

This is an old issue, connecting popular culture items with bad behavior. At the turn of the 20th Century, people were concerned about dime novels; in the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of pulp magazines caused parents great concern with wild stories of aliens and cosmic horror, along with racy and suggestive magazines (that would be considered very tame today).

In the 1950s comic books became the evil force corrupting young minds; see Dr. Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent. The late 1950s saw television become the new destroyer of children; the '60s saw rock music become the evil force assailing young minds. The 1970s and the 1980s saw Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs as a pernicious influence, and in the last twenty years video games have become the scapegoat.

Before the Fox News report today, GamesIndustry International spoke with Michael A. Stackpole, game designer (currently working on Wasteland 2) and best-selling author of numerous science fiction and fantasy novels, about his decades of work as representative for the adventure game industry when reporters tried to connect games with violence. You have a long history with the game industry as the go-to person for media when incidents were linked to games. How did you get into that role?

"If you treat this as an opportunity to tell reporters they are stupid, you come off looking like a moron. You might be right, but they write and edit the stories"

Michael A. Stackpole
Michael A. Stackpole

My involvement began in the early 1980s. I was working for Flying Buffalo, and we got a flier about how RPGs were Satanic. I wrote a rebuttal to it that got published in Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine, our house magazine. As the controversy started to rise, and more cases came to light, I began to collect information and, well, can't keep my mouth shut, so de-facto I became the go-to guy for this stuff. Back in the '80s, when roleplaying books were found in connection with a violent crime, the media would often suggest a linkage. How did you respond to those reports?
Michael A. Stackpole

I'd respond with facts. The National Coalition against Television Violence (NCTV) and Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) produced press releases in 1985 and 1987 linking games with murder and suicide. A casual look at their releases, their methodology and the actual cases pointed out that, at best, this was "guilt by headline." For example, an article about a student committing suicide in a drama class at school would talk about how he was in the drama club, on the tennis team, in the Math Club and, oh, by the way, he played games. So games obviously were the cause. It's crap causality linkage, and I'd point that out. The media often seeks to link violence and games. Do you see this trend continuing?
Michael A. Stackpole

I actually see a pattern which we've experienced over and over. Take any phenomenon parents don't understand (because kids like it), and blame horrible stuff on it, and you have a crap-causal cause for about ten years. Then that explanation cycles down (with minor flare-ups in the Bible Belt) as more people understand the game/rock music/computer game/MMORPG and so forth. Just wait for Google Glasses and someone to record whacking someone else, and you'll see stories about how he was dehumanized by the device.

The good thing is that it does cycle down. I've seen it with rock music, RPGs, and card games. Computer games catch it big now because they make big money. Usually, however, this is a 30-day phenomenon. By thirty days, the prosecution begins to file and they sanitize cases of any hyperbolic linkage to motive. The defense tries to use this stuff for an insanity defense and, to the best of my knowledge, in the USA, this has never worked. (It may have worked, back in the '80s, in a case in Canada, but since the defendant was under age, the name was scrubbed and records sealed, so there is no supporting or refuting that rumor). How do you advise game developers to respond to media linking violent acts to their games?

"Take a lesson from Christian Bale. He had nothing to do with the shooting at all, but went to Aurora, visited victims, and did a lot to bring things back to sanity"

Michael A. Stackpole
Michael A. Stackpole

From a PR standpoint, it's important to understand that the dictum 'There's no such thing as bad publicity,' does not apply in these cases. My corollary is, 'There's no upside to linkage to murder, mayhem, child neglect, suicide and serial rape.' If you treat this as an opportunity to tell reporters they are stupid, you come off looking like a moron. You might be right, but they write and edit the stories.

The key is to be human. If I could get everyone to say, and only say, the following, life would be much easier: "What's happened is a tragedy. Our hearts go out to families of the victims and to the survivors. We will do all we can to help law enforcement in their efforts to determine what happened. To attempt to place blame for such a horrible tragedy on [games] is to trivialize what has happened; and trying to reach any such judgment now is premature and counterproductive."

GamesIndustry.bizIn the case of the recent shootings in Aurora, some media reports have already noted that there's a movie theater in the latest Batman video game, though they haven't been able to derive any linkage from that. What would you say to a reporter suggesting a linkage?
Michael A. Stackpole

Coincidental linkage is meaningless. There are no credible studies that show any causal linkage between games and violence. This is borne out by the fact of how many people attended the movie without violence, and how many people have spent endless hours enjoying the game without perpetrating violence. Neither the game nor movie advocate, incite or promote such violence. To suggest that there is causal linkage in absence of any evidence is to trivialize a tragedy.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat do you think would happen if it came out that the shooter was a video game player?
Michael A. Stackpole

It would not surprise me if he did play video games. Who hasn't? We return to the point about the complete lack of credible studies showing causal linkage between game playing and perpetration of violence. Absent proof, this is a non-issue, but a convenient straw-man because it sells newspapers to those who still read them.

Bottom line: We have direct causal links between alcohol consumption and a huge number of vehicular deaths each year. Forget banning alcohol, why isn't their legislation to require every car to have an interlock system that would prevent folks from driving drunk? The technology exists. Nothing is done because there is no economic motivation despite the evidence.

Absent of such convincing evidence in the case of games, legislators won't do anything about them. That spike has already crested for games. As more people play, more people get perspective, and outside very conservative communities, these straw-man stories will get little traction. In the Batman case, within thirty days, the story will be reduced to his being an individual who should have been spotted-similar to the shooter in Norway or the Fort Hood army doctor. Do you expect this issue to arise in connection with future events?
Michael A. Stackpole

Absolutely. It's low-hanging fruit. It's the easy get for a 24-hour news cycle. Sound and fury signifying nothing. If every company spent the first week just being human, being sympathetic and helpful, it would all go away. Take a lesson from Christian Bale. He had nothing to do with the shooting at all, but went to Aurora, visited victims, and did a lot to bring things back to sanity.

"As human beings we react on a visceral level to genuine carnage, but we're able to compartmentalize cartoon violence and dismiss it as not real"

Michael A. Stackpole
GamesIndustry.bizSome commentators have noted that video games are ever more realistic in showing violence, and modeling usage of weapons and tactics. Do you think these facts affect the basic arguments about the linkage between violence and games?
Michael A. Stackpole

Absolutely not. In an early FBI report on Columbine (which got scrubbed from the FBI site during the Bush Administration), the FBI noted that players involved in video games with realistic violence, as long as they pursued the violence in the course of the game, have no problems. Even those, they said, who play just for watching the violence, still are not a problem, though looking at them to see if they had other risk factors was not a bad idea.

One key thing in studies about depictions of violence and its effect on behavior depends on those watching knowing the behavior is make-believe. As human beings, we react on a visceral level to genuine carnage, but we're able to compartmentalize cartoon violence and dismiss it as not real. Sure, there are going to be some individuals in the population who don't have that facility, but studies still don't show that viewing violent entertainment by these individuals triggers violent behavior.

Causal linkage is the key. Reasonable people might decide that they find depictions of violence distasteful, and that's fine. It's their choice not to use products that show this. To suggest that the consumption of same by others turns them into mass murderers is unsupported by any evidence. To agitate against or legislate against something that doesn't exist is a waste of time.

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Steve Peterson avatar
Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.
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