Is mounting teen violence evidence of the effects of violent video games?
CHRISTIANITY TODAY LIBRARY | RICHARD TATUM | JULY 31, 2006
On Tuesday, March 24, 1998, two cousins, aged 13 and 11, soldiered up. Donning camouflage and armed with handguns and rifles, they hid in the trees near Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, while an accomplice set off the school’s fire alarm. The ambush came off with military perfection: firing only 27 shots, the juvenile commandos killed 4 middle-school girls, 1 teacher, and wounded 11 others fleeing the building.
While most planned acts of violence in school are probably foiled, many attempts have been successful in recent years, including several well-publicized events. Beyond the immediate tragedy and bloody aftermath, one troubling aspect of these events is the lack of a profile for children prone to violence. Apparently, children “snap” into violence, and there’s simply no predicting the fracture.
But something is clearly causing a “tipping point,” driving children to violence in increasing numbers. The catalyst, many say, is violent media — specifically, gory video games that desensitize players to violence, train them in deadly shooting skills, and reward killing without consequences.
In the 2005 editorial “Deadening the Heart,” Christianity Today editors address the issue, first citing the opposition, Steve Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, who claims violent video games are actually healthy and good. According to Johnson, violent video games may “function as a kind of safety valve — they let kids who would otherwise be doing violent things for the thrill of it, get out those kind of feelings sitting at home at a screen. … This may have a deterrent effect on violence.”
In rebuttal, however, the article offers up the American Psychological Association’s (APA) view. After 70 studies and 20 years of research into violent video gaming effects, the APA calls for “reduction of violence in interactive media used by children and adolescents” because such games “increase aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior, and angry feelings among youth.”
But surely violent video games aren’t really training children to be aggressive, violent, or murderous, are they? After all, we’re only talking about harmless pastimes where nobody really gets hurt. How can this be harmful?
Enter Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (retired), who created the theory and field of study called killology — the psychology of killing. In his Christianity Today article “Trained to Kill,” Grossman asserts that people have a God-given, hardwired aversion to killing another human being, but that certain practices and behaviors can reduce or eliminate this resistance.
After 25 years as an infantry officer and psychologist studying how to enable soldiers to kill, Grossman says killing simply does not come naturally: “You have to be taught to kill.” His basic axiom applies to soldiers, police — and children. While abuse and violence in the home can be a factor, Grossman believes the most pervasive teacher of killing skills for children is violent entertainment in television, film, and video games. Through the media’s moral, behavioral, and psychological conditioning, our youth have become desensitized pseudo-psychopaths with “Acquired Violence Immune Deficiency Syndrome” (AVIDS). Fortunately, Grossman believes there is a cure; and he provides practical strategies in his article to “confront the culture of violence as entertainment.”
One way Christians are fighting back is by creating alternative non-violent games. John J. Thompson profiled a groundbreaking video game in a CT article titled “Trained to Thrill?” Catechumen, a Christian video game with a secular-sized budget, had recently been released and was exploding out of the Christian niche while garnering positive reviews in secular media.
Creator Ralph Bagley was pleasantly surprised by the secular market’s increasing demand for his quality first-person shooter game minus the blood and gore. Instead of performing decapitations and pumping-heart extractions, Catechumen players use “Swords of the Spirit” to blast opponents, evaporating demonic monsters and causing evil Roman guards to kneel in penitence. Along the way, players “power up” by acquiring scrolls that display some 300 verses from the Bible — exposing players to the Word of God. Parents are delighted. Kids are stunned: “I never knew the Bible said that cool stuff.”
More recently, building on the phenomenal cultural wake generated by the Left Behind franchise, Tyndale House Publishers and Left Behind Games will be offering their version of a real-time-strategy game titled: Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Set in a post-Apocalyptic (and post-Rapture) Manhattan, the game pits the Tribulation Forces against the Global Community Peacekeepers in a war for souls and a search for clues left behind by the Raptured. The player’s job is to craft a strategy that persuades neutral civilians to choose sides — the right side — and to keep morale high while seeking out “tribulation clues.” While receiving positive reviews, the game has not been without controversy.
Other Christian groups have also taken up Grossman’s gauntlet for confrontation. Writing for CT in “Moral Combat: More Christians Campaign Against Media Violence,” Jody Veenker describes one such effort.
In January 2004, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) organized participants from as far away as Vancouver to protest the Chicago Planning Department’s award of a $2.2 million grant to Midway, the makers of Mortal Kombat — wherein gamers merrily decapitate virtual opponents. Dressed as the Magi and singing carols, the protesters brought “Games for sharing, dolls for caring, never for violent play.” “Our goal,” says CPT director Mervin Stoltzfus, “is violence reduction, whoever it is linked to. Games that focus on killing raise kids who think it is OK to kill.”
Meanwhile, in “A Temple Tax on Video Games,” CT tells about Tom Parrish’s approach: While pastoring Oldfield United Methodist Church in Sylacauga, Alabama, he didn’t hoist a protest placard. Instead, after noticing a dozen of his church’s teens plunking significant coin into video games, he sat down with the teens and devised a unique plan that transformed the hypnotic — and expensive — passion of video gaming into the joy of giving.
Video gaming entertainment is here to stay, but violence doesn’t have to. Whether it’s by campaign, choice of game, simple moderation, or abstinence, the Christian culture is beginning to respond to the violence and is employing some pretty creative ways to address it.
(Note: Most of the articles mentioned above require paid membership at CTLibrary.com, but if you’re the kind of person who enjoys articles from Christianity Today, Leadership, Books & Culture, and Christian History & Biography, it may well be worth it. For what it’s worth, while I was once employed by Christianity Today, I do not personally benefit from any transactions through these sites.)
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today International. Used with permission.
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