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Video games contribute to a culture of violence

Published: Thursday, Sept. 26 2013 4:00 p.m. MDT

Hollywood is quick to pounce on opportunities to place the blame for crimes like the Navy Yard shootings on firearms manufacturers, but they are curiously silent when the products produced by their own industry contribute to the culture of violence.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

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Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, was exceptionally gracious when I saw him at ComicCon not long ago.

He was considerably less gracious, however, when he took to Twitter on the day of the massacre in the U.S. Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., to offer his grim assessment of the grisly murders. Here is what he wrote:

ANOTHER shooting in WASH D.C. PLEASE America do nothing to promote gun control .because thats [sic] how we roll until we have all shot each other

While I share Fonzie’s eagerness to prevent future gun violence, I question the efficacy of his prescription to do so. The shooter in question was already out of compliance with the District of Columbia’s strict gun control laws, as well as the policies of the Navy Yard, which does not allow any weapons in its facility. Seeing as how this man had no qualms about ignoring the legal barriers erected to prohibit the slaughter of human beings, it seems unlikely that he would have been deterred from his vicious purpose by new gun regulations similar to the ones he violated during the attacks.

Hollywood-types like Henry Winkler are quick to pounce on opportunities to place the blame for crimes like these on firearms manufacturers, but they are curiously silent when the products produced by their own industry contribute to the culture of violence. News reports have brought to light the fact that this killer was obsessed with excessively violent video games, specifically “Call of Duty,” a realistic military simulation that requires players to kill people in much the same manner that Aaron Alexis executed his victims in real life. Friends of the Navy Yard gunman say that Alexis was fanatical in his devotion to the game and was known to play it for up to 18 hours in one sitting.

Of course, there are a number of caveats to consider. The overwhelming majority of people who play “Call of Duty” don’t end up re-creating their video game experiences in the real world, and there is growing evidence that this shooter suffered from serious mental illnesses that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. It would therefore be simplistic to point to a video game as the singular cause for the death of the people Alexis gunned down. But it would be equally simplistic to ignore the negative impact such games have in desensitizing players to the effects of violence, as well as the sometimes catastrophic effect exposure to such games can have on those who are already mentally unstable.

So while violent video games were not the singular catalyst of the Navy Yard shootings, it would be hard to argue that they weren’t a contributing factor.

Yet when this issue is raised, the same entertainers keen to assign blame elsewhere refuse to accept any culpability for their own part. After the Newtown shootings nine months ago, prominent filmmakers bristled when anyone tried to make a connection between brutal entertainment and violent behavior. An industry that sells 30-second chunks of time in the middle of television programs so that sponsors can influence a viewer’s buying behavior also would have you believe that what happens when the commercials are over has no behavioral influence worth noting. That’s absurd on its face.

This is not a call for censorship. Rather, it is a plea for recognition of responsibility. The people who make these games, the retailers who sell them and the parents who allow them into their homes all need to recognize that their actions are not without consequence.

All of us ought to look for any opportunity to ratchet down the level of violence in the culture at large.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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