Jan. 14, 2013 at 3:07 PM ET
In the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Massachusetts officials have pulled violent, gun-based arcade games from state-owned rest stops and are organizing a violent video game turn-in program.
Since the Dec. 14 shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, some politicians and pundits have suggested that video games contributed to the violence. Though some reports suggest that the shooter, Adam Lanza, played video games ranging from the family-friendly "Mario Party" to the violent "Call of Duty," investigators have yet to make any connection between games and the shootings.
Still, the state Department of Transportation decided to remove nine video games from various rest area plazas after receiving a letter from Andrew and Tracey Hyams. On Christmas Eve, the couple was driving with their children from New York to Boston, during which they passed the Newtown/Sandy Hook exit on I-84. According to their letter, which the transportation department forwarded to NBC News, they stopped at the Massachusetts Turnpike’s Charlton Plaza rest area.
Just outside the rest rooms was a young man pointing a life-sized machine gun at one of the plaza’s video game machines, firing rapidly and with a loud rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat sound. The image of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School immediately came to mind, and we were struck by the possibility that someone from the Newtown community, driving east for the Christmas holiday, might stumble across this scene. We don’t believe that violent video games are the singular cause of mass shootings; there are multiple and complex contributing factors. But games with realistic-looking and sounding plastic assault weapons, which likely desensitize players to the realities of mass destruction, have no place in state-sponsored highway rest stops.
The Hyams asked the Department of Transportation to remove that game and similar games in all other public spaces. Sara Lavoie, press secretary for the Department of Transportation, told NBC News that her department then decided to pull nine games — all of which had shooting components.
"We looked at this request as sort of common sense ... in light of the proximity to Newtown — proximity in terms of both time and distance," Lavoie said.
"Time Crisis" and "Beach Head" were among the games that were pulled, she said. In the "Time Crisis" games, which rose to popularity in the late 1990s, players use plastic guns that they aim at the screen and shoot down enemies. Other arcade games such as "Ms. Pac-Man" and "Galaga" were allowed to remain at the rest stops.
Meanwhile, the town of Melrose, Mass., is getting ready to launch a violent video game turn-in program. Mayor Robert Dolan told the Boston Globe that the city will offer a coupon sheet to kids who turn in violent games, movies and toys. The sheet will offer deals at local businesses and perhaps even a "get out of homework free" coupon.
The Melrose program is similar to the Violent Video Games Return Program that community organizers in Southington, Connecticut, had planned for last weekend. The SouthingtonSOS group — made up of government officials, business leaders and clergy — had planned to collect the games and destroy them, reportedly even burning them, in response to the Newtown shootings. But the group later cancelled its plans, with a spokesperson stating that program had achieved its goal of spreading awareness violent video games.
Many had criticized the return program, comparing it to the book burnings of the past. Christopher J. Ferguson, chair of the Texas A&M International University's department of psychology and communication and a well-known video game researcher, sent a letter to the Southington group.
"Don't get me wrong, I am fully aware you are trying to do what you think is best," Ferguson wrote in the letter he shared with Polygon. "But there is real risk in focusing people's attention on the wrong thing, as well as contributing to historical patterns of 'moral panic' that tend to surround new media (often despite evidence media is not harmful, even if it may be offensive."
Dr. Tyler Black, Clinical Director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Unit at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver, recently told NBC News that, indeed, video games have "achieved the status of 'moral panic.'"
"This is very similar to how television used to be viewed, how jazz music was viewed before that, how novels were viewed before that, and how Shakespeare was viewed before even that," he explained. "There has always been a moral panic that has us 'worried for the future generation.' I think video games are so prevalent, and yet so foreign to parents and the older generations, that it's easy to see them as 'scary.'"
On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading a White House task force aimed at coming up with ways to stop gun violence, met with representatives from the video game industry. (He had met with representatives from Hollywood, mental health services and the gun industry earlier in the week.)
The game makers urged Biden not to scapegoat "one of the most popular new forms of art and entertainment." And the VP, during the two-hour session, did assure representatives from companies such as Activision-Blizzard, Take-Two Interactive and Electronic Arts that, "I come to this meeting with no judgment. "We know this is a complex problem. We know there's no single answer."
After the meeting was over, representatives from the Entertainment Software Association told NBC News in a statement that, "The video game industry had a productive and candid conversation with Vice President Biden ... We expressed in the meeting that the United States Supreme Court recently affirmed that the independent, scientific research conducted to date has found no causal connection between video games and real-life violence."
Biden is expected to suggest ways to address violence in video games, movies and on television when he sends President Barack Obama a package of recommendations for curbing gun violence Tuesday. The proposals are expected to include calls for universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.