As police struggle to piece together the nightmare that unfolded in Newtown, Conn., last week, some lawmakers and pundits believe they've found a possible co-conspirator in the crime: video games.
The perpetrator's name is not a new one, but it is a common one in moments like these. As they have after past shootings, those searching for answers to the unfathomable have been quick to implicate video games in the deadly events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Nevertheless, it remains unclear which games the 20-year-old shooter played — and what role they played in his life.
Though law enforcement officials have not, as of yet, made any connection between the Newtown massacre and video games, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday announced in a press release that he was introducing legislation calling for an investigation into the impact of violent video games and other content on children’s well-being.
"Major corporations, including the video game industry, make billions on marketing and selling violent content to children,” he said. “They have a responsibility to protect our children. If they do not, you can count on the Congress to take a more aggressive role.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — admitting that he didn’t know which games Lanza played — cited “rumors” that the withdrawn and troubled young man had enjoyed violent video games as he insisted that a passion for gaming can be the precursor to violence.
“Very often these young men have an almost hypnotic involvement in some form of violence in our entertainment culture, particularly violent video games,” Lieberman said, as he discussed the events in Newtown. “And then they obtain guns and become not just troubled young men but mass murderers.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado (home to a mass shooting of its own in July) also suggested, "there might well be some direct connection between people who have some mental instability and when they go over the edge — they transport themselves, they become part of one of those video games."
And even the firearms industry — taking heavy criticism in the wake of this most recent shooting — appears to be shifting the blame from real guns to digital ones. "If we're going to talk about the Second Amendment, then let's also talk about the First Amendment, and Hollywood, and the video games that teach young kids how to shoot heads," one unnamed "industry source" told Fox News in a report on the NRA's "push back" against a resurgent gun-control lobby.
A large chunk of the American people seems to share that viewpoint. According to a fresh Gallup poll, while 42 percent of respondents said that a ban on assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons would be "very effective" in preventing mass shootings at schools, even more — 47 percent — said decreasing the depiction of gun violence in movies, TV and video games would be "very effective."
Despite this, experts argue that blaming games has been far easier than finding a true cause-and-effect relationship between gaming and gun violence.
Dr. Matthew Chow, a psychiatrist who works extensively with children and adolescents dealing with issues ranging from drug abuse to psychotic disorders at the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, believes there is little evidence to suggest that real-world violence has a significant relationship to video game playing.
Instead, he said, video games and the people who play them make for an especially easy target in moments like these.
“It is natural for people to search for something to blame in the aftermath of a tragedy,” he said in an interview with NBC News. (More on that here.) “It gives people a target for all their emotions, whether it is anger, sadness or even confusion.”
And he points out, “(Gamers) are often young, they hang out with each other and sometimes they even dress differently. They are something that you can see, touch, and feel. You can shout angry words at a video gamer, but you cannot shout at abstract concepts about society.”
The games Adam Lanza played
This much we do know: Adam Lanza played video games. After all, how could he not have? He was 20 years old. And by all accounts he was a technology enthusiast.
Family friends told NBC News that Lanza was one heck of a dancer — at least when it came to rhythm games. They described a young man obsessed with “Dance Dance Revolution” — a game in which not a drop of blood is spilled as players try to move their feet to the beat.
Meanwhile, a Reuters story cited an unnamed classmate of Lanza’s who said that he had enjoyed playing “Dynasty Warriors,” a Teen-rated fighting game series set in ancient China that features weapons such as spears and swords.
Other games have also been named. The Connecticut Post reported that evidence seized from Lanza's home included unspecified “video and Internet gaming material,” while the L.A. Times said Lanza would attend gaming parties where he played titles such as "World of Warcraft" and "Mario Party" along with fellow gamers. (These reports have not been confirmed by NBC News.)
What seems to have inspired pundits and politicians to conclude that Lanza was in the thrall of violent video games is a plumber who told a British tabloid that, while working at the home where Lanza and his mother lived, he saw the young man playing an immensely popular and undeniably violent shooting game from the “Call of Duty” series.
But concluding that the Newtown shooter enjoyed video games doesn't require much sleuthing. A study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in 2008 found that 81 percent of Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 play games. And with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, that percentage is surely even higher in 2012.
“Video gaming is so prevalent, that saying someone 'plays video games' is akin to saying they 'breathe oxygen,'" said Dr. Tyler Black, Clinical Director for the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Unit at BC Children’s Hospital.
The blame game
One thing is certain: With one mass shooting after another, video games have become a go-to bad guy. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University — on those occasions when a disturbed and angry young man has gunned down people in droves, shooting games such as “Doom,” “Counter-Strike” and “Call of Duty” have quickly been implicated.
Many began blaming violent video games mere hours after a young man named Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in April of 2007 — on record as the worst shooting in U.S. history. But later, a governor-ordered review of that horrific incident found no connection whatsoever with games. Instead, the review panel found a young man with a history of mental illness (and a passion for books) who was never seen playing anything more aggressive than the kid-friendly game "Sonic the Hedgehog."
In the case of Anders Behring Breivik — the 33-year-old ultranationalist who killed 77 people in a shooting rampage and bomb blast in Norway in July 2011 — he did testify at his trial that he enjoyed playing the fantasy game “World of Warcraft,” though he insisted it was merely a hobby and had nothing to do with the shooting. And while he also testified that he used “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” to prepare himself for the attacks, he said he had been meticulously preparing for and plotting the mass murders years before those games existed.
In the hours after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as investigators were still trying to figure out who the killer was, the name Ryan Lanza surfaced. Amateur Internet sleuths quickly uncovered the accused killer’s Facebook page, where they discovered that he "liked" the epic, adventure-filled science-fiction game “Mass Effect.”
“Your game may now be responsible for the deaths of 18 5 year olds,” wrote one person. “Is that blood I see on your hands? Should be,” wrote another. And yet another: “Innocent lives were lost because of this game!”
The problem: Ryan Lanza was not the shooter. His brother was.
Studies: Gaming is bad. Gaming is good.
But what about the scientific link between playing violent video games and violence in the real world? Sen. Lieberman said this week that the social sciences have shown “a very clear pattern” in which young people who are involved in violent video games and other violent entertainment are more aggressive. Yet a look at the studies on the subject suggest the pattern is less than clear.
One recent study of 1,492 high schoolers — conducted by Brock University in Canada and published in the journal Developmental Psychology — does suggest that prolonged exposure to violent video games causes heightened aggressiveness in both boys and girls. The questionnaire asked about frequency of violent behavior such as kicking, shoving and punching. The study found no similar increase in aggression among the kids who regularly played non-violent games (such as "Dance Dance Revolution"), however.
In the paper's abstract, the authors, Teena Willoughby, Paul J. C. Adachi and Marie Good, say there's a "need for a greater understanding of the long-term relation between violent video games and aggression."
Meanwhile, a 2010 meta-study by Texas A&M's Christopher J. Ferguson and John Kilburn — published by the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin — makes an equally clear argument to the contrary: "The influence of violent video games on serious acts of aggression or violence is minimal."
Those like Ferguson and Kilburn who claim there's no demonstrative link between games and real-world violence argue that there's a publishing bias — studies that show no relationship between the two just don't get published, while studies that do link them do.
Black and Chow cite FBI statistics to point out that if there's a relationship between violent games and violent crime in America, "it looks like it is very small."
That is, despite the proliferation of violent video games in recent years, violent crime in the United States is at a nearly historic low.
“The reality is before our eyes every year, video games become more realistic, and the violence in them can increase, but every year, violence in youth diminishes in the United States,” Black said. “Children, at a very early age, are able to separate reality from non-reality, and it appears that the real-world effect of video games is not making violence worse.”
Gamers mourn, decry violence too
Gamers themselves have not been unaffected by the violence in Newtown. The Electronic Consumer’s Association — a non-profit organization dedicated to gamer advocacy — is located in Wilton, Conn., 20 miles away from Newtown.
Hal Halpin, the president of the ECA, tweeted about trying to explain to his own daughter why helicopters were circling overhead and why her school had been in lockdown, and he told NBC News that this has been especially difficult time for everyone in the close-knit community.
“Getting calls or messages throughout the day about story after story, heartbreak after heartbreak is tough enough, but then having to defend gaming as the root of that evil — when it's absurd on its face — is absolutely more difficult.”
He issued a statement on behalf of the ECA calling upon people to remember that "until there are any details that point to media-related blame, it’s premature to make any such assumptions."
Meanwhile, other gamers have called for fellow players to avoid their own knee-jerk reactions to the blaming, and instead take time to reflect on the violence that is depicted in their games.
“We have to stop being instantly defensive about our hobby, and begin to open ourselves up to conversations about the violence in games, why it’s there, what it means, and why we’re so attracted to it,” wrote Ben Kuchera, editor of the gaming news site Penny Arcade Report.
“Obviously there is no causal relationship between Newtown and video games,” wrote game journalist Leigh Alexander. “But I have played the damn things since I was a very small child and only in the last few years have I, as an adult woman, begun to feel profoundly uncomfortable with their unapologetic celebration of gun violence.”
In light of the Newtown tragedy, Antwand Pearman — editor of the website GamerFitNationcom — has called on his fellow gamers to put down their controllers Friday and join in a "Day of Cease Fire for Online Shooters."
He said in his heartfelt YouTube plea that this show of support and solidarity is not meant to suggest that games caused the shooting. "We are simply making a statement that we as gamers are not going to sit back and ignore the lives that were lost. Instead we will embrace the families with our love and support.”
Back in Newtown, a 12-year-old boy gamer named Max Goldstein is leading a movement to get kids to "choose not to play" violent games. He came up with the idea when attending the funeral of his friend's little brother. He told the Hartford Courant that though he had spent years shooting virtual bad guys with automatic weapons, this week it dawned on him "how real this was."
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.