Wertham Redux: Blaming Video Games For The Newtown Massacre

First it was comics. Then it was heavy metal. Then it was movies. Now it's games. There's always something else to blame.

It was inevitable. As soon as the identity of the Sandy Hook shooter was clear - or at least his status as a young, white male was clear - it became inevitable that someone would begin trying to pin the blame for the shooting on video games. If he had been black (statistically unlikely, but possible), someone would be complaining about rap lyrics. But he’s young and white, and so we’re talking about ‘violent video games.’

At least Joe Lieberman and Jay Rockefeller are. Rockefeller is looking to ‘investigate’ the connection between violent video games and the shooting, and he wants to task the National Academy of Sciences to do the study. His proposal is pretty fluffy, and is essentially posturing, but it’s an irritating echo of what’s been going on not for years, but for decades.

Dr. Fredric Wertham is infamous for his Congressional testimony that comic books turn children into deviants and juvenile delinquents. In the 1980s Al Gore’s wife Tipper wasted everybody’s time with Congressional inquiries into Twisted Sister lyrics and back masking. Every couple of years everybody shits their pants about violence in movies - remember the freak outs about The Matrix? Ironically, that film was just this week added to the National Film Register, to be archived as a ‘national treasure.’

Rockefeller can save everybody some money by looking at studies that have already been done. Or last year’s Supreme Court ruling that knocked down California’s attempt at an anti-violent video game law, which found games not only protected under the First Amendment, but also could not find a link between games and real world violence. From the ruling:

Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media. Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.


All of this is reactionary in the extreme. Reports that shooter Adam Lanza was a ‘violent’ gamer come almost exclusively from a fucking plumber who did some work at the Lanza house. I’ve read more convincing reports that Lanza was into Real Time Strategy games, like Starcraft, which are not traditionally ‘violent’ games. It's essentially Risk

But here’s the real rub: any mass shooter under the age of 40 will likely have played violent video games. That’s because mass shooters are almost always male, and the huge majority of males under the age of 40 have tried their hands at some kind of a First Person Shooter in their life. At this point it’s like drawing a correlation between wearing jeans and being a mass shooter.

Am I concerned about a culture of violence? Of course, but I don’t think that culture comes from video games or movies. I think that culture comes from the way we’ve automated killing our enemies, the way we’ve spent the last decade enmeshed in two wars that have slightly less daily reality than your average Call of Duty session. That culture comes not from the bottom up, but from the top down. It comes from a government that tortures, that kills children with drones, that brutally beats protesters in the streets. The plumber who narced on Lanza’s Call of Duty playing also mentioned that he had posters of military hardware all over his wall. If Lanza ends up being a fan of the military will Jay Rockefeller propose a study about that? It’s doubtful.

Violent games and movies are a smokescreen for politicians who want to appear like they’re doing something but who also don’t want to actually take action. It’s like blaming the radio station playing in the car for an accident - it’s a distraction from the real conversation. The real conversation is a two-parter: mental health care and gun control. Violent video games didn’t kill a single person in Sandy Hook. An assault rifle did. No pixels were fired at that school. Bullets were. Nintendo didn’t make Adam Lanza kill people, his brain did.

So everybody will make a big stink about violent video games and maybe violent movies, and Hollywood and the game industry will make some gestures (Hollywood already has, cancelling movie premieres and TV episodes) while the gun industry and the NRA will do nothing. While people in our government will continue to battle funding for health care of all sorts.

Thirty years from now we’re going to look back at the video game panics of our age with the same bemusement with which we look at Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The idea of Batman corrupting youth, the idea of Tales From The Crypt making kids into killers, is ludicrous now. It’s all so quaint. One day the idea of 2D, non-immersive gaming being the cause of real life violence will be just as silly. We’ll have moved on to blaming whatever the new media of the day is, some kind of gaming or entertainment that seems positively science fictional now but will be a staple of 12 year olds’ lives in 2040.

We’ll keep making a stink about these distractions, but will we have done anything about the real causes? Will troubled people still be able to get their hands on weapons of mass killing? I’m afraid the answer will still be yes.