Guns don’t kill people, video games kill people: CNN, sensationalism, and how to fix it
The media’s treatment of video games has moved from being merely bad to actively shameful. CNN is the latest perpetrator in this tiresome need to treat video games as something that exist outside of normal life and present a dangerous threat to society itself.
The latest madness concerns the sad case of an 8 year-old child who shot an 87 year-old woman in the head, killing her. He was playing a Grand Theft Auto game before this event took place. You can see where this is going.
The headline? “Police: 8-year-old shoots, kills elderly caregiver after playing video game.” Oh god. The first lines of the story? “An 8-year-old Louisiana boy intentionally shot and killed his elderly caregiver after playing a violent video game, authorities say.” Of course.
The story then goes into a discussion of violent games in general, brings up other shootings with a shaky link to video games, and all but places the blame for the event on the existence of video games in general. This kind of reporting is common, and makes for a great headline, but it’s also incredibly misleading. The angles that the story leaves out tell me more about the reporters and American culture than the crime itself.
What about the gun?
The questions that run through the mind of a reasonable person don’t have much to do with whether a video game caused the young man to pick up a gun and kill his caregiver. Why was there a loaded gun where a child can pick it up? Why was someone under the age of ten allowed to play such a graphic piece of content without any parental supervision? What was the woman doing that she didn’t notice that the child had left her sight and had gained access to the weapon?
Any parent will tell you that noise is comforting; it’s when a child is quiet that you know something is up, because that means they’re getting into something. Usually it means they’re masking their steps because they want to steal a cookie or two. In this case it meant picking up a gun and fatally shooting an adult in the head.
Was the act inspired by the video game? It could have been, as children like to mimic what they see in popular culture, and we all used to do our fair share of karate kicks and fighting with improvised weapons after watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A child that young watching glorified violence without any supervision, explanation, or oversight from a parent at all is going to end badly; the same could be said for watching R-rated films, reading comic books meant for older readers, or listening to music that describes violent acts.
This is one of the quotes from the police: “Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the Play Station III 'Grand Theft Auto IV,' a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred.”
It takes a neighbor to bring up the fact that a gun was kept where the boy could access it, and ultimately use it. That aspect of the story is never mentioned again, although paragraph after paragraph discuss the possible link between video games and shootings.
The two questions you need to ask
The CNN story is sensational and irresponsible, but it’s important to learn what we can from these situations, and this is something that my wife and I have talked about often in the past. In fact, this issue can be avoided with two simple questions.
Do you have guns in the house? What are your rules for video games?
That’s it. You can ask these questions any way you want, or even phrase them as statements. “My daughter isn’t allowed to play games rated above Teen,” usually works. I don’t care what other parents do or don’t let their child play, every child and situation is different and judging parents is a fool’s game, but it’s worthwhile to let the parents of their friends know your rules. Sometimes I’ve had to explain how to find ratings, and that can lead to its own often helpful conversation about games in general.
These two questions aren’t even related in my mind, because I don’t think one thing will necessarily lead to the other, but in the United States guns are common and many parents don’t pay attention to game ratings. So those two questions give me a ton of information about the environment I’m sending my kids into.
I also want to note clearly that there are loads of responsible gun owners who may have a hunting rifle locked in a safe. It’s not a matter of caring about whether people own firearms, it’s a question of accessibility. This is information that's important to have before you trust your child to someone else.
If you get attitude about either of these questions, maybe that’s not the best place for your kid to be; plenty of good kids have parents you may not entirely trust. In that case maybe invite the kid over to your house, or agree to meet at another location. If a parent gets defensive about either question, maybe meeting them at a local arcade or go-kart track to talk face to face is better. Or maybe not. But now you know.
A video game didn't kill that 87 year-old woman, a bullet shot from a gun did. A gun that was left where a child could pick it up and use it, most likely without realizing what he was doing. Even if they did so because of the content in the game, and that's far from certain, the game still doesn't hold any of the responsibility.
The problem is that a child with little sense of consequence was playing an adult game without supervision. Neglect and firearms led to this shooting, not any single piece of entertainment. To claim otherwise is ignorant and short-sighted, but who cares? That's what gets the ratings.
Note: The header contains an image taken from this story.