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Sandy Hook tragedy inspires destruction of games: one community’s struggle to find a way to grieve

Sandy Hook tragedy inspires destruction of games: one community’s struggle to find a way to grieve

Southington, Connecticut is less than an hour’s drive from the Sandy Hook school where Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults, starting with his mother. It was a horrific event that has left many communities shaken. People are scared. SouthingtonSOS, a group comprised of local community members, is doing something:

Destroying violent video games.

Desensitization

“SouthingtonSOS has organized a Violent Video Games Return Program to be held on Saturday, January 12, 2013 at the Southington Drive-In Theatre on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike from 9:00 am to Noon. The Town of Southington will have a dumpster there for the collection of Violent Video Games, CDs and DVDs,” the group’s latest press release states. “Violent games turned in will be destroyed and placed in the town dumpster for appropriate permanent disposal.”

It should be clarified that this disposal is not going to take place in the public square, and the only reference to burning from any sort of official source seems to trace back to this interview of Southington School superintendent Joe Erardi with Polygon. It reads: “Once turned in, those discs will be snapped, tossed into a town dumpster and likely later incinerated, Erardi said.” The event is not, as some blogs and news sites have labeled it, akin to a public book burning - though it is voluntary destruction of federally-protected speech.

If you’re wondering about our justification for using a burning book above, we feel that, given the connotations of collecting and destroying art, the image is appropriate.

The Penny Arcade Report reached out to John Myers, director of the Southington YMCA and member of SouthingtonSOS, for comment. A phone call was not returned, and an initial email was met with a list of bulleted talking points. “We’re doing this to encourage courageous conversations between parents and children in our community,” one read.

In a way, it’s a noble goal: create discussion about violence in our modern, technological age, so that we may better understand it and protect ourselves from it. But SouthingtonSOS’ message is getting lost in translation, and I fear the group’s intentions, though good, will only create problems down the road.

Chris Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M, thinks likewise. When he heard about SouthingtonSOS’ violent video game drop-off, he felt “ethically compelled” to share his thoughts with the group, primarily due to the group’s claim that there is “ample evidence” that violent video games are contributing to increased aggression and even violent behavior, such as bullying. “If they’re saying something that’s inaccurate, I felt that it was my responsibility to cordially and politely reach out to them and point that out,” Ferguson told the Report.

Ferguson made it clear he was sympathetic to the group’s desire to host the event. “I’m a father of a 9 year-old myself, I can only imagine what those parents are going through,” he said. “It’s human nature to try and immediately assert control. We don’t want to believe there’s nothing we can do, that it could happen to any of us at any moment in time, and there’s no way we could predict it, and no way we could stop it. Which is actually what the truth is.”

“People have this urge to ‘do something.’ They want to do something dramatic. They want public display out of it. These people in Connecticut, they could’ve put together something a little more… you know, put some fliers together and still had their video game drive, but they didn’t. They had a press release, got it out nationally, they want to be seen doing something, because that’s what’s going to make them feel better. Does it matter if the thing they’re doing is actually helpful or not? No. All they need to do is convince themselves that it is.”

So why target video games? Ferguson believes it has to do with the public’s misperception of the medium and misinformation generated within the scientific community. It’s a topic he’s familiar with; the U.S. Supreme Court cited multiple studies performed by Ferguson when it ruled that video games are protected free speech.

The backwards hypothesis

“‘New study says video games aren’t a big deal’ isn’t a great headline at the end of the day. So historically there’s been an issue where studies that find even a small effect get a lot of headlines, and the studies that don’t find any problems tend not to. In the general public, what that creates is the mis-impression that all the studies are finding evidence for affects on aggression, even if that isn’t true,” Ferguson explained.

“The other thing that tends to happen is that, in each of these kinds of periods, whether it’s comic books, or music, or movies, or whatever else, you always can find a few scholars who will sort of exaggerate the negative affects of the media in question. When the country’s upset about something, there’s a lot of pressure put on the scientific community to come up with a particular result. They don’t want to ‘study’ video games, they want someone to show how bad video games are.”

Ferguson pointed out the bill put forth by Democratic Senator for West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller, as evidence of such pressure. The bill, as described on the Senator’s website, would direct the National Academy of Sciences to “conduct a comprehensive study and investigation of the connection between violent video games and violent video programming and harmful effects on children.”

“Specifically, NAS would examine whether violent video games/programming cause kids to act aggressively or otherwise hurt their wellbeing, and whether that effect is distinguishable from other types of media. It also would look at the direct and long-lasting impact of violent content on a child’s well-being.”

Senator Rockefeller’s own words were, as recorded in his press release regarding the bill: “Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better. These court decisions show we need to do more and explore ways Congress can lay additional groundwork on this issue.”

“...[Senator Rockefeller] put out a bill calling for a ‘study’ but as he did it, he advertised what he wants the results to be,” Ferguson told the Report. “It’s very clear he wants to show how bad video games are, and that’s of course a horrible way to do a study. You don’t start a scientific study with a conclusion and scramble the evidence together to get that conclusion.”

Ferguson thinks legislation such as Rockefeller’s isn’t just a waste of time, but irresponsible. “The state of California, in defending its law, which was the one that went to Supreme Court, spent at least a million dollars… and that was during a time when California was broke. That’s money that could’ve gone to mental health care, services for families in need, education, all these things that are being slashed. A million dollars maybe doesn’t go very far in government, I’ll grant you that, but it’s money that could’ve gone to helping somebody, but it didn’t. That’s one of the real costs that we suffer from when we allow ourselves to be distracted this way.”

Distraction

SouthingtonSOS says it wants to start discussions, but nowhere is it mentioned how those discussions will take place. Will the community have a town meeting? Will fliers be disseminated with information about the ESRB rating system and the parental controls available on today’s consoles? Nothing from the group seems to suggest any sort of constructive guidelines, just a date and time to collect the soon to be destroyed games.

“It is our belief that ongoing, meaningful conversations between adults and children represents the keystone to student safety, adult safety, and community safety,” Myers told me via email. I have a hard time believing that ongoing, meaningful conversations will take place without proper guidelines.

Telling people to get something perceived as dangerous out of their house to protect their children isn’t constructive, it’s adding fuel to the fire. Beginning a conversation by destroying art such as books or video games isn’t a good way to start. You can say that these actions aren’t casting blame on games for the actions of individuals, but by beginning the debate by collecting and destroying the thing you’d like to talk about sets a very specific tone.

Many residents of Southington don’t seem to believe in the group’s mission. The Southington Citizen, one of the town’s local news services, has a poll on its website which asks, “Do you think turning in violent video games and movies will help stop violence?” A combined 95% voted “No” or “Not sure,” while only 5% voted “Yes.” Granted, there’s no way to know who is taking the survey – I was able to vote despite living in Iowa – but regardless, public perception clearly does not skew in favor of the drop-off program.

So why have it? Why isn’t the group holding roundtable discussions or promoting free counseling sessions for families? James Ivory, Associate Professor in the department of Communication at Virginia Tech, told the Report it’s impossible to say, and that Southington shouldn’t be judged too harshly.

“When we have a real significant tragedy like this, I think people grieve and cope and make sense of things in a lot of different ways, and I think sometimes things we do to grieve and cope make sense to other people, and sometimes they don’t,” Ivory said. “For that reason, I don’t want to begrudge or criticize how the SouthingtonSOS group has decided to respond to this. When big tragedies happen, we all deal with it in different ways, and people may not understand what we do.”

“My sense is that this is purely motivated by a desire to encourage people not celebrate violence in media, including video games, and I can appreciate that. Whether or not violent media have really harmful effects, I can appreciate the idea of not celebrating violence with our media.”

Ivory knows what it’s like to be close to such death and destruction. He was employed at Virginia Tech in 2007, when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on the university’s campus. “When you’ve been near a prominent violent crime, I think that you probably don’t respond the same way the next time you see a shooting on TV or hear a reference to murder in a song. You probably take a few more minutes or bond with it a little longer,” he told the Report. “I think that what’s behind this event in Connecticut is just a sort of increased sensitivity to what it really means to see violence on a TV and what it is you’re doing.”

“When real violence has touched your life, you probably think about virtual violence a little harder and differently,” Ivory said. “Having woken up one day and living in a different community than the one I lived in the day before, I would’ve thought different seeing a crime story on television and maybe still do.”

SouthingtonSOS means well, but this is not the way to move forward, or to heal. The active collection of games to be destroyed and reportedly incinerated conjures images of book burnings, and censorship. Evidence suggests it will not have an affect on the safety of the community. Research cited by the Supreme Court is barely acknowledged. There are no solutions being presented here, only temporary distractions so people can feel better for a moment, while they catch their breath and try to regain composure.

Image Credit: LearningLark, Flickr.com