Journalist and scholar H.L. Mencken famously said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
The simple—and wrong—response to mass violence, regularly offered up by pundits and talking heads, is to blame it on representations of violence in the media, especially video games. The reaction to the December 2012 nightmarish shootings in Newtown, CT, is no different.
Scapegoating video games does nothing to prevent the next tragedy, but it does serve an impressive array of interested parties, including fans of guns, critics of contemporary culture, and child-protection advocates like Common Sense Media. These groups coalesce around the idea that the problem will go away if we “protect” young people from the corrupting influence of games, a position that invites politicians to “do something” about games and forget about everything else.
This is an invitation that appears too good to refuse. At the state and federal level, proposals have proliferated since December. They include schemes to restrict sales, to set up study commissions (mostly designed not to investigate the causes of violence but to prove that games are at least partly responsible), and to tax certain kinds of games, or their creators.
What is completely lost in all the finger-pointing is the fact that games—like literature and art—comprise a variety of subjects and perspectives, can be used for education, entertainment and catharsis, and attract a large and diverse audience. Like books and art, some games—but by no means all—depict violence; as with art and literature, the depictions of violence differ widely and mean different things to different viewers.
This more complete and accurate understanding of games and gamers is supported by researchers like James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. The work of Gee and other researchers demonstrates the social, educational and neurological value of games, many of which are complex, difficult, and—yes—fun.
Video games are no longer a marginal cultural phenomenon, but something that appeals to millions around the world. According to the Entertainment Software Association, gamers include Americans of all ages and backgrounds. Of these 68% are adults, and 47% are women. Contrary to popular myths, gaming is not an isolated activity: most gamers play with others, either virtually or in person.
It’s past time to check the knee-jerk reaction to point the finger at video games, which the Supreme Court has held enjoy the same First Amendment protection as books and art, whenever something bad happens. Censoring video games is no more likely to stop real-world violence than censoring the Qur’an is likely to prevent jihadist attacks. Our zeal to do something in response to tragedy isn’t a license to do just anything.