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Dave Wilson

The Blame Game Gets More Play

March 29, 2001|Dave Wilson

The incomprehensible horror of the shootings at Santana High School near San Diego, together with copycat crimes at schools across the country in the weeks since, have led us once again to a single question: Why? It's haunted America since the nightmare at Columbine two years ago, and we're still grasping for answers.

This time, at least, few people--Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft among them--are pointing at video games as the cause of this mayhem.

In the weeks and months after the Columbine massacre, many suggested that video games such as "Doom" were at least some kind of training ground for the two young perpetrators and at worst a trigger for their violence. The pair were known to play "Doom," a mightily violent, stress-inducing twitch fest.

But video games don't make people actually go out and shoot somebody.

Dave Grossman disagrees. Grossman retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel and now spends much of his time lecturing anybody who'll listen on how the media train children to kill. Grossman strikes me as sincere, and his book, "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society," is quite popular among folks who think television and video games turn kids into delinquents.

These days, Grossman runs the Killology Research Group at http://www.killology.com. Like sexology, Grossman's endeavor aims to apply the scientific method to the subject at hand.

Grossman got a lot of attention for about 18 months after Columbine. He was widely quoted in newspapers and appeared on news broadcasts and talk shows, explaining his theory that popular culture has created a generation of trained killers.

Grossman and I talked recently about the Santee killings, and I asked him why he thought his message hadn't gotten wider play this time around.

"Well, there was some mention of it," he said. "The local paper in Santee said the kid was addicted to his Nintendo. And the New York Times interview with the kid's mother said he played video games, watched movies and TV."

But in general, Grossman said, his message is being ignored by the media because we're trying to protect ourselves. "Enormous progress has been made," he said. "It's just not being reported. This is striking too close to home in the modern media conglomerates. The media thought they could talk about video games without talking about themselves. Now they pretend if they don't report it it's not happening."

Grossman's efforts key off endorsements of the link between exposure to media violence and real-world violence from the American Medical Assn., the American Psychological Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institute of Mental Health. But those endorsements are based on research that many scientists say is questionable.

One of the most famous involves a study of television in various societies. Brandon Centerwall, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, compared murder rates among whites in Canada, the United States and South Africa between 1945 and 1975 and found a high correlation between an increase in homicides and an increase in television watching. Summary: TV kills.

But there are problems with such studies. For instance, in other places, such as Europe and Japan, the introduction of television left homicide rates flat. Sometimes the rate actually declined. And nobody has yet come up with a way to figure out the distinction between a correlation and causation.

In fact, the clinical evidence on the subject of induced violence is as clear as mud. About half of all the studies conducted on the subject found that playing violent video games leads to such things as delinquency and aggression. About half did not. One study actually found that watching comedies leads to increased aggressive behavior.

More recent studies, which, rather than push a certain point of view, simply examined kids who committed violent acts and profiled their lives, found some not-so-startling patterns. The Secret Service, the Education Department and the surgeon general have all recently reported that the key risk factors for children and violence include poverty, a history of physical aggression, psychological issues and bad parenting.

Compared with poverty and bad parenting, video games seem pretty piddling. Of course, keeping violent video games off shelves to prevent them from possibly falling into the hands of impressionable children is a lot easier than taking aim at these root causes.

Oh, wait. Maybe that's the point.

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Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.

Inside

* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T8

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