After two teenagers stalked through classrooms killing fellow students at Columbine High School in 1999, many observers suggested that violent video games might be partially to blame. Violent games were still relatively new at the time, and they made an attractive target to media moralizers. The charge pervaded for quite a while: Some of the relatives of those killed at Columbine sued a group of video game makers in 2001, and in 2007, a Portland psychiatrist—who has since pushed for Internet addiction to be given official status as a clinical disorder—argued that the two teenagers' shooting rampage was an enraged response to being cut off from their computers.
Jared Lee Loughner, the 22 year old alleged to be responsible for killing six and wounding 13 more in Tucson last weekend, was known to be a video gamer. This morning, The Wall Street Journal published a selection of disturbing excerpts from posts he contributed to a private Web forum devoted to the online game Earth Empires. As with his postings to a separate, UFO-focused message board, they indicate an unstable mind fixated on strange ideas. Several suggest a history of violent thinking, such as Loughner's chilling open questions: "If you went to prison right now…What would you be thinking?" and "Does anyone have aggression 24/7?"
Earlier this week, statistician Nate Silver asked why we aren't having a "debate about violent video games" and followed up by noting that games, like "guns, alcohol, [and] rhetoric" are known to be "dangerous to a disturbed person." Video games have been mentioned (briefly) by a few others as well. But by and large, there hasn't been a concerted attempt to blame Loughner's actions on video games.
That's reassuring, if only because the evidence indicating that there's no significant connection between game violence and real world acts of violence has grown in recent years. Last December, for example, researchers at Texas A&M released a study reporting that exposure to violent media wasn't an effective predictor of aggression or violence.
More to the point, I think, is that the real-world evidence that violent games increase violent behavior just doesn't exist. Particularly violent games first became popular in the early 1990s with fantasy-driven first-person shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein and the two-player fighting game Mortal Kombat. But between 1994 and 2007, serious violent crime in schools dropped by half. This drop occured despite the fact that a reported two-thirds of middle school boys play "Mature" rated games regularly, and violent first person shooters are consistently among the gaming industry's most popular products.
But at the time of the shooting—and, indeed, for years after—violent games made an easy target, much as the "culture of violent rhetoric" has this week. Like the "violent rhetoric" charge we've heard so much of over the past few days, the violent video games storyline gave the media something to chatter about, fed the public's desire for speculation in the absence of news, provided a pat explanation for those who wanted a clear and easy narrative, and gave moralizers a villain to blame. But ultimately it lacked much substance. The same, I suspect, will turn out to be the case with the media's fixation on violent political rhetoric.
There is one notable difference, however, between the two charges: Both of the Columbine shooters were regular gamers, and one even compared the planned massacre to a video game (among other things) in his journal. There's still no evidence that Jared Lee Loughner was influenced by—or regularly paid attention to—anything resembling mainstream political discourse, or even a well-established fringe political group. In fact, there's some evidence to the contrary. But as we see so often in the coverage of horrific events like these, the story doesn't work without someone, or something, to blame.