Sometimes you just have to write…
I read an interesting blog post last week by Peter Brown Hoffmeister, written after the Connecticut school shooting, but before the Boston bombing, about the link between violent video games and violent acts committed by disturbed teenagers. In his view, violent video games essentially train kids to kill, and if a kid is angry enough, he’ll take that training and use it. It will be interesting to hear whether the Boston bombers played video games. Their mode of killing was very different, and less personal, than the Connecticut shooter’s.
My son is 14 years old and an avid video gamer. He doesn’t play the most violent ones – Grand Theft Auto, for example, or Call of Duty – because I won’t let him have them, but the ones he plays (League of Legends, for example) are nevertheless violent. He might be killing something that looks like the troll from the Harry Potter movies, but he’s still killing, and in as much quantity as possible.
And he plays a lot. He is an atypical teenager in that he wakes up early in the morning, usually by 6:00, and generally, once he’s had breakfast, he plays video games until he has to leave for school. After school he often plays as well, and it’ll be for hours if we don’t kick him off the computer. He does his homework, but only as a reluctant interruption of his playing. He keeps fit, though, by playing soccer on a team, so his playing is interrupted for practices and games as well.
Part of this has to do with the fact that he hates reading, which is partly due to his dyslexia. He loves stories, but doesn’t want to read them himself because he experiences that as hard work. He’s also not a very verbal person; he is a “man of few words.” Yet most of the games that he plays are interactive, so he speaks via Skype with his friends, one of whom has moved away to the US, while he plays.
At the same time, this is not one of the angry, disturbed teens that Hoffmeister describes in his blog. He’s a serene, contented, mild-mannered boy. Where an angry teen would make fists and shout, my son might scowl for a moment and shrug. He is quiet and doesn’t take the lead with a group of kids, but is well-liked and makes friends easily.
So I was curious about his response to Hoffmeister’s blog and sent it to him with my “assignment” to read it. Surprisingly, he did. And his response was similar to some of the comments posted to that blog. He wrote: “I know aggressive people in school but not because of a game just because they do not fit in.” So he’s arguing that the games don’t cause the aggression; the kids’ social situation causes it. What is cause and what is effect? Is the video game – school shooting correlation just a correlation? Or does the former cause the latter?
He also wrote “I think those school shooters were very angry at everything and played those shooters [the games are often called ‘shooters’] to get frustration out. Doing those shootings video game style is something they do just because they can.” If he’s right, then we should encourage angry teens to play video games because it’s a great way for them to let out the aggression harmlessly. There still might be a few who would go ahead and commit a violent act, but perhaps it’s fewer than it might otherwise have been.
Of course, this brings up the issue of gun control. If that tiny number of kids who still want to do something violent didn’t have access to guns, perhaps fewer people would end up dead. As Hoffmeister points out, he carried a knife sometimes rather than a gun, but certainly the kind of mass carnage that happens with assault weapons would be more difficult: not impossible, but more difficult.
Which brings me back to the Boston bombers: they didn’t use guns until they were cornered. Their weapon of choice was a homemade bomb. Are there video games that “train” killing through bombing?
It seems to me that the Boston bombers are a different kind of angry teenager (or young adult, in this case); ones who plan carefully ahead of time, and, more importantly, ones who hope to survive the attack by not being identified as the perpetrator. These young men, unlike most “school shooters” did not intend to commit suicide. That strikes me as an important difference.
In the post, Hoffmeister writes about how disturbing it was to hear kids chatting in the halls at school about slitting throats and killing lots of people. My son had a response to that as well: “Kids are only talking about it like it was a great goal in a soccer match, they all know its just a game.” So they feel successful, and that’s what they want to talk about.
Perhaps that’s the key: we need to make every kid feel successful. And if that means letting them play video games for hours so that they’re really good at them, is that such a bad thing?