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Video games figure in school shootings

Tuesday, April 27, 1999

By Jenni Laidman, Block News Alliance

"Meet people from all over the world, then kill them" -- an advertisement for the video game Subspace.
"More fun than shooting your neighbor's cat" -- Point Blank ad copy.
"As easy as killing babies with axes" -- Carmageddon advertising slogan.

Violent video games are coming under increasing attack for desensitizing troubled youngsters to bloodshed while training them to be effective killers.

But video game players maintain that blaming video games for school violence is scapegoating an industry for problems that start at home.

Video games are a common thread in at least two of five school massacres that have taken place in the last three years.

The two students who killed 12 of their peers, a teacher and themselves in Littleton, Colo., last Tuesday were reportedly devoted to violent video games.

"They got on their home computers and linked them with modems. They had death matches with violent computer games, matching computer to computer," one Columbine High School student said.

"I don't believe violent video games lead to violence, but this was different. They'd play these games for hours and hours."

Parents of the three girls killed in Paducah, Ky., are suing makers of violent video games. They contend that Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old boy who killed three and wounded five in Paducah, was influenced by violent computer games such as "Doom," "Quake" and "Mortal Kombat."

The $130 million lawsuit alleges that young Carneal was under the influence of violent pornography sites on the Internet and the 1995 Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Basketball Diaries."

Attorneys in the federal lawsuit claim that video games trained Carneal to be a proficient killer and desensitized him to what he was doing.

Researchers report that video games are used effectively by the military for training purposes.

Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of the book On Killing and a former West Point psychology professor, worked with community members after attacks in Paducah and in Springfield, Ore.

He was on the scene immediately after two boys, 11 and 13, killed four students and a teacher in his hometown of Jonesboro, Ark.

He likens the effect of video games to the military's efforts to reduce a young recruit's reluctance to kill.

"In interactive, point-and-shoot video games, children are taught the motor skills of killing in a process that makes killing a reflexive response," he said.

Carneal hit eight students with eight shots. Five of them were shot in the head and three in the upper torso.

"This is an absolutely unprecedented marksmanship achievement," Grossman said.

University of Toledo psychology Professor Jeanne Funk, whose work on video games and violence is recognized nationwide, said her research suggested that violent video games tended to draw kids who were already troubled.

"We've never found a positive relationship between a high preference for violent video games and positive self-concept," Funk said.

The fourth- through eighth-graders she studies seem to turn to violent video games when they feel that they're not good at anything else, she said.

"Kids who preferred violent games tended to see their behavior as not as good as other kids," she said. They see themselves as poor students and poor athletes, with unsatisfying relationships with family and friends.

These children have a lower ability to put themselves in another person's shoes, she said.

But preference for violent games isn't a clear signal of future behavior, Funk said.

"Is it accompanied by other things: kids who are failing in school, who are very alienated, who play video games all the time, who are nearly obsessed with violent media? Those are all problem indicators," she said.

Interactive video games are a huge industry. Annual video game revenue exceeds $18 billion worldwide. U.S. video game revenues of $10 billion per year are double what is spent on movies annually, according to Media Scope, a nonprofit organization concerned with media portrayal of, and impact on, children.

The most popular games are fantasy violence, with 32 percent preferring those videos, followed by sports (29 percent), general entertainment (20 percent), human violence (17 percent) and educational games (2 percent).

Gregory W. Boller, a marketing professor at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, said his research among 18 to 24-year-olds showed that the people who preferred violent video games felt helpless in other aspects of their lives.

"The more powerless somebody feels themselves to be, the more interested they are in playing violent games," Boller said.

Overall, males are far more likely than females to prefer violent video games, no matter their feelings of powerlessness, he said.

"There is an overwhelming gender effect. What's interesting, too, is [that] we looked at the television they watched, the movies they prefer, and how much they're online [on the Internet]. As you might expect, people that are interested in violent video games watch violent TV, violent movies, and they watch a lot of television, like an average of seven hours a day."

The Block News Alliance is a joint venture of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, both Block newspapers. Jenni Laidman is a reporter for The Blade.

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