The tragic shooting last year in Newtown horrified the nation. Rumors flew that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, was obsessed with violent video games such as "Call of Duty." Debates about such games ensued, despite little official information on Lanza's real gaming habits.
But an official investigation summary released in November gave more insight. Lanza's gaming history appears to have been unremarkable for someone his age. He did have many video games like "Call of Duty," but his particular interest was in nonviolent games like "Dance Dance Revolution."
On Dec. 27, the Connecticut police released considerable paperwork on the investigation. With the caveat that it's difficult to sift through thousands of unreferenced pages, I found little to challenge the November report's conclusions. Some witnesses claimed Lanza was not a gamer, whereas others said he was, although playing mainly nonviolent games. In some interviews, police appeared to caution families of victims not to pay much attention to theories of Lanza's gaming as they hadn't necessarily been supported by the investigation at that point.
How did everyone get the idea that Lanza was obsessed with violent video games?
Based on the earlier rumors, lawmakers had tried to enact legislation against violent video games. Several states sought to restrict their sale to minors, forgetting that this had already been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.
Several other states sought "studies" of violent video games — not scientific studies, but reviews by handpicked committees that would presumably rail against their evils.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller is still trying to move forward federal legislation to have the National Academy of Sciences "study" violent video games, while plainly signaling the result he would like them to come to.
The town of Southington sought to collect and burn violent games, perhaps forgetting that burnings of media don't really come off well.
In the end, the summary report by the chief investigator into the shooting indicated little to suggest Lanza's gaming was remarkable for someone his age. To be sure, he played a wide assortment of both violent and nonviolent games. But, the report said, "One person described the shooter as spending the majority of his time playing nonviolent video games all day with his favorite at one point being 'Super Mario Brothers.'"
The summary report went on to detail Lanza's interest in "Dance Dance Revolution," the only game to get significant mention. The report did not link video games to the shooting, made no reference to Lanza being "obsessed" or "enthralled" with violent games, and made no reference to him using games as training.
This hasn't stopped a few people from misrepresenting the summary report. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, historian Richard Slotkin claimed, "Yeah, the state report has gone into the way in which he used video games and obsessively played violent video games," and the historian implied that Lanza imitated some techniques involving clips from video games. The state report, in fact, made no such comments.
The condemnation of violent video games following the Newtown shooting is a classic example of a moral panic. Politicians put pressure on the social science community to produce certain types of research results, based on an erroneous assumption. The news media churned out headlines that followed suit. Most of the debate over video games went forward without waiting to see how much the shooter had in fact played them.
Of course most young males play at least some violent video games; by this standard it would be possible to link almost any crime by men under 40 to them. That's about as meaningful as linking crime to anything else almost everybody does — watching Sesame Street as a kid, wearing sneakers, drinking soda. Newtown was an opportunity for moral crusaders to harrumph over violent video games as they did over rock music in the 1980s and comic books in the 1950s.
By focusing, uselessly, on violent video games, these debates suck the air out of discussions of real issues such as tackling mental illness before it can do harm. During the past 20 years in which video games have soared in popularity, youth violence has dropped by almost 90 percent. We would do well to remember this, concentrate on more pressing matters such as poverty, and forgo discussion of cultural issues, if we are really serious about crime.
Christopher J. Ferguson is department chairman of psychology at Stetson University in Florida.