Close Up: Does video game violence teach kids to kill?

A UMNS Feature
By Marta W. Aldrich*

In June 2003 in an Alabama police station, 18-year-old Devin Moore allegedly grabbed a pistol from police and went on a pre-dawn shooting rampage that left two officers and a dispatcher dead.

"Life is like a video game," Moore reportedly told police after his capture. "Everybody's got to die sometime."

Turns out the teen—who had been brought to the station on suspicion of stealing a car—had been playing the video game "Grand Theft Auto" day and night for months. Using his Sony PlayStation 2, Moore had repeatedly shot, decapitated, burned and massacred virtual police officers in a simulated game that critics charge turns impressionable teenagers into trained killing machines.

Now a United Methodist pastor in Alabama is among surviving relatives suing the youth, Sony and game creator Take-Two Interactive, as well as Wal-Mart and GameStop, which are accused of selling the teen two versions of the Mature-rated game as a minor. The lawsuit contends the game led the youth to commit murder.

"When you make a game where policemen are targeted to be killed—and the police are the very people who take an oath to protect us—then there's something very wrong with that," said the Rev. Steve Strickland, whose oldest brother was one of the two officers killed in Fayette, Ala. "Even somebody who's not a Christian should be able to see that there's no good in this whatsoever."

Strickland, pastor of Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Jena, Ala., filed the $600 million lawsuit last February in Lamar County. He hopes it will shine a light on an industry that Strickland believes is intentionally marketing and selling violent video games to children.

Violence sells

According to the Entertainment Software Association, computer and video game software sales reached a record $7.3 billion in 2004. Both of the year's two top-selling games—"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" and "Halo 2"—are rated for mature audiences ages 17 or older. Combined, they sold 9.3 million units.

"San Andreas" is the latest in the top-selling "Grand Theft Auto" series, introduced in 1998. The game lets players act out the story of an ex-hood who returns to his gangsta-style California neighborhood to find his mother murdered and himself set up by a crooked cop. His journey to retake control of the streets sends him into the vengeful electronic world of gang violence, cop killing, carjackings and crime. There is pimping, strip clubs, killing innocent bystanders, beating up prostitutes and the raunchiest of profanity. It is also slickly produced, graphically brilliant, loaded with style and brimming with memorable music and characters. In December, "San Andreas" was named "game of the year" at the 2004 Video Game Awards on Spike TV.

"You only have to watch one of those games before you're stunned by the content and disturbed by the whole point of the game," said Julie Taylor, executive secretary for Children, Youth and Family Advocacy for the United Methodist Women's Division. "It's hard to dispute free speech for adults, but we do have the grounds to protect children."

Her office supported a failed federal bill in 2003 that would have made it illegal to sell ultra-violent video games to minors. In 2004, it underwrote the cost of sending graphic video game highlights to each member of Congress, all state attorneys general and social action coordinators of each United Methodist annual (regional) conference. And in February, it joined with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to decry the marketing of violent video entertainment to children, and to call on parents to purchase games with great care and hold retailers accountable.

Garbage in, garbage out

Pioneering research at the National Institutes of Health shows the teenage brain is not fully developed, and that repeated exposure to violence can have an impact. The studies show violent games activate the anger center of the teenage brain while dampening the brain's "conscience." Both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say evidence clearly links virtual violence and real-life aggression. In other words, "garbage in, garbage out." But to date, no court case has acknowledged a connection between video game exposure and a criminal incident.

Lawmakers are not waiting. Legislation designed to protect young video consumers has been introduced in numerous states. Among the most aggressive is in Illinois, where Gov. Rod Blagojevich introduced legislation after seeing "JFK: Reloaded." The game offers an interactive simulation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, allowing players to shoot the president from the sixth-floor window where assassin Lee Harvey Oswald stood on Nov. 22, 1963.

In his State of the State address, Blagojevich said that "for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy cigarettes … (and) alcohol, we shouldn't allow them to go to stores and buy video games that teach them to do the very things we put people in jail for: picking up prostitutes, joining street gangs, killing police officers and even assassinating President Kennedy."

Beyond what's illegal, critics and child development experts charge today's most violent and sexually charged fantasy games teach a culture of disrespect that celebrates brutality, devalues women and minorities, trivializes violence, reinforces stereotypes and teaches behavior that is just plain crude.

Spiritual snares

People may not be compelled to pick up a real-life Uzi after playing such games. But Christian educators say they still distract users from developing emotional sensitivity and emotional management skills that help maximize health and happiness and develop the Christian faith.

"Overuse or inappropriate use of such media trains or habituates us in ways that cut us off from the pain or joy of other people, our own hearts and the call of God," said David White, director of research for the Youth Theological Initiative at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology at Emory University. "We in effect risk becoming narcissistic or unable to grasp the reality of others' lives or the life of God in our midst."

Miami attorney Jack Thompson, who is heading the lawsuit in the Alabama police station shooting, says Christians have been slow to recognize both the practical and spiritual snares of such games, which he calls "murder simulators."

"These are powerful influences even for a kid raised on Christian values," said Thompson, a longtime crusader against video game violence. "Part of parenting is to say 'no' to our children sometimes. No kid 14 or 15 should be playing 'Grand Theft Auto' games because they're so brutal."

Steve Strickland never even knew such games existed before Officer Arnold Strickland was gunned down. The pastor, who had planned to go crappie fishing with his brother on the day of the shooting, opts for a fishing pole over a joystick any day.

"Part of my life and my family's life is missing now," he said. "I just hope this lawsuit brings out a lot of awareness. If we can keep some families from going through what we've had to go through the last two years, it will be worth it."

This feature was originally published June 7, 2005.

*Aldrich is a freelance writer based in Franklin, Tenn.

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