The Computer Made Me Do It

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 June 1999

It’s media-bashing time again in America. In the ever-lingering wake of the Columbine High School tragedy and failed efforts to enact meaningful gun control legislation that might prevent further murders, Congress is setting its sights on a more phantom menace: “violent” video games. If the cultural conservatives get their way, a law will be passed banning the sale of simulated shoot ‘em ups to minors.

Proponents of the new regulations site 25 years of studies linking violent movies, television, and games to violent behavior in children and adults. None of the studies I’ve found, however, demonstrate any causal link between the mediated activities and the real-world violence. Instead, these exercises in soft science demonstrate, for example, that children who are sent to their principal’s office for aggressive behavior in the classroom are more likely to say that they play violent games than are other children. Such a study only proves that violent children prefer violent television - not that one causes the other. (Eating curry doesn’t turn a person into an Indian, either, no matter how many Indians may consume it.)

This doesn’t stop many prominent adults - including President Clinton and his wife - from blaming “the culture of violence” for the recent spate of high school killings in America. They claim that children need to be protected from violent media and games because, unlike adults, young people have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. Such rhetoric might make for good sound bites, but I suspect this logic itself is much more to blame for our troubled children than the bloodiest level of Doom.

It’s not the children who are having a hard time distinguishing between real and fictional violence. It’s the adults. For example, the Chicago City Council held a hearing on June 4th to determine whether fist fights on the Jerry Springer Show are real or staged. If they are real, then assault charges must be filed. In spite of the efforts of council members to get a grip on reality, the results of the hearing were inconclusive. Meanwhile, National Rifle Association figurehead Charlton Heston - best known for descending Mount Sinai with the ten commandments in a Cecil B. Demille movie - argues for the right to bear arms in the same impassioned tones with which he begged Pharaoh to let his people go.

Were American adults able to tell reality from illusion, we would understand that shows like Jerry Springer are no more real than professional wrestling, and that Charlton Heston was cast as spokesmodel for the NRA precisely because we associate him with a moralizing Biblical sage. But we can’t.

Neither can we understand the profound difference between the programmed passivity of television and the active response-driven experience of a video or networked computer game. Television deadens the senses and numbs the reflexes. The interactive quality of computer heightens them - so much so that they are used to reorient stroke victims. In fact, the better computers get at simulating real worlds, the better users get at distinguishing between rendered graphics and reality.

Foolishly, adults assume that their children’s response to interactive simulations impairs their faculties the same way that television impaired their own. Worse, they hope to control their children’s behavior by editing the content of their play. This is akin to a psychotherapist attempting to change a patient’s behavior by suppressing his dreams, rather than looking to the dreams for cues on what might be going on. In fact, suppressing a person’s dreams leads very quickly to psychosis and waking hallucinations. I hate to think what might happen if electronic simulations are similarly prohibited.

Still, adults and politicians can’t help but blame our cultural dreamspace – the “culture of violence” – for real world violence. By concluding that their children are merely confusing reality with fiction, they can excuse this behavior the same way a murderer blames his crime on Prozac, or a rapist blames his brutal attack on the height of a woman’s skirt.

As a result, American children are growing up in a world where their parents seem blind to the difference between a thrashing on Jerry Springer’s stage set and one in Kosovo. Worse, they know that however much despair they feel, and whatever they do as result, it will all be blamed on the content of their play.

The violent pretense of video games tells us a lot more about the imaginative capacity of the adults who make them than psychology of the kids who play them - and who do so less for the simulated combat than the immersive interface. (Were we fascinated by the early video game Pong because we really wanted a convenient way to simulate table tennis?)

Ultimately, the readiness with which American politicians and newsmedia blame computer games for real live shootings might actually be contributing to an environment in which such behaviors become more commonplace.

Such contortions of logic give lawmakers a way to avoid alienating their gun lobby campaign contributors while creating an illusion for their constituents that they are really doing something to solve the problem. Luckily for these politicians, the only people capable of seeing through the sham - those kids inhabiting uncensored Internet chat rooms and the scary caverns of networked Quake - are still too young to vote.