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The video game stereotype

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Esther Cepeda
July 25, 2011
— It is a normal human instinct to immediately respond to a senseless tragedy by trying to make sense of it. Unfortunately, humans are flawed and in their desire to understand what leads a person to commit unspeakable horrors, they rely on stereotypes and rules of thumb in the absence of actual facts.

Soon after the calamity in Norway last Friday, there was wild speculation about whether the Oslo bombing and Utoya Island massacre were the fault of Islamist terrorists -- as if people other than followers of Islam aren't equally capable of horror in the name of ideology.


Once that knee-jerk assumption was ruled out because it turned out the alleged perpetrator was a native Norwegian who had written of his hatred for Muslims, other lame conventions of bad-guyness were trotted out: Anders Behring Breivik played "violent video games."


I put those words in quotations because any honest discussion about video games would have to concede that the majority of all mainstream, popular video games, with the exception of early childhood titles, include what the Entertainment Software Rating Board calls "cartoon, fantasy or mild violence."


Yes, even "Charlie Church Mouse Bible Adventures," as well as Disney's "Phineas and Ferb," and even video games designed specifically for physical fitness, such as "UFC Personal Trainer Ultimate Fitness System" contain some non-cartoon violence or violent references.


So when a deeply disturbed individual commits acts of unimaginable violence, we should not point to his playing of video games -- even the ultraviolent, gory ones -- as evidence of evil intent or capacity to harm. Certainly no more than we should note the model of car he or she drives, favorite foods, or childhood career aspirations as evidence of potential criminality.


The attacks in Norway are the first international-headline grabbing incidents of violence tied to a lone individual since the U.S. Supreme Court's late-June ruling striking down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children.


Though that decision codified video games as artistic expression deserving of First Amendment protections, it unfortunately did nothing to tamp down the myth that video games actually cause violence -- even though there is no evidence that they do.


There are studies suggesting violent video games increase aggressive impulses in the short term which are refuted by other research finding that such games do not have long-term, permanent, or any effects at all on aggressive behavior. More importantly, youth violence continues to decline even as the popularity of mature and extreme video games has skyrocketed.


You can't blame anyone for searching for meaning in any tidbit of an individual's personality in attempting to understand the unbelievable. But even after the most demonized scapegoats are vindicated, don't believe the hype when you hear that a suspect enjoys violent video games. The millions of men, women, and children who enjoy video games containing varying degrees of violence are not deserving of anyone's automatic suspicion or judgment.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.



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