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Of Guns, Video Games, and Mental Illness: Oh That It Were That Simple

As information emerges about the Navy Yard gunman’s excessive use of violent video games and likely mental illness, people naturally are seeking understanding in hopes of preventing such tragedies in the future. The usual reactions are considered: 
• Banning guns …But many thousands of gun owners every day possess their weapons and operate them in a safe manner, and comprehensive research suggests that the relationship between numbers of guns in society and levels of murder are not what they seem [1];
• Restricting the mentally ill …But many thousands with mental illness lead peaceful, safe lives, and in the rare case when a person with mental illness becomes violent, other factors [2]commonly are operative such as substance abuse, stressors such as job loss, or family conflict;
• Regulating violent video games  …But many thousands of young people enjoy this entertainment daily without murderous outcomes, though research does demonstrate some link between violent video game exposure and increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and emotion, increased physiological arousal, and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior (Anderson, 2007).   

Guns and Mental Illness

I do not want to oversimplify the issues on the first two fronts, but setting politics aside, it seems to me that some middle-ground of reasonable regulations to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those persons not responsible enough to handle weapons is prudent. These persons may in fact include some persons with mental illness, although it should be noted that persons with mental illness who have been involved in tragic events are thought to be exclusively those who had not been adequately treated for their condition.  Calls for adequate and compassionate treatment of those suffering emotionally are plentiful, and such treatment would obviously help in specific cases, though some doubt that this would be a panacea.  It is important to note also that some advocacy and professional organizations [3], supported by recent research [4], report conflicting information regarding whether mental illness makes one an increased risk to perpetrate or suffer from violence.

Violent Video Games

More complicated, but perhaps more fruitful, would be a consideration of what is the proper response to the violent video game (VG) hypothesis.  To be clear, the VGs in question are those that have become increasingly popular and increasingly violent over the past two decades.  This genre of games is centered on gun and projectile weapon-based combat where success is achieved in generally one of three ways: the creation of general mayhem (e.g., Grand Theft Auto), player versus player destruction (e.g., Mortal Kombat), or, more recently and most concerning, destruction through a first-person perspective, that is, the player experiences the action through the eyes of the protagonist (e.g., “Halo” or “Call of Duty” series).  It is this last form that the military has utilized to train their elite fighting squads to hone skills and expertise; it is also this type of game that the Navy Yard gunmen was reported to be playing for a dozen or more hours a day. 

In the face of such tragedies, the media response regarding the role of VGs has varied, from monitoring and then limiting [5] the frequency and duration of playing time to a complete dismissal [6]of any substantive role such games might play in the complex mix of causes that result in any such tragedy.  But what does the best research actually say…?

Some of the research simply does not address the issue at hand.  For example, the conclusions reached by the video game producer associations is suspect because of their vested interest in preventing barriers to their products’ sale.  Some broad-based studies have examined the relationship across differing countries between levels of gaming among its population and rates of violence, but these studies are too general to make specific conclusions. 

The most comprehensive and reliable studies indicate that there is indeed a relationship between prolonged exposure to violent VGs and violence, even when compared with other social influences which have credibility. For example, in predicting future aggression, prolonged violent video game exposure was a more substantive  factor than parent-child relationships, prior physical violence, and abusive parents.  Only gang membership was a more sizeable factor (Anderson et al, 2007).  Additional evidence is supported by research [7] which empirically found that adolescents who, over time, expose themselves to greater amounts of video game violence were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights, and performed more poorly in school. Feelings of hostility were an important determining factor in the relationship between violent video game exposure and outcomes.

What To Do

Given the evidence available, we must avoid the temptation to distill the complex phenomena of mass shootings down to any one causal factor and then believe that by addressing that one factor we will make any genuine progress in preventing such tragedies in the future.  One theme that seems key is responsibility: gun sellers and owners must be responsible in their behavior, families of those who suffer mental illness must be responsible in seeking care for their loved one (especially those who are unable to seek care for themselves, and even if they say they don’t want it), and parents must be responsible in discerning what qualifies as entertainment and innocent gaming for their children. 

If the commanders of the best-trained military units in the world find these VGs useful for improving the focus and skill of soldiers, can it really be innocent fun for a child or adolescent?

Specifically, with respect to video game usage, moderation is fundamental.  That which makes us most human and is critical for preventing random aggression against other persons is a recognition of our common relatedness as human persons. Technology, with all its benefits, contains the risk of removing us from face-to-face, genuine encounters with others, and replacing these opportunities with pseudo-relationships through a myriad of devices or at minimum distracted interactions [8]with the person in our presence.  Given the potential for addiction to and danger of excessive use of violent video games, the need is clear for parental and family awareness and intervention with those persons, young and not so young, who become increasingly more interested in their games than their friends and family.  The stronger the resistance a loved one shows to being “unplugged,” the more likely it is that he needs it.  Rest assured, we are made for real relationships, not technological solitude, and after some time for “withdrawal,” he who has been unplugged will be healthier and happier for it. 


If the commanders of the best-trained military units in the world find these VGs useful for improving the focus and skill of soldiers, can it really be innocent fun for a child or adolescent?