Sandy Hook and Call of Duty: the toxic relationship between “violent” games and the media

Following the tragic events of Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, a friend and I had been trying to guess how long it would take the media to blame allegedly “violent” video games for the latest spree killing. We didn’t need to wait very long. By Friday evening, Facebook users were poring over the profile of Ryan Lanza, at the time believed to be the perpetrator and whose Facebook profile appeared on the Huffington Post website. He happened to enjoy the game Mass Effect, a role-playing game set in space, battling aliens intent on destroying the universe. A (brief) outcry followed claiming that the game ought to be banned on the Facebook page for the game, as well as in groups set up on Facebook in memory of the event. This subsided once the 24 hour news media declared they had named the wrong brother, with Huffington Post since apologising for mis-identifying Ryan. Since then, the news channels and tabloids have started blaming video games due to Adam Lanza’s nerdy, reclusive image. Yesterday, the Sun’s headline claimed he had played the likes of army shooter Call of Duty, based on the testimony of a plumber who had visited the family house and saw military posters in the basement, however he does not say if he actually saw Lanza playing the game in question. The Daily Express also blamed Dynasty Warriors, an action game based in ancient China, which involves sword fighting, not shooting. Also yesterday, the American gun lobby is calling for discussions around the first amendment including a consideration of violent Hollywood films and games that “teach young kids how to shoot heads”, as part of the NRA’s attempts to move conversations away from gun control. As the Guardian has pointed out though today, there is no evidence that Adam Lanza actually played any of these games. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of spree shootings, it is generally only a matter of time before video games are blamed – from the Columbine boys who played Doom, to Anders Breivik playing Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. So, is there any truth to this knee jerk hysteria?

The research into the effects of violent video games remains patchy, with much of the research being conducted in laboratories. Bushman and Anderson (2009) claimed playing a game for 20 minutes would affect helping behaviour for example. After spending time playing the fighting game Mortal Kombat or the sport game PGA Tour Golf, respondents were asked to sit in a room to respond to a survey. While they were filling these out, a recording of a fight was played outside the room, and lab assistants timed how long it took the individual to respond to the noise, then go and help. The disparity between those who had played the violent or non-violent game was only a couple of seconds, but the authors claimed this was evidence that playing a violent game had a negative effect on helping behaviour. In another study, Anderson et al. (2007) gave high school age teens from Iowa a survey of their media consumption, and their social attitudes. This included details such as GPA, number of hours per week of television watched and games played, then how often they perceived certain types of behaviour to be common, such as fights between married couples. In this way, they try to prove a link between media consumption, especially gaming habits, and their normative beliefs around violence towards others and anti-social behaviour. Crucially, they did not ask the teenagers about their home life, such as witnessing domestic violence, abuse, or even gun ownership. In the absence of such data, the authors claimed that playing video games could lead to distorted views around violence.

However, none of these studies has proved that playing video games will definitively make you harm others. Newman et al.’s (2005) study of spree shootings in America concluded that in most of the cases they examined, the perpetrators did not play video games. The majority did however show symptoms of mental health problems, ranging from the onset of schizophrenia, to depression. Crawford (2012) has pointed to the way in which studies, such as those cited above, fail to adequately define violence in video games, which is rather subjective. Indeed, Anderson et al. (2007) has no definition of violence whatsoever. Crawford (2012) also argues that removing the study of video gaming from its domestic setting into laboratories will never give the same results, and that such studies often have inconsistent methodologies and sampling problems, for example focusing only on short-term reactions, not long-term effects. Moreover, Thornham (2011) suggests that these studies conceptualise gamers as passive receivers of messages from games, as opposed to active participants. Rather than sitting watching the action unfurl, the gamer plays an active role in what happens, generally directing the course of action themselves. In regard to children and video games however, Bijvank et al.’s (2009) study found that showing children video game boxes with “mature” content ratings for violence or action actually made them want to play the games more, than if they lacked them. Thus, the greater the media outcry around a game, the likelier a child will want to play it!

At a time like this, the media is looking for an easy scapegoat. Of course, I would never advocate giving a child an inappropriate game to play, and parents and guardians need to ensure that children are not exposed to anything untoward before they are old enough. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of people playing video games are not violent – otherwise, there would be far more cases like this. It may be in some instances that violent people are drawn to video games they perceive to be violent, which would suggest correlation, not causation. Yet, folk wisdom kicks in, and claims are made suggesting there must be some effect from playing games – even if there is no evidence. No-one at this stage can even say if Adam Lanza actually played video games. Newspapers have suggested that Adam was a loner, possibly suffering with Asperger’s syndrome, who seems to have become a recluse in recent years, according to the Guardian article cited above. Thornham (2011) identifies the stereotype of the lone male gamer as a construct framing gaming as perverse, anti-social and escapist. The media discourse around gaming, and especially in light of these events, certainly enables an imaginative leap that links social rejects with anti-social gaming. Surely though, now is the time to focus on actual guns rather than game guns.


ANDERSON, C. A., GENTILE, D. A. & BUCKLEY, K. E. 2007. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

BIJVANK, M. N., KONIJN, E. A., BUSHMAN, B. J. & P.H., R. 2009. Age and violent-content labels make video games forbidden fruits. Pediatrics, 123 (3), 870-6.

BUSHMAN, B. J. & ANDERSON, C. A. 2009. Comfortably Numb: Desensitising effects of violent media on helping others. Psychological Science, 20 (3), pp.273-277.

CRAWFORD, G. 2012. Video Gamers, Kindle, London: Routledge.

NEWMAN, K. S., HARDING, D., FOX, C., ROTH, W. & MEHTA, J. 2005. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, New York: Basic Books.

THORNHAM, H. 2011. Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative and Praxis, Farnham: Ashgate.

Emma Hutchinson is a PhD student at the University of Warwick. Find out more about her research on her website.

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