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Updated Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 07:08 AM

Newtown slaughter renews debate over violent video games

By LOU KESTEN
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In the days since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a shellshocked nation has looked for reasons. The list of culprits includes easy access to guns, a strained mental-health system and the "culture of violence": the entertainment industry's embrace of violence in movies, TV shows and, especially, video games.

"The violence in the entertainment culture — particularly, with the extraordinary realism to video games, movies now, et cetera — does cause vulnerable young men to be more violent," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said.

"There might well be some direct connection between people who have some mental instability and when they go over the edge — they transport themselves, they become part of one of those video games," said Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, where 12 people were killed in a movie theater shooting in July.

White House adviser David Axelrod tweeted: "But shouldn't we also quit marketing murder as a game?"

Congressional gun-rights supporters said Tuesday they would consider new legislation to control firearms, provided it also addresses mental-health problems and the impact of violent video games.

"Put guns on the table, also put video games on the table, put mental health on the table" in a comprehensive anti-violence effort, said 10-term Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who has an A+ rating with the National Rifle Association (NRA).

There have been unconfirmed media reports that Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, 20, enjoyed a range of video games, from the bloody "Call of Duty" series to the innocuous "Dance Dance Revolution."

But the same could be said for about 80 percent of Americans in Lanza's age group, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Law-enforcement officials haven't made any connection between Lanza's possible motives and his interest in video games.

Protected expression

The video-game industry has been mostly silent since Friday's attack, in which 20 children and six adults were killed at the school. Lanza also fatally shot his mother at home before killing himself at the school. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which represents game publishers in Washington, has yet to respond to politicians' criticisms. Hal Halpin, president of the nonprofit Entertainment Consumers Association, said: "I'd simply and respectfully point to the lack of evidence to support any causal link."

It's unlikely lawmakers will regulate the sales of video games, though Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced a bill Wednesday directing the National Academy of Sciences to examine whether violent games and programs lead children to act aggressively.

"Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it," Rockefeller said. "They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians and psychologists know better."

But laws regulating video games were rejected again and again in a series of court cases in the past decade, culminating last year, when the Supreme Court, voting 7-2, revoked a California law criminalizing the sale of violent games to minors.

The Supreme Court decision focused on First Amendment concerns; in the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that games "are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature."

Scalia also agreed with the ESA's argument that researchers haven't established a link between media violence and real-life violence: "Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively."

Scalia wrote that constitutional limits on governmental action against video games apply, "even where the protection of children is the object."

Christmas favorites

Shares of video-game makers and retailers fell Wednesday as investors weighed possible fallout. Combat titles such as the top-selling "Call of Duty" series from Activision Blizzard generate more than 20 percent of video-game software sales.

But the attention generated by the Connecticut school shooting is unlikely to reduce sales during the Christmas season, said Doug Creutz, an analyst at Cowen & Co., who recommends investors buy shares of the largest game companies.

"If you go to Amazon.com right now, and you look at their top selling games, four of the five are what you'd classify as violent games," Creutz said. "People are still buying these games. It's not kids playing these games, by and large. Parents already don't buy their kids these types of games."

Those top sellers at the site include Microsoft's "Halo 4," "Call of Duty" and "Assassin's Creed 3" from Ubisoft Entertainment.

The drop in the shares is largely a knee-jerk reaction, Creutz said.

Industry soul-searching

That doesn't make games impervious to criticism, or even soul-searching within the gaming community. At this year's E3 — the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the industry's largest U.S. gathering — some attendees were stunned by the intensity of violence on display. A demo for Sony's "The Last of Us" ended with a villain taking a shotgun blast to the face. A scene from Ubisoft's "Splinter Cell: Blacklist" showed the hero torturing an enemy. A trailer for Square Enix's "Hitman: Absolution" showed the protagonist slaughtering a team of lingerie-clad assassins disguised as nuns.

"The ultraviolence has to stop," designer Warren Spector told the GamesIndustry website after E3. "I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it's in bad taste. Ultimately I think it will cause us trouble."

Brian Crecente, news editor for the gaming website Polygon, said Monday: "The violence of these games can be off-putting. The video-game industry is wrestling with the same issues as movies and TV. There's this tension between violent games that sell really well and games like 'Journey,' a beautiful, artistic creation that was well-received by critics but didn't sell much."

During November, typically the peak month for preholiday game releases, the two best-sellers were the military shooters "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," from Activision, and "Halo 4," from Microsoft. But even with the dominance of the genre, Crecente said: "There has been a feeling that some of the sameness of war games is grating on people."

Critic John Peter Grant said: "I've also sensed a growing degree of fatigue with ultraviolent games, but not necessarily because of the violence per se."

The problem, Grant said, "is that violence as a mechanic gets old really fast. Games are amazing possibility spaces! And if the chief way I can interact with them is by destroying and killing? That seems like such a waste of potential."

There are some hints of a self-awareness creeping into the gaming community. One gamer — Antwand Pearman, editor of the website GamerFitNation — has called for other players to join in a "Day of Cease-Fire for Online Shooters" Friday, one week after the school massacre.

"We are simply making a statement that we as gamers are not going to sit back and ignore the lives that were lost," Pearman said.

Information from Bloomberg News was used in this report.


AP
Soldiers and terrorists do battle in "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," among the best-selling and bloodiest of the season.




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