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Beyond Gun Control: Regulating Virtual Violence and Video Games
Posted: 01/31/2013 10:44 am
I have written regularly in favor of gun control since the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, but despite my belief that stronger gun laws are imperative, I am also certain that controlling guns alone will not solve the problem.
Before gun rights advocates start rejoicing, I want to be clear that I support the legislation proposed by President Obama unequivocally. There is simply no reason for civilians to own assault weapons, high capacity magazines, or any other instrument of mass murder. In fact, the very desire to acquire such weapons indicates a dangerous mindset that makes it necessary to ban them. Put another way, if you believe that our Founding Fathers wanted you to own an AR-15 rifle or if you are so paranoid that you imagine a tyrannical government coming for you in the middle of the night, you have no business carrying any type of firearm.
Having said that, the reality is that there are 270 million guns in America today and no laws of any kind will enable us to get those weapons back. The best we can do is try to prevent the proliferation of even more guns in the future. The purpose of gun control then is really to take a stand against those who abuse their rights under the Second Amendment even when it jeopardizes the safety of their fellow citizens, prevent the problem of gun violence from becoming a whole lot worse, and to make a powerful statement about the type of society we want to be.
Yet, worthwhile as gun control is, America also needs to address violence from the other side -- the side of our culture. We may be a nation of laws but we are also highly reactive and fundamentally aggressive. And there is no need for extreme examples to illustrate this, either: you see it when you accidentally bump into someone on the street, you see it when you cut someone off on the road, you see it when you request someone to talk more softly on their cell phone on a public bus, you see it on the football field, and you even see it in the belligerent play of our children in the school yard.
But culture, especially in today's age of mass media, is undeniably shaped by what we see around us all the time. Hyper-aggression in all its forms is celebrated every day in our movies, on television, on the Internet, and in video games, and to deny that it has an impact on us is at best naïve. Guns, for sure, are a deadly ingredient in the brew of violence, but our culture of aggression forms the base.
I applaud Vice President Joe Biden for taking the lead in proposing gun control legislation, but I was disappointed when his only meeting with the video game industry led to nothing but empty talk. Video games have become insanely violent and graphic, glorify violence more than any movie I have ever seen, and subject Americans of all ages, including impressionable teenagers, to hours of visual hypnosis on a daily basis, and yet the industry has taken absolutely no responsibility for their role in promoting violence in our nation.
Video games may not be the only culprit, but they are a big one, and whether we like it or not, they need to be regulated more heavily.
When asked to examine the impact that their products might have on the psyche of Americans, and particularly children, the video game industry simply shrugs its shoulders and points to dubious studies that indicate no relation between violent video games and gun violence. The most recent such report came from the Washington Post, which compared per capita spending on video games with gun-related homicides across ten nations, including the Netherlands.
Their conclusion -- that there is no link between video games and gun violence -- would be credible except for this: reports such as these look at selective "snapshots" of data and in the process leave out many variables that could change the outcome of the study -- such as the percentage of people playing such games who have a history of mental illness, the actual games played, the price points at which games are sold across markets, the cultural norms in different societies, the social support systems available to people in different countries, and many other things.
All these factors, if analyzed comprehensively, could provide a very different insight to what we currently believe, but like a pharmaceutical company desperate to release a new drug and willing to forgo certain types of testing that might kill the idea, the video game industry is not interested in all the facts but in just those that allow them to justify their products and make a lot of money.
Besides this, there are other serious problems with the stance of the video game industry.
Video game companies love to claim that their products are pure fantasy, and yet the business thrives on realism. Game franchises such as Killzone, Grand Theft Auto, and Call of Duty, constantly push the envelope to transport the player into a virtual reality which feels very much like -- well, reality. And that is dangerous. Video games are rushing further away from fantasy every year, and in the process, blurring that crucial line between fantasy and reality that the human mind needs to recognize what it is actually doing, and when you add violence to the mix, the stage is set for disaster.
The video game industry touts the first amendment as the primary reason that their products should not have restrictions placed upon them, yet the industry does not create its games for anything as noble as exercising its right to free speech but for the sake of pure profits. The first amendment, like the second, is a right which also carries with it the responsibility not to undermine our civilization or to put people in harm's way for the sake of personal greed.
Finally, the ratings system and parental controls that the video game industry cites as evidence that the business is already regulated are only sufficient to ensure that their games do not make it into the hands of young children (which in itself is debatable) but does absolutely nothing to protect against catalyzing the psychosis of the mentally ill or the gradual and insidious blurring of the line between fantasy and reality for millions of adult Americans. Video game makers may not pull the trigger themselves any more than gun manufacturers do, but they potentially abet the act, and in that respect they are culpable.
Pointing the finger at video games does not mean letting guns off the hook, but if we are truly serious about curbing the violence in America, we cannot afford to cherry pick only one contributing factor while treating the others as sacred cows. The video game industry has long stood on its mountain of free speech and questionable statistics but after Newtown, it is time for them to come down and face the music. America's problem is not just the easy availability of guns but a culture of senseless aggression and that cannot be cured simply by taking the guns away -- it needs a wider response that forces everyone, including video game makers, to take responsibility for their part in creating that culture. Only then will we stand a chance of really solving this problem.
Otherwise, our society may as well reset the clock till the next big tragedy, for it will happen, and in the meantime continue to be exploited by gun manufacturers and video game makers for the sole satisfaction of their personal greed.
SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of two financial thrillers, including "Merger" which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit his Facebook page for more information.
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