A year after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the Parents Television Council (PTC) is calling out the entertainment industry for ignoring pleas from parents and regulators to curb gun violence in media marketed to children.
“What the entertainment industry does is offer dress rehearsals for gun violence on TV, in the movies, in violent video games, and then proceeds to rate … graphic violence and gun violence as appropriate for children,” PTC President Tim Winter said in a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of Nikolas Cruz’s rampage that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz, now under arrest and awaiting trial, reportedly played video games for up to 15 hours a day.
“It was kill, kill, kill, blow up something, and kill some more, all day,” neighbor Paul Gold told the Miami Herald. Gold lived next door to Cruz and his family for several years and sometimes played video games with him.
Psychologists who have studied the effects of violent video games agree that the games themselves don’t cause people to commit mass shootings. But when played by someone with mental illness and other risk factors, the games can contribute to that individual’s willingness to commit violence.
“In almost every instance where there’s been a major school shooting, there has been some interest on the part of the shooter in violent media or, in particular, violent video games,” Melissa Henson, the program director for PTC, told me.
The modern era of school shootings, ushered in by the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., closely followed the advent of so-called first-person shooter video games in which the user plays from the point of view of someone holding a gun and seeking out human targets. The game Wolfenstein 3D set the standard for the genre in 1992, and the success of 1993’s Doom confirmed the games’ mainstream acceptance. Since then, key changes to how shooting games are marketed and played have transformed them from popular to almost predatory.
“The people that develop these games know which particular psychological triggers to pull,” Henson said. Today’s shooting games, whether first-person or third-person (players can see the character they are controlling), include short cycles of play and in-game rewards and incentives to keep players engaged “for hours on end,” Henson said. And the barrier to access the games has come way down.
When first-person shooter games were first developed, players had to purchase a disc or cartridge either by mail or in a store for a price of $30 to $60. Now, users can download shooting games for a few dollars and play on mobile devices that almost everyone has. Fortnite, arguably the most popular shooting game on today’s market, has a free mobile version.
Another significant step in the evolution of shooting games is the gradual elimination of villains. Players killed World War II Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D and demonic aliens in Doom. But in some modes of Fortnite, including the popular mobile version called Battle Royale, players log in to a multiplayer virtual universe and kill each other.
To be clear, there is no evidence that playing Fortnite or any other shooting game can transform an average adolescent into a mass shooter. Studies have shown, however, that playing violent video games, especially as first-person shooters, can increase aggressive behavior in kids.
“People are more likely to behave aggressively themselves when they identify with a violent character,” psychologist Brad J. Bushman wrote in 2013 for Psychology Today.
Parents should also know that, because it does not include a lot of blood and guts, Fortnite earned a T rating for teens and up instead of the M rating for players 17 and older. And it is unquestionably marketed toward children with its use of cartoon-esque characters and trademark victory dances.
A Supreme Court ruling in 2011 declared video games are free speech protected by the First Amendment, largely tying the government’s hands in regulating their content, ratings, and marketing. That leaves it up to parents to try to control what their children play and for how long.
In its final report in December 2018, the Federal Commission on School Safety, formed in response to the Parkland shooting, admonished families that “Parents are best positioned to determine which forms of entertainment are appropriate for their children. While rating systems can be helpful tools, they are not a substitute for conversations with children about the content children consume.”