Taking my cue from the national media groupthink that forces us to regurgitate the same misinformation all day, every day, I have made my own incendiary headline. But just like the rest of the subject lines over the last few days, it's complete bullshit.
You may have already heard the story: Last week, an 8-year old from Slaughter, LA was in his trailer home, allegedly playing Grand Theft Auto IV, when he shot his elderly grandmother (mentioned as the "caretaker") with a loaded firearm.
There is no way to sanitize this story: the kid found an unprotected gun with a bullet in the chamber, aimed it at his grandma's head, and pulled the trigger.
Almost immediately, this story was framed as a cultural one, with GTA IV as the main antagonist. Not the loaded gun, not the absentee parenting...but a damn video game.
Soon headlines across the country began using the same banal words over and over: 8-year-old shoots, kills elderly caregiver after playing Grand Theft Auto.”
Louisiana police offered this statement after the incident, "Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the PlayStation 3, 'Grand Theft Auto IV,' a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred."
If we lived in a rational society, one that refused to impulsively take part in witch-hunts, the big question on everyone's mind would be, "Why did an 8-year old have access to a gun?" Or maybe even, "Why would someone allow an 8-year old to play a game that is rated M?" But instead, to feed the insatiable appetite of the 24-hour news cycle, the headline on nearly every national media outlet related to this assumption: "GTA IV was the reason for his dead grandma, right?"
Using "experts" and pundits who have no prior history in empirical studies linking violence to gaming, Fox News and CNN moved the discussion from its proper place (focusing on the device that actually killed the lady) to a piece of software that may or may not have had a role leading up the killing. While due process dictates that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, allowing for a fair trial, the opposite is the case for video games. Our industry is guilty right off the bat, and will always be, until the culture warriors find the next boogeyman.
The fact that they took the only "debatable" part of the story (GTA IV contributed to the death) and used it as the "selling point" is not only bad reporting, it is irresponsible. Not as irresponsible as allowing an 8-year old to access a loaded gun, but still pretty damn irresponsible.
Not only will the reporters happily jump on a controversial story like jackals, the powers that be (i.e. the gun lobby) will take immediate action to deflect any bad press on their end. Everyone is trying to protect their own...and when this happens, art and creative expression are destroyed.
Two things must be asked before even considering Grand Theft Auto as a contributing factor. First, WHY THE HELL did he have access to a loaded gun? No responsible gun owner would dismiss this factor. Every argument becomes immediately moot when a child of that age gets their hands on a killing device. Since he has no legal responsibility (an 8-year old cannot be charged with a crime), this falls solely to the caretakers. They made a bad parenting decision by purchasing Grand Theft Auto IV, but made an eternally irresponsible and irreversible decision by allowing him access to a loaded weapon.
Second, why did he have access to Mature (17+) entertainment? Rockstar went through all the proper legal channels to develop, market and distribute their game as a title for mature gamers. They allowed the ratings board to label the title 'M' with specific and clear warnings about: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Violence. As a society that supposedly values independent thought and personal liberty, blaming a piece of software that took all the necessary legal precautions AND is protected by our first amendment, is irrational at best.
While I am a staunch defender of video games, I am not going to argue that a title like Grand Theft Auto does not create an impression in a young, developing mind. Surely it does. Good parenting will trump the influence of GTA, but that does not mean they should be able to play the game so early in their development. It is a mature title with mature themes (many of which deter you from violence, but what's the point in talking about that?), so the 8-year old demographic really has no place in the GTA fan base. Rockstar would agree. But even so, this does not warrant every news outlet from unjustifiably crying wolf when more pressing and immediate issues are staring at them in the face.
Either way, this entire brouhaha is unbelievably disheartening and frustrating to someone who has made the gaming business their career, as I am sure it is to all the decent human beings who play games on a regular basis and "get it."
Until these impulsive, click-hungry news sites sit back and actually play these games for themselves, and deeply consider the importance of personal responsibility and creative expression, we will continue to be the scapegoat.
Fortunately, our generation is next up to bat and we can prove that gaming + good parenting + a rational understanding of consequence = good citizens and leaders.
Until then, brace for the witch-hunt.