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Opinion

Gabrielle Giffords and NRA are both right about one thing: US culture of violence

Gabrielle Giffords made a compelling plea at the Senate hearings on gun control today, but the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre is also partly right: Banning guns won’t address a pervasive culture of violence that doesn't distinguish between real and virtual violence.

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Meanwhile, the video game industry works closely with the military and gun manufacturers to ensure that their virtual weaponry, from the PM-63 submachine gun to the C-130 gunship, behaves just like the real thing. Some game companies have direct contracts with the Department of Defense, manufacturing hardware and software for military applications.

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It’s easy to see why the US Army runs recruitment ads in gamer magazines and maintains a popular online game called America’s Army.

While the industry denies any link between violent interactive media and real-world beliefs and behaviors, studies have shown that playing violent video games is associated with higher rates of hostility, more pro-violence attitudes, and a decrease in players’ ability to empathize with others, particularly those who are suffering.

Computer video games are in fact the most powerful medium ever devised for altering perception and behavior. That’s why psychologists use them to help patients overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), why pilots are trained on flight simulators, and why the military uses them to train soldiers.

So what does it mean that millions of boys and young men are spending their free time “training” to kill?

Whether knifing or setting fire to prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto, or mowing down scores of racially stereotyped Arabs in some fictional Middle Eastern country, male video-game players are being taught to associate representations of mass slaughter, torture, and other antisocial acts with play and pleasure. They are being told that to be a “real” man is to come to others heavily armed.

The very idea of moving from room to room with an assault weapon, “clearing” the room by shooting victims in the head, as Lanza did in Newtown, is a convention of the First Person Shooter video game genre. The first such game, Doom, proved so successful at teaching soldiers how to kill that the Marines quickly adapted it for their training program. Prior to their massacre, the Columbine killers spent countless hours playing and even designing levels on a modified version of the same game.

At his trial last year, Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who murdered 69 people, most of them teenagers, on the island of Utoya, boasted that he had done his weapons training on the military-style First Person Shooter game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which he had played for up to 16 hours a day as “part of my training-simulation.” The special gun sight Breivik installed on his rifle was the real version of the virtual one he had used in the game.

The Breivik case reveals how narrow the US debate over gun violence really is. Norway has stringent gun control laws, and Breivik did his killing with a hunting rifle, not a semi-automatic assault rifle. So tightening restrictions on guns, in a nation that already has hundreds of millions of them in private hands, is both admirable and arguably beside the point. Banning guns alone won’t address a pervasive culture of militarism and violence – one that has diminished the ability of children and young adults to distinguish between real and virtual violence, or to care about the difference.

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