Violence in Games: When the Agenda Dictates the News

violent-games-headerWhat sounds like a headline that’s likely to get more attention and make a news organization more money: “Father Fails to Secure Firearms, Leaves Them for 9-Year-Old to Play With” or “Video Game to Blame for Boy Bringing Gun to School?” Clearly, it’s the latter. The former would be more accurate if all you were interested in was reporting the facts and just the facts but facts don’t make money.

And that’s the problem with coverage of recent news coverage of anything that’s even tangentially related to video games. Whether it’s a kid bringing a gun to school, a mugging in Britain or a mass shooting at a military installation, the media isn’t interested in reporting the news but in creating a story that’s much more exciting than just the facts.

If you’ve followed me over to here from my other blog, The Lowdown Blog, or started reading me from my campus radio days back in university, you might recall that I started out my media hobby (I sure can’t call it a career) as a news anchor. I’ve always had a fondness for the news and doing the news correctly.

Basically, the first lesson about actually producing a newscast I learned, apart from keep it to five minutes or less, was don’t get sued. That’s what my boss was running scared of more than anything else. Don’t do anything to get us taken off air. (Ironically, the news department was closed 15 months later.) As such, I’ve always tried to be as legitimately fair and balanced as possible when it comes to doing the news (unlike Fox News which skews right to balance for news media it perceives as being biased to the political left).

Why do I mention this now? Because I’d like to engage in a little experiment. I’m going to summarize three news stories as reported by the mainstream media then re-report them using indisputable facts and highlight the differences between reporting and reporting with an agenda.

Father: Boy was acting out zombie-slaying game Minecraft

Summary: A nine-year-old boy was brought up on weapons charges after bringing a gun, a knife and a sledge-hammer to his elementary school. The boy’s father said that his son was imitating behaviour he learned from Minecraft. He said, “They use hammers to dig and knives and guns to protect themselves from zombies.”

Just the Facts: A nine-year-old boy was brought up on weapons charges after bringing a gun, a knife and a sledge-hammer to his elementary school. The boy was charged with possession of a firearm on school grounds, possession of a concealed weapon and possession of a firearm by a minor.

The Difference: The father just thinks that his son was acting out Minecraft. If they had done some research, the folks at WFTV (who originally reported this story though the father’s quote isn’t in the story on WFTV’s website) would have found out that there are no hammers, knives or guns in Minecraft. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the father is wrong about the contents of Minecraft and therefore is wrong about why his son brought a gun to school. Deleting one quote changes the whole narrative of that story from video games made the kid bring a gun to school to a kid brought a gun to school.

The Agenda: Violent video games are harming our children. Just like Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, The Beatles’ music, comic books, movies, TV, rock & roll music, so on and so forth in years gone by. Whether or not the father had a motive for blaming Minecraft, the reporter or editor had a motivation for leaving that quote in the story.

Man stabbed and robbed in London of Grand Theft Auto game

Summary: A 23-year-old man was hit with a brick and stabbed before being robbed of his copy of Grand Theft Auto V. The man is in hospital in stable condition. The robber also took his mobile phone and watch.

Just the Facts: A 23-year-old man was mugged on his way home from an Asda supermarket early Tuesday morning. He hit with a brick and stabbed before he was robbed of his Asda purchases, his mobile phone and his watch.

The Difference: The official police statement said that the man had been “robbed of items he had bought from a nearby Asda supermarket, including a copy of Grand Theft Auto” along with his watch and phone. To imply that he was only mugged for a copy of the game is trying to create a story that isn’t entirely supported by the facts at hand. The man was mugged. The robbers took several things. They could have been looking for that copy of GTA5 just as much as that fancy watch or cool new smartphone.

The Agenda: Video games drive people to violent acts. It’s not just a random mugging. It’s a random mugging for a video game. Look at what video games are driving people to do. Look at how they’re eroding the very fabric of society. We can’t just worry about what people will do because of violent video games but what people will do for violent video games.

Washington navy yard gunman ‘obsessed with violent video games’

Summary: The Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis played violent video games including Call of Duty for up to 16 hours at a time and friends believe it could have pushed him towards becoming a mass murderer.

Just the Facts: Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis played video games as a hobby. He also carried a gun with him at all times because he believed that people would try to take his belongings. Apart from carrying a gun at all times, friends said that Alexis was a calm individual and very “chilled.”

The Difference: The fact that he plays video games, for long stretches at times, and that he killed seven people are not cause and effect. In fact, a note found after the publishing of this Daily Telegraph article showed that Mr. Alexis said that low-frequency radio wave transmissions drove him to commit murder. That’s not video games but mental instability that caused this shooting.

The Agenda: Clearly, the agenda is to show that his obsession with violent video games was the reason Aaron Alexis became a mass murderer. Never mind the fact that there are millions of people who play “violent” video games but aren’t murderers or that Mr. Alexis had a history of various violent and gun-related incidents or that there has been no recognized conclusive evidence that violent media causes violent behaviour. A friend who runs a Thai restaurant drew the conclusion that “games might be what pushed him that way.” No scientific evidence or other proof. Just a hypothesis.

At the end of the day, news media organizations are just businesses that are looking to make money. We like to think that they’re beholden to some moral standard that requires them to be fair and unbiased in their reporting but the popularity of the likes of Fox News and MSNBC show that there’s money to be made by pandering to a particular group.

In the case of video games, there are a lot of people who still believe that violent video games make the people who play them violent. There are just as many people who are willing to click these articles just to dive into the comments to argue for the other side. Either way, on a polarizing issue such as the effect of violent video games, you’re going to draw eyeballs which means that the news organization is making money.

Gone are the days of the legendary newsmen. The stars of the news aren’t the likes of Cronkite, Murrow, Jennings and Brokaw. The names that you can trust are Stewart and Colbert but they’re on Comedy Central. Sure, the network evening newscasts are fairly good about reporting news rather than opinion but they’re still looking for ratings. Why do you think Katie Couric was so short-lived behind the desk on CBS Evening News?

I don’t like jumped up news stories pushing an agenda and we shouldn’t have to settle for it. Unfortunately, these stories are so ubiquitous that they’re almost unavoidable. Take solace in the fact that science is on our side and that there is no proven causative link between violent media and violent behaviour. Eventually, everyone will see the truth of the matter. It might just take a while.

Sources:
1) WFTV via Action News Jacksonville (WTEV/WAWS)
2) BBC News, The Daily Telegraph
3) The Daily Telegraph, Talking Points Memo

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About Steve Murray

Steve is the founder and editor of The Lowdown Blog and et geekera. On The Lowdown Blog, he often writes about motorsports, hockey, politics and pop culture. Over on et geekera, Steve writes about geek interests and lifestyle. Steve is on Twitter at @TheSteveMurray.

Posted on October 4, 2013, in Games, Long Read and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.

  1. awesome article Steve. I don’t watch TV anymore simply for the fact that the news and every other topic is flipping warped. I hope it changes one day.

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  2. Stretching the truth is nothing new for the news. I use to get the New York Daily News and the headlines always screamed the bloody murder. We were and still are a violent society. Al Capone was no wallflower. He used a baseball bat and hit two home runs. They buried those hit. Machine guns riddled the enemy and tore up the body. Violence in the thirties was not affected by violent games or television. People were doing that even though they had nothing to look at. How violent was radio. The French Revolution was not affected by a video game. They were violent and very heady.

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    • Don’t forget one of the favorite toys for boys up until at least the 70s was GI Joe. He was awesome and everyone want to be him. And what about Cowboys and Indians? I am sure not too many kinds were sent home decades ago when they dressed up like that for halloween, or just because!

      Like

  3. Great article. I do not watch the news if I can at all help it. Local news here in Minnesota is quite biased towards, well, towards America. I might get a 2 minute report out of the 35 minute broadcast that has anything to do with the WORLD. Between that, the outright lies on all “sides” of the augments, the yelling and heated language, and the constantly up to the second news that is often WRONG just kills me. I can’t watch it. I choose to dig around, find people who were there and not “in studio” and even look overseas for local news. It does take more time but at least it is a more complete story. I just try really hard when at parties when someone shares a bogus story to not start ALL of my sentences with “well you know, in such-n-such news they reported the opposite.” Please tend not to call you back if you correct them all the time. =)

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  4. Reblogged this on Bradley Laycock – A day in the life of a competitive gamer and commented:
    A down to the point blog about the media and it’s web of lies and covering the facts surrounding video game controversy

    Like

  5. Look this up….

    Fact: the human brain accepts as normal what it has been exposed to over time.
    Fact: the human brain does not differentiate between real and imagined events when initiating emotional and/or stress responses.
    Fact: humans have known for thousands of years that repeated behavior is inculcated behavior.
    Fact: marketers and game designers are well aware of all of the above.

    Game over.

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    • Insert CoD joke?

      Seriously, I know it’s an uphill battle but unless we gamers, movie watchers, TV viewers, comic readers and people who want to consume truthful and accurate news try to get some corrective action taken, this will be the narrative for a long time. It won’t be easy but if we lay down and give up, nothing’s going to change.

      Like

  6. I think it’s hard to delineate the reasons for why people commit crimes. And while I haven’t really read the psych research in a bit on the topic, I feel that video games are more realistic than ever before. People might say they experience life virtually on social media already. Is it possible that seeing virtual violence can act as a step away from action? Or is it the cathartic outlet for the evolved and civilized?

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  7. Reblogged this on This & That and commented:
    Rad.

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  8. Back in the 80s, someone blamed the movie Halloween II for his own murders. I find the whole idea completely crazy. Video games, books, movies, they don’t CAUSE violent behavior. There’s been no conclusive study to support the belief that they do. Instead, unrealistic beliefs about reality, or desperation, or pure random chance, or lack of a moral conscience, or a hundred other things do. And if video games can cause any of those things, we really need to take a look at what they’re teaching programmers at colleges these days.

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  9. Video games, music, movies, celebrities – we tend to blame anyone and anything out of our reach / control for acts that have deep rooted issues that WE ought to confront. Excellent post. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

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  10. Reblogged this on Homie Williams. and commented:
    — J.W.

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  11. Reblogged this on cheluvsyou78 and commented:
    I agree.. Kids these days are all about the violence.. The sad part being some kids can not distinguish between real life and a game..

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  12. We tend to blame everything and everyone for a child’s behavior except the parents. Take some responsibility for your child’s actions!

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  13. Interesting article. As it is said, ‘ideas don’t matter, it’s how you present it that matters.’

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  14. Thanks for the article. I am not much into video games (I do enjoy when I play), but I study media and my views on framing of news by media concur with some of your assessments.

    Your news story samples are interesting. In the first case I feel the news editor could retain the father’s quote, since that is a fact too, as long as it is added that based on the newspaper’s research the quote seems dubious. But, sadly there was no research by the media before reporting the news, making the it grossly misguiding.

    Why is the media doing this sort of half baked reporting? Is it always bias? Or something else? Too pressed for time? Negligence? There are many questions.

    In the second news sample I feel it’s the language of the report that makes all the difference. Revealing contents stolen is alright, but an undue emphasis on one particular item without any pretext in other facts of the story is bias. That’s unacceptable. I would have been ok with it if say the attacker saw this man buying that game, followed him, and said “hey give that game to me” on a gunpoint. But that’s bogus.

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  15. You make a lot of good points. I especially agree with comparing this current trend of blaming video games for violence to the trends of the past, such as blaming rock and roll for promiscuity and a perceived decline in morals. Society has always liked to point to something simple as the cause of our problems rather than taking a deeper look at the more complex underlying causes. Such simplification also makes it much easier to fit the narrative into 15 minutes.

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  16. Great post, and interesting to get both sides of the story (“facts” vs. “news”). Most ‘violent-video-game’ hysteria and news seemed to have died out in the late 90s, as common sense slowly began to take hold. That said, Grand Theft Auto games will always bring about news of some sort.

    Like

  17. Michael Daniel

    I love quality news. Nowadays, you just have to keep in mind who is behind the cameras. You don’t trust Fox to report on US politics any more than you trust RT to report on Russian politics. That said, RT gives excellent coverage of US news and Fox gives excellent coverage of natural disasters. Al Jazeera isn’t going to report on corruption in the Caliphate, but they do amazing war correspondant reporting.

    As far as video games and violence goes, the research is done and the numbers have been in for years. There is an r = -0.95 correlation between video games and violence.

    Link: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2009/02/opinion-playing-video-games-linked-to-breast-feeding/

    That correlation is going in the opposite direction from where it should be if there was a connection. Suspecting video games of causing violence would be like if cigarette sales increased as cancer rates decreased and suspecting a link there. That didn’t happen, of course. Cancer rates and cigarette sales do correlate, so it makes sense to look into that link more. Looking into the link between video games and violence without any kind of correlation is absolutely irrational, though.

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  18. whattoexpectwhenyouaregrowingup

    Yes, I found this rather interesting. As an avid gamer and someone who loves FPS games, I find it hard to believe that it is SOLEY responsible for the crime rate. There are so many crimes reported and many are used to blame the media, technology and films. Whilst I understand that SOME times it can be a trigger, it isn’t the sole reason and for a starter, why is a 9-year-old playing/watching violent video games to start with anyway? Good article, I found it interesting.

    Like

  19. Impressive and intelligent article. Violence and people doing violence are difficult subjects, that need a lot of exploration, but it’s always easier to point the finger against the “evil thing” that corrupts the poor innocents. A rather simplistic way of looking at life.

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  20. I have a mixed view on this. On one hand, overexposure to violence does desensitize people in modern day society, however blaming an 8-bit PC game (Minecraft) on a child becoming violent is completely ridiculous.

    http://meekleaf.wordpress.com/

    Like

  21. Congrats for this quality article. This is the truth.

    Like

  22. Great post. As a long time gamer I always like to see people explain rationally and with great reason how videogames do not cause people to do things. Mental instability is usually a big factor in their behavior. But I guess videogames are just a bit more sexier than porn to blame things on. No worries, something even sexier will come along soon enough.

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  23. Your posts are AWESOME! You should make more posts like this!!

    Like

  24. Your conclusion is in line with my own opinion about the news. The media loves it when they can say: See, things are like this, just like we told you! This is because the people reading them are a target audience like in any other business indeed. But it has an effect on them too. They tend to have that same feeling about the treated topics, confirming that they are “right”. They are not incited to rethink their opinion about those topics enough, though there are exceptions of course. And like you stated brilliantly, it’s not only about the content, but also choice of topics.
    Thanks for this post!

    Like

  25. Violent video games only beget violent behavior when the person who begins to play them is inherently violent to begin with.

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  26. I absolutely hate the press when they seem to constantly be on the back of video games, but it also annoys me how hypocritical they are. One day they’ll be making games out to be this evil creation that is polluting the minds of children. But then the next day you see them celebrating games like GTA V for selling 1 billion dollars of games in a weekend, and they call video game developers the new captains of industry. It’s ridiculous, the press are just hypocrites designed to sell papers or advertising space and that’s it.

    Like

  27. Reblogged this on imalloutofclever and commented:
    Some food for thought on media depictions of “violence in videogames.”

    Like

  28. I see this all the time and it drives me crazy. At one point, I did consider going into journalism simply because I want to have access to the facts. As to science and this particular matter, I think there may be studies that show low positive correlation between video game violence and individuals being desensitized to violence in general, but they certainly don’t create crazy, homocidal people.

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  29. Wow great article. It mirrors my own thoughts on the media to the tee.

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  30. What about the role parents play : http://wp.me/p3XZqY-21 Are Your Kids Really That Important

    Like

  31. The problem is the media isn’t there to report news anymore. It isn’t journalism, it’s opinion papers. Basically it’s just a bunch of bloggers on TV and newspaper.

    Just like the media dubbed “Halo Killer” (http://sunrie.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/23-to-life-for-halo-killer-s/), the media is so ignorant of the truth it’s mind boggling. Hell, GTA takes place in the areas is does for a reason (http://sunrie.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/why-grand-theft-auto-takes-place-in-the-cities-it-does/)

    I play violent video games all the time and I haven’t killed anyone because of it. That was what my time in the military was for. Yet, I will not hesitate to defend myself, but it isn’t because of the games.

    Like

  32. I’d like to suggest the book On Killing, if you would like to understand the psychological correlation. Many current books show the neurological correlation. Finally, consider this: if first-person shooter games are not effective ‘training tools,’ then why is obstreperous Uncle Sam using them to train shooters?

    Like

  33. Reblogged this on Seattle Stay at Home Dad and commented:
    Greetings, friends and readers. I’d like to take a moment to share this post from a fellow blogger. It relates to the ever popular media target – Video Games (cue the ominous and dramatic music). You have probably heard this debate at some point in the time since video games began depicting violence. I’m not going to add anything new, here, I’m just going to say, that, as a parent that has spent many hours visiting various varieties of violence via video games (always wanted to alliterate publicly), I have never used violence to solve my problems. Just saying…

    Don’t believe everything you read.
    Don’t ignore your children.
    Don’t let your children listen to Justin Bieber

    Like

  34. Hope you don’t mind the reblog. Enjoyed your post.

    Like

  35. wtf. y do people do this?!

    Like

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