Playing video games has been a favorite hobby of mine for as long as I can remember. I've played all kinds, from the famous EA football franchise Madden to Bethesda's open world adventure game Skyrim and everything in between, including most parents' worst nightmare: Grand Theft Auto.
I first came in contact with GTA when I was in fifth grade. I watched my older brother play GTA 3 on Playstation 2 after school and the freedom of driving cars wherever you wanted to intrigued me. My parents never had an issue with this. My brother and I both were too young to buy the game in the first place because of its "Mature" ESRB rating, so my parents, after reading the rating and looking into it, got it for us.
Since then I have played almost all of the games released by Rockstar Games, the controversial company behind the GTA series. Yes, most are violently over-the-top in their own way. But I've played the games for years, and I am an average, non-violent 23-year-old. The games did not leave me with the type of lasting damage that for some reason so many people think video games have the superpower ability to do.
The latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series was released this week. The game's record-breaking sales have garnered a lot of news coverage, as has the D.C. Navy Yard shooting. I am not surprised both have been such big news stories, but I was shocked when I started reading and hearing speculation that the two events somehow correlate.
According to a Fox News story, Aaron Alexis, the gunman behind the tragic Navy Yard shooting, used to "immerse himself in violent video games for hours on end." He was "skilled at these games" and even "played first-person shooting games online." Wow. This guy seems like a really rare breed so far. Further down in the story however, more details behind the gunman come out.
"While some neighbors and acquaintances described him as 'nice,' his father once told detectives in Seattle that his son had anger management problems related to post-traumatic stress brought on by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also complained about the Navy and being a victim of discrimination."
How a quote like that is so buried in this story does not make much sense to me. Adding insult to injury, Fox News (after mentioning other mass killers who played video games) has quotes from Bruce Bartholow, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. Of course, the topic of the quote is violent video games, not Alexis' reported history with anger issues... or post-traumatic stress... or being a victim of discrimination.
Here is the exact quote: "From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behavior is violence."
News flash: Rewarding players does not automatically mean the player will then do said behavior in real life. If I am playing Madden and my character catches a 50 yard touchdown pass, I sadly will not suddenly be able to do that on a football field. If my character climbs a building in Assassins Creed, I won't instantly learn to scale a building.
At the end of the day, Bartholow is right though: Video games do reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior, which many times is violent. But believe it or not, parents also have the power to reward their children for good behavior. Parents are also excellent teaching tools. In fact, they are much better teaching tools than video games. So are teachers. The list goes on and on.
Using video games as an excuse for poor parenting combined with this country's growing lack of interest in mental health care is not fair for the video game industry.
According to this USA Today interactive map, the National Alliance on Mental Illness gave America an overall grade of D for its mental health care. Two years later and multiple budget cuts later, the ratings have not improved.
This, along with our great country's gun laws (or lack thereof) need to be the main focus of the media and citizens when mass shootings and tragedies occur; the morals of a video game character the killer(s) may have controlled should not shoulder the blame. A potential killer's upbringing, mental health and access to guns shed a lot more light into their personal lives than how many kills they had in a Call of Duty game.