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Video games a flash point in Connecticut school rampage's aftermath

| Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Chris Ruffner of Mt. Washington browses the selection of video games on Thursday at Family Video in Whitehall. Violent games, such as the popular “Call of Duty” series, are under scrutiny as a result of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

The National Rifle Association and others call violent video games a spark for real-life brutality.

But those urging increased scrutiny of the industry because of reports that such video games enthralled the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter should look to previous efforts. Scholars warn that past attempts to regulate the industry fell flat, sometimes on free-speech grounds.

Research links violent gaming with aggressive tendencies, but no studies definitively peg them as a cause of fatal attacks, researchers said.

“I wouldn't be surprised to see different legislatures or different politicians introducing measures, trying to see if we can have more studies of kids and violent games. It's a high-profile thing,” said Mia Consalvo, a faculty member and Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design at Montreal-based Concordia University.

“Unfortunately, it's one thread among many,” Consalvo said. “It's kind of looking for an easy solution when there probably isn't one.”

Adam Lanza, 20, who killed his mother before fatally shooting 20 children, six adults and himself on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., played graphic video games such as “Call of Duty,” according to published reports.

Within days of the massacre, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced legislation that would order the National Academy of Sciences to investigate how violent video games affect children and to report findings within 18 months.

“I have long expressed concern about the impact of the violent content our kids see and interact with every day,” Rockefeller said.

NRA leader Wayne LaPierre picked up the theme last week, flaying “vicious, violent video games” as “the filthiest form of pornography.” The NRA did not respond to a Tribune-Review interview request.

Ed Kowalski, 43, of New Kensington said his three stepkids' grades went “through the roof” after they cut back on video games. He said the kids — ages 13, 10 and 8 — often have trouble focusing after playing for extended periods.

“These things take kids into oblivion,” Kowalski said. “We believe those age restrictions are important for any kid.”

Industry observers said video game criticism is nothing new. A rating system begun in 1994 took shape as technology allowed manufacturers to sell more realistic games. Senate hearings pushed the industry to develop the ratings.

It's up to retailers to verify a buyer's age for purchases of games rated “M” for mature or “AO” for adults only, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board. A representative for the rating board would not comment, and another key industry group, the Entertainment Software Association, did not respond to calls.

The rating board's website says national retailers refuse to sell M-rated games to underage customers 87 percent of the time, according to a federal review.

The U.S. Supreme Court invoked First Amendment rights in June 2011 when it rejected a California law that would have banned sales to anyone younger than 18. Five years earlier, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional a Michigan law that barred retailers from selling such games to minors. In Utah, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman vetoed a 2009 bill that would have punished stores for selling M-rated games to minors.

State Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who introduced the ill-fated California bill, said the video game industry since has “done a better job of voluntarily limiting the sale of games to children.”

Ohio State University professor Brad Bushman has studied video games and not found a direct causal connection between violent games and extreme behavior.

So many factors fuel violent conduct that it's impossible to identify video games as a singular cause. It's especially complicated to study because ethical researchers cannot give guns and knives to video game fans just to see what happens, he said.

At the same time, Bushman said, research has found ties between violent gaming and generally aggressive behavior. He said the industry could put warning labels on violent games and make it harder for children to buy M-rated games on the Internet.

“I'd be more surprised if Adam Lanza did not play violent video games than if he did play violent video games. Almost everyone his age does,” though few become murderers, Bushman said.

The industry evolved its approach over the years, adding a feature that lets gaming system owners lock out adult games, Consalvo said.

“I think we can ask why, as a culture, we enjoy so much violent content, not just in games but in film and television — and why that's so appealing,” she said. “But that's a much larger conversation.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or Associated Press contributed to this report.

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