Following the Sandy Hook massacre, the NRA blamed the frequency of mass shootings in the United States on a culture of violence incubated by games like Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat and movies like American Psycho and Natural Born Killers. Guns don’t kill people, the combination of violent media and a flawed mental health system do.
Last week the Navy Yard shooting was promptly followed by the release of Grand Theft Auto V, an eerie chain of events that brought media’s responsibility for mass shootings back into question. And, unfortunately for violent media, investigators discovered that Aaron Alexis was obsessed with graphic video games, binging on Call of Duty for periods of up to 16 hours at a time. By blurring the line between reality and fantasy, did this violent game inspire Alexis’s rampage? Yes it did—but it is in no way responsible for the actions of this lunatic.
Violence in media has always been a hot issue, and much of the modern debate was instigated by 1971’s A Clockwork Orange. The movie’s graphic depictions of rape and its sadistic characters were accused of inspiring copycat crimes, leading many to categorize this piece of cinema as anarchic propaganda. Fast forward to 1999. The Columbine shooters’ actions had obvious resemblances to The Matrix (the trenchcoat uniforms being the most visible similarity), and the pair was also infatuated with the video game Doom. It’s not a stretch to say that these shooters were inspired by the media that surrounded them.
Still, the media itself cannot be held responsible for their actions. The creators of these video games and films have never supported mass shootings, nor do they intend for their works to influence the horrific actions of the shooters. When creating a film or video game, artists expect their audience to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, and to keep their sick imaginations confined to the realm of fantasy.
But what happens when a piece of media is so sick and demented that anyone who plays it could become desensitized to the horrors it depicts? Many people cite the torture-porn genre of movies like Saw and Hostel as potential muses for serial killers. Should these extreme examples, supposedly made for the sake of exposing audiences to new levels of gore, be placed into a separate category of films that should be held responsible for their audiences’ actions?
The most famous extreme example of these “demented” films and games is JFK Reloaded, a controversial computer game that allowed its player to act the role of JFK’s assassin. Fringe games that appeal to a side of human nature that should not be tapped into might make the most ardent enemies of censorship rethink their stance. Still, these sadistic virtual worlds should bear no responsibility for the actions of their players.
While it is difficult to defend these blatantly offensive games, the cost of not defending them is too great to risk ceding their critics’ points. If these games and films are deemed partially guilty for the atrocities their players commit, censorship will follow. Once this censorship for the sake of security seeps into legislation, artists of all mediums would likely become subject to some sort of regulation. Imagine the MPAA restricting certain films from the general public. This cringe-inducing image warrants unfettered public access to even the most filthy, appalling media.
Violent media is becoming more pervasive in our culture, and public access to it has never been easier. Yet the majority of people who obsess over Grand Theft Auto won’t end up taking to the street with a flamethrower—they know that their video game enjoyment is distinct from any enjoyment outside the virtual universe. It’s a sort of unwritten agreement between the game’s maker and the customer. For some reason, our country has a tendency to breed individuals who violate this agreement.
Once we begin constricting these make-believe worlds with censorship and accusations of complicity in these mass shootings, there is no knowing where the censorship will end. Yes, there are certainly people besides the shooters who should bear some of the responsibility for these mass shootings, but you won’t find their names in the credits for GTA V.