Can Violent Video Games Play a Role in Violent Behavior?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to our series on the national conversation surrounding guns, violence, and mental health in the wake of the Connecticut shootings. Public officials and other critics have raised concerns about the role of media and culture, particularly violent video games.

Jeffrey Brown explores some of those questions in this report, all part of the weeklong PBS effort "After Newtown."

And a note: The story contains graphic violence.

MAN: And you can just cycle through your weapons and continue going around and killing people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Like tens of millions of young Americans, Ian Binnie plays video games, including the wildly popular "Grand Theft Auto." But on this day, he was mowing down passersby, shooting police officers, and taking close aim at a food vendor as part of a controlled experiment at Ohio State University, where Binnie is a sophomore.

After 15 minutes of intense action, he was asked to answer questions, choose from 34 adjectives, including mean, nervous, scared, strong, to describe his feelings, and even decide how much chili powder to pour into the drink of a would-be opponent, all designed to measure any effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior.

There have been reports that the Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, spent hours playing games such as "World of Warcraft," but nothing so far links that to the rampage that left 20 children dead. Still, as the nation searches for answers, violent media are again under scrutiny.

Psychology professor Brad Bushman, a leading scholar in the field for several decades and the man behind the Ohio State research, says the effects are clearly measurable, and more so with the direct "you pull the trigger" nature of newer 3-D games.

BRAD BUSHMAN, Ohio State University: You are linked to the violent character. If it's a first-person shooter game, you have the same visual perspective as the killer. You get points when you kill people. If you kill enough people, you get to advance to the next level of the game.

You are also rewarded through things that you might hear. If you kill somebody, maybe you hear, "Impressive, nice shot, you are tied for the lead." And you hear these — praise, and we know that reinforcement increases the probability of behavior.

JEFFREY BROWN: How far is Bushman willing to go in terms of the predictive nature of his research?

BRAD BUSHMAN: The results clearly showed that playing a violent video game increases aggressive behavior, and also makes people numb to the pain and suffering of others.

There is a link between exposure to violent media and violent criminal behavior. We can't do experimental studies. It's just a correlation. Correlation doesn't imply causation, but they're related.

JEFFREY BROWN: No experimental studies, he means, with real weapons out in the world. And this, of course, is where things get tricky, defining correlations, factors, causes.

We asked to interview the trade group which represents these video game companies, the Entertainment Software Association, and were turned down. The ESA recommended we talk to Cheryl Olson, a public health expert who co-founded the Harvard Medical School's Center for Mental Health and Media.

CHERYL OLSON, Public Health Consultant: One of the problems in this field is that people confuse aggression and violence. Some research will call sort of a competitiveness-type aggression as equivalent to violence in the real world. There is absolutely no evidence that any video game or violent movie for that matter has ever caused a real-world violent act.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now a consultant, she recently met with Vice President Biden and his task force.

CHERYL OLSON: Playing violent games is a normative behavior for teenagers today, especially boys, but for a lot of girls. It's true…

JEFFREY BROWN: It's part of their life?

CHERYL OLSON: It's true that the Newtown, Conn., shooter apparently played violent video games. But the local kids on your soccer team, your 13-year-old boys who live down the street from you, they're all playing these violent games, too, and they are probably OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, it's not hard to find young high schoolers, as we did in Northern Virginia, who play the games and seem to be well-adjusted and quite thoughtful.

STUDENT: If I'm playing "Call of Duty," I don't, really, like, notice how violent it is. I don't think about, hey, I'm actually shooting this guy. I don't get upset because like they are actually shooting me. I get upset because I'm not — it's more of a competition thing, I feel like.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ian, what do you think? What's your experience?

STUDENT: Like, I definitely notice the action, like the violence and stuff, and, you know, it definitely like resonates within me. But I always try to kind of like separate that whole video game violence, you know, from, like, real violence.

STUDENT: At least what I have seen, video games tend to be a release. It's where the person takes the frustration or the anger that they felt in their own life and they channel it into it.

STUDENT: I don't really notice — aside from, like, really violent video games, like "Gears of War" was one of them — it's just really bloody, like extremely violent. Even my brother and I, when we played for the first time at my cousin's house, we're like, is everyone wearing ketchup packs on themselves? Because there is so much blood.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, that one, you really noticed.

STUDENT: Yes. Oh, yes. That one, it's pretty rough.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you noticed, and therefore — but did you keep playing, or did you…

STUDENT: Yes. No, we played the whole series.

STEPHEN TOTILO, There, I chopped that guy's head off.


STEPHEN TOTILO: Yes, these games are — there's strong stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where did I go?

I tried my hand at "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2," joined by Stephen Totilo, editor of the gaming Web site Kotaku, which covers the $60 billion dollar industry and reviews new games.

STEPHEN TOTILO: I think one thing that people don't understand that well about video games is what it feels like to play them. I encourage anybody who criticizes violent video games to try one.

And I don't think, because, oh, it's going to convert you and you are going to love it and you are going to want to play it. But the experience of playing it is very different, I find, than that of watching it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Playing, says Totilo, is about the challenge and the competition. It's often a social activity, played with friends or online against any number of other gamers around the world. He also insists it's a perfectly valid entertainment form, even if it's not as well understood or respected as, say, TV and movies.

STEPHEN TOTILO: It's a creative form.

I mean, I — one of the issues with violent video games and video games in general is that the creators have a very low profile. It's telling that you are talking to me, a reporter who covers video games for a living.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right.

STEPHEN TOTILO: You're not talking to the person who made "Call of Duty." You are not talking to who made "Grand Theft Auto." They don't speak.

I have met the people who make these games, and they are fathers and mothers. They are people who work out at my gym.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Steyer would agree there's not enough talking, but he's come to a very different conclusion about violent video games.

JIM STEYER, Common Sense Media: No one is suggesting that that's the only reason they went out and committed those horrific acts, but was it a tipping point? Was it something that pushed them over the edge? Was it a factor in that? Perhaps. That's a really big deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, which focuses on media consumption by children. And his concern goes beyond the daily headlines.

JIM STEYER: When we speak about a culture of violence in our society, we're not just talking about the mass killers, the Newtowns. We're also talking about that we, as a society, and many of us as individuals accept violence as part of life because we have become numb to it, being so exposed to it in various forms of media.

JEFFREY BROWN: An earlier outcry against video games, including their portrayal of assaults on women, led the industry to introduce a ratings system in the 1990s, one that's more detailed and explicit than those for movies or records.

But Steyer say it's not enough. His group developed its own system to help parents, and he wants the industry to stop marketing violent games in TV ads during certain times of day. He also thinks some government regulations are called for.

JIM STEYER: I'm a big believer in free speech. Common Sense's motto is sanity, not censorship. But I'm over the age of 18, and we can handle that, and you can, too. But I don't want that game marketed to an 11-year-old or a 12-year-old, and that's what's happened. And so there are extraordinary changes that should happen, first of all voluntarily by the industry, and, second, that kind of marketing and sales practice can be regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, vis-a-vis the industry, it's a kind of a — almost a public shaming or something that you would like to see?

JIM STEYER: I'm in favor of public shaming.

JEFFREY BROWN: But going further may be difficult. The industry has a lot of clout in Washington, and it also has an important legal precedent on its side. A California law banning the sale of violent games to minors was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2011 on First Amendment grounds.

Antonin Scalia's majority opinion said studies of a link between the games and violent behavior were inconclusive. And, as Marcia Coyle told the NewsHour audience that night:

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: He said that there was no long history or tradition in this country of prescribing minors' access to violent content. And he gave, as an example, Grimms' Fairy Tales, which he said were grim indeed. And he said, for example, Cinderella's three evil step-sisters had their eyes plucked out by doves. Hansel and Gretel got rid of their captor by baking her in an oven.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the president unveiled his gun violence prevention proposals in January, he called on Congress to appropriate $10 million for the Centers for Disease Control to study, among other things, possible links to violent video games and media. And some Republicans are also putting a spotlight on the issue.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: Where is the artistic value of shooting innocent victims?

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens next in Washington is unclear.

But back at Ohio State, the research continues. One new focus, whether playing with another person influences aggressive responses once the game and the video mayhem have ended.

GWEN IFILL: There were new reports today about Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. Law enforcement officials told The Hartford Courant they are investigating Lanza's interest in a deadly attack in Norway in 2011 and whether the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary may have been inspired by that massacre.

Anders Behring Breivik was convicted of using guns and explosives to murder 77 people in the summer of 2011. Reporters at The Courant also worked with FRONTLINE on tonight's program, "Raising Adam Lanza."

Here's an excerpt featuring the two reporters and an old friend of the family. It includes some new information about Lanza's attachment to video games.

NARRATOR: The Courant has learned that investigators have speculated privately that Adam may have carried out the shooting in a manner consistent with video gaming, changing his weapons magazine frequently even though it wasn't empty.

Federal agents have told reporters that Nancy and Adam visited shooting ranges together as recently as several months ago.

MAN: She was doing a lot of work on her house. We talked to a contractor who spoke about Nancy taking the boys to the range. She excitedly showed him a rifle that she had acquired in a case, a beautifully crafted piece they said she was very enthusiastic about it.

NARRATOR: Starting in 2010, she purchased guns that Adam would use at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including the Bushmaster assault rifle. But guns were nothing new for Nancy Lanza.

MARVIN LAFONTAINE, Friend: Nancy knew how to use guns. Her father trained her on 35 acres. And I have got a sand pit out there. And I have rifles, and we'd shoot together.

In fact, one of the activities at the Cub overnight weekends was shooting .22s at a rifle range. I think that was the first exposure kids had to a firearm. And they thought, it's fun, you know? Target shooting is fun.

MAN: Did Adam shoot?

MARVIN LAFONTAINE: Yes, they all did. And Adam aspired to be like his uncle.

WOMAN: Really?

MARVIN LAFONTAINE: Yes. He was in the military. And she was very proud of that and she allowed him to believe that, yes, you're going to be like your uncle. And depending on how he turned out, sometimes people can overcome that with, I don't know, medication, counseling, whatever.

They can. They can and do. And I think maybe she was hoping for that. And then one day, I think she realized probably not too long ago there's no way this kid can do this. He's going to — it's not for him. And when she realized that, I think she started to discourage him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: FRONTLINE airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time tonight on most PBS stations.

Also tonight on PBS, "Guns in America" explores the country's enduring relationship with firearms, beginning with the first European settlers to present day. Check your local listings.

And on our website, we examine the gun depicted in art, from movies like "Dirty Harry" to paintings and photographs. Find a narrated slide show on Art Beat.