The Trouble with First Person Shooters is Deeper than First Person Shooting

In my tech filled life, I often hear the argument that “video games don’t make people more violent” — and maybe this is true. However, what is also true, is that a lot of mass shooters played violent video games.

Nick Cruz, of the Stoneman Douglass shooting, spent 12 to 15 hours a day playing video games where he was killing people and blowing things up. Adam Lanza, of the Sandy Hook shooting, had killed racked up over 83,000 kills in “Combat Arms”, his favorite video game.

There is some evidence that Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, was an avid counter strike player, but it’s hard to get accurate information about it because it was a while ago, and it looks like the video game industry leaned on the media to remove references to it. (Many outlets repeated arguments that “no video games were found with his belongings” but counter strike is an online game, not a console game meaning there doesn’t have to be a physical copy.)

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, of the Columbine shooting, were avid video game players — and actually went on their shooting spree after their video game privileges had been revoked.

In fact, it was hard to find a mass shooter who didn’t play violent video games. Omar Mateen, who shot up the night club in Florida, may not have been an obsessive game player (although he may have been — I couldn’t land conclusively either way.) But, he definitely played video games as a child (of course nowadays who hasn’t?) and I found a picture of him playing a first person shooter arcade game, so he wasn’t video game free. He’s ambiguous enough that I’m not going to count him. The only compelling evidence I could find of a mass shooter who almost certainly didn’t play violent video games was the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, and both his similarities and differences from the aforementioned shooters reveal a bit about the role of video games and violence.

First, I should note, that while Paddock probably didn’t play shooters, he was an obsessive gambler. He was obsessed with video poker, and extremely good at it, willing to sit at a machine for 24 hours straight. His professional gambling exploits likely supplemented his income, but more than that, they brought him status at the casino. As a relatively high stakes better, the casinos would often offer him suites, limos and food to keep courting him.

It is interesting to note that the form of Paddock’s shooting was different. All the other shooters ran into a place with guns loaded, effectively, real-world re-enactment of a first person shooter. Paddock, however, did a calculated sniper deal from a hotel room. I would believe these differences in execution could be attributed to game choice.

However, I’d also argue that, although the form of the games these men chose was different, the emotional payout for all these men was similar. They were all men without much social standing in the world, and video games gave them an avenue to feel important. For Paddock, he got actual real world reinforcement of his specialness in the form of limos; for many of these people, the only reinforcement would have been online.

It reminds me of a quote from the movie, Million Dollar Baby. The narrator of the movie, Scrap, describes Maggie (the protagonist who goes on to become a successful female boxer) like this: “She grew up knowing one thing: she was trash.” The initial arc of the movie was a story of redemption, that Maggie was able undo her “trash-ness” by learning how to fight. It is an arc deeply familiar in American cinema.

These men, they grew up knowing one thing: they were trash. And how do you redeem yourself from being trash in America? With violence.

This is something I know myself, personally. When I was in middle school and high school, I was something of an oddball outsider. I was teased, and socially isolated, and went through periods of being pretty miserable. And, like so many other people, I found my redemption through violence. In 8th grade, I joined the wrestling team, and continued wrestling through my first year in college. I took pride in wrestling, in my wins, and felt a unique kind of connection with my teammates I hadn’t known before. I went from being the weird outsider girl to being the girl had a lot of hot, popular boys as her friends and I was willing to give everything to wrestling.

In college, it wasn’t quite the same and they didn’t have a weight class light enough for me. Add to that, the fact that I was at MIT — a school known for its academics and not its athletics — and it just seemed no longer worth the tradeoff in my grades. So, I quit. What I didn’t expect, though, was after I quit I had a mental breakdown. Much of my self worth was tied up in my wrestling successes, and without it, I was no one. I couldn’t keep my shit together, I cried all the time, fucked up my classes, and ultimately ended up taking a term out of MIT. I didn’t really understand what was happening in the moment, but reflecting on it after my time off, I told my parents “I think quitting wrestling hit me harder than I thought it would.”

When you’re no one, when you are trash, you’re willing to do anything to stop feeling that way. And it isn’t always even about being bullied, sometimes it’s just about being ignored. I wasn’t the first girl to join the wrestling team at my school, but I was the first to get through 4 years of it in high school, and I was the first one to be made a captain. Truth is, I wasn’t a particularly good athlete in other sports, and I wondered why other women — women far more athletic than me — had failed where I succeeded. And, I think the reason is, those girls were a lot more popular and well liked than I was. They had other avenues of self worth; I had nothing. I was willing to tolerate cutting weight, misogyny from other teams, injury and physical pain so long as I didn’t have to keep feeling like trash. (Note: women’s wresting is always becoming more normalized, and I think there were many great female wrestlers who followed me who were both popular and good wrestlers.)

For almost a decade after quitting wrestling, I missed it deeply. Nothing gave me the satisfaction wrestling did, not “more important” things like my work, nor “mind expanding” things like drugs or travel. I used to dream about it, at night, dream about going back to school and being on the team again. Sometimes, I’d think about joining the army, but rationally I disagreed with America’s decisions for going to war. Rationally, I objected, but emotionally, part of me was drawn to it. If I’d been among people who were more pro war, I think I probably would have done it.

What eventually shook my mind out of a craving for violence was Zen. Not so much the practice of it, which I’d been doing for years, but beginning to practice with a community. While I’ve always had friends since high school, what I found in my Zen practice was a community that accepted me, that valued me. I came to see that that my cravings for violence were actually cravings to be valued. After that, my dreams about being on the wrestling team mostly stopped, and I stopped secretly researching about joining the army in my spare time. Now, it seems almost unimaginable to me that I had ever wanted to join the army; it’s not something I’d ever feel now.

When I was in a community that valued non-violence, I valued non-violence in a way that transcended rationality. Rationally, I’d always been anti-violence, but found “ethical” ways of expressing my violence (and, was often secretly drawn to expressions of violence that violated my ethics.) When in community that held deeply non-violent values, a community that explicitly honored individual examples of non-violent humans, my drive for violence dissipated. I had no deep innate drive for violence; I had an innate drive to be valued and accepted.

It is not a coincidence that most of these mass shooters are “loners” to some degree. Video games or not, these are all people who don’t feel accepted and valued — which is of course, the first level of the problem. If everyone felt accepted and loved, yes, I don’t think we’d have any mass shooters.

However, most loners and rejects don’t become mass shooters. I didn’t become one, for example. And that’s because, when those of us “who are trash” are grappling for something to help us “not feel like trash,” we all settle on something different. Had I found Zen in middle school, I probably would never have even known what the craving for violence felt like. Had I joined the army, I might actually have killed some people by now. Had I gone into weapons research or programmed drones (not an uncommon profession for MIT grads) my work may have contributed to the deaths of thousands.

My life could have gone many different ways with respect to violence, and it all hinges on one thing; who were the people willing to accept and support me? I had one advantage most shooters don’t have, and that is I was a raised in a family that was mostly anti violence (which is where my rational stance against violence came from, and perhaps ultimately, why I didn’t join the army even though part of me wanted to.) But, even a non-violent upbringing can’t counteract the influence of our culture as a whole.

People who debate the question “do violent video games make people violent?” are missing the mark; the question is, “why do we want to play violent video games?” Why do we keep making them? What is appealing about about performing 83,000 virtual murders?

I think part of it is the kind of people we respect. To a large degree, we respect people who have served in the military, and I can see how this came from a place that makes sense. People in the military do difficult things, and often risk their lives, and I think initially it was this kind of sacrifice that we respected. However, over time, it became less about valuing sacrifice and more about valuing power. Civilians started wearing military fatigues and wanting to get big guns to for themselves to get part of the respect that the military gets. However, these people hadn’t made the sacrifices that people in the military do.

Why risk your life in service when you can get a similar feeling from a gun collection in your house? In true capitalist form, salesmen pretend that you can buy that which really has to be earned.

Many violent video games have a kind of militaristic vibe to them, and I think it gives people — a little bit — the feeling that they’re doing something epic, or something noble. Now, if you’re a well adjusted person with friends and other avenues of self worth, you can kind of just play for a bit and roll it off. However, if this is the only thing in your life that makes you feel good, well, maybe you start thinking different thoughts. Maybe you start thinking about how you can start getting the respect you have in the virtual world in the real world.

James Gilligan was the head psychiatrist of the Massachusetts prison system, and spend decades exploring what made the most violent criminals tick. He said this of people who commit armed crimes: “when you sit down and talk with people who repeatedly commit such crimes, what you hear is, ‘I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I first pointed a gun at somebody.’”

The underlying emotional motivation behind big, violent crime, he argues, is shame.

The secret is that they feel ashamed — deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed, over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them, so that they are ashamed even to reveal what shames them. And why are they so ashamed of feeling ashamed? Because nothing is more shameful than to feel ashamed.

Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic by James Gilligan

Aka, these men grew up knowing one thing: they were trash.

Unfortunately, as a culture, we are fairly reluctant to implementing any sort of change based on this knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from a one star review of Gilligan’s book on Amazon:

James Gilligan is more concerned on finding the “why” in violence, without acknowledging the possiblity of true evil in the world. He assumes that 1.)if society changed by showing respect to everyone, including violent criminals, 2.) Society dropped the pressure of masculinity and aggression on males, 3.) We changed prisons to happier hospital/mental clinic atmosphers, 4.) we stop capital punishment…. That we could stop ALL violent Behavior! He talks nothing of the possiblity of true evil in the world or of one’s personal choice to act violent. Call it sin, devil’s influence, or just selfishness and lack of sympathy/empathy, but there are people in this world that actually ENJOY doing bad things to others. There are people who grow up with a Mom/Dad who love them, and they still do violent acts. James Gilligan refuses acknowledgement them.

I don’t care if he did manage to drop the murder rate in the MA state prison he was working at…..His ideas are stupid and laughable.

I think that last line is pretty telling — “I don’t care if he did manage to drop the murder rate in the MA state prison he was working at…..His ideas are stupid and laughable.”

As part of American culture, the feelings of self worth we get from redemptive violence is something we’re unwilling to give up, even at the cost of other people’s lives. And you know, I get it, I really do. I was a fucking avowed pacifist who secretly wanted to join the army, so I’m not throwing any stones here.

Would gun control or limiting violent video games help? I think it would, if you could get it, but people who are relying on these methods to prop up their self worth are going to fight you every step of the way. Before these things even have a chance to pass, we’re going to need to find other avenues for people to find self worth. We’re going to have to stop idealizing people who kill, even people who kill “bad guys.”

Superhero narratives, for instance, I believe to be one of the most toxic influences in our society in part because no one thinks they’re bad. There’s been a push for more super heroes, girl superheroes, gay super heroes, or whatever. But, ultimately, if we continue to hold up “justified” violence as the ultimate and most respectable form of action, people who want respect will keep finding ways to justify their violence.

Truth is, there is very little violence that can be justified. We are not a world with evil villains, but a world full of flawed and messy people, some of whom do terrible things. School shooter Jesse Osborne kissed his bunny, Flopsy, right after killing his father but before murdering a six year old child, Jacob Hall. He was not a person incapable of affection, but rather, a boy fascinated by the idea of being “the youngest” or “most successful” school shooter ever (he failed.) Reflecting in his confession to the police, he said this:

“Now I have a life,” Jesse announced near the end of his confession. “Probably won’t get a job, but I’ll — I’ll at least have a life.”

He thought he “was somebody” after committing violence, and if our argument is only that “he killed the wrong people” I think we’re off the mark. There just aren’t enough bad guys out there for everyone who wants to “have a life” to kill; we need to find other ways for people to “have a life.”

On a personal level, we need to stop honoring “the good killers.” We don’t need to vilify them; in fact, I think that would be counterproductive. We just need to stop telling their narratives. To the degree that we honor the military, we should honor those who have suffered, and we should honor those who have saved lives. However, we should not try to make “the look and feel” of military clothing and weaponry trendy, and I would argue that, if possible, any medals or other honors should be given out of uniform. Not because there’s anything wrong with the military uniform, but because a bunch of nut jobs are going to play copy cat and dress up in camo to play military make believe on a series of 4th graders.

By valuing the aesthetics of military service, we turn it into a commodity that people try to purchase for their own self aggrandizement.

We also need to create communities, either virtual or physical, where we give acceptance and love for non-violent behaviors. It is this one, I think, that will be the most difficult, but also the one that will have the greatest payout. Our virtual world has destroyed a lot of our old community supports, and people are turning to some of the few remaining narratives for their self worth.

At the end of the day, the deep problem isn’t the first person shooters or guns. It’s what our attachment to these objects is telling us about ourselves.