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They vary in size, shape and color, but today’s newest breed of killers, whether they mass murder at random or select victims individually, have at least one trait in common: They’re young people obsessed with their joysticks who’ve seriously lost a grip.
Sometimes, in the throes of a major mental meltdown, they’ll go online and start spewing streams of vitriol and threats before they strike, broadcasting in busy chatrooms, or on Facebook and Twitter, vague warnings about the bad things to come which are usually only understood in retrospect. That’s what Tucson Shooter Jared Loughner did in 2011 before he showed up heavily armed at a political event hosted by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and, with his now-infamous smirk, opened fire on the crowd there, killing six and wounding 14, including Giffords herself.
Sometimes they’ll just withdraw to a quiet corner to sketch out their dark fantasies in advance, and, as a hint, or maybe to shock, privately share these demented doodles with somebody they know. These ones are upping the stakes when they do that, gambling at getting caught whilst all the while fastidiously stockpiling an arsenal of assault weapons, thousands of rounds of ammo, and an array of homemade bombs. Like James Holmes did in 2012 before he made his appearance in front of a packed Colorado theater in full military regalia and a gasmask, and launched the largest civilian-on-civilian massacre in U.S. history, leaving a dozen moviegoers dead in only a matter of minutes and 58 more maimed for life.
And sometimes, as with the recently apprehended adolescent killer, Austin Sigg, they delude themselves into believing they’re keeping a low profile as they undertake a series of slayings, lurking in the bushes and shadows where they think nobody will notice them, yet still creeping out most everyone in the community with their sinister demeanor and transparent motives. Although Sigg was a dedicated student of mortuary science and forensics, in the end it wasn’t his sloppy crime-scene manipulations, but rather his soulless eyes and homicidal leering that ultimately betrayed him as a murderer. And few who personally knew this porn-addled video gamer were surprised at all to learn it was he who had abducted, raped, murdered, and dismembered 10-year-old schoolgirl Jessica Ridgeway—including his own mother.
As a matter of fact, none of these three youths really fooled anyone. As they descended into madness, their aberrations and deadly fixations had become more and more apparent to their families, friends, teachers, and colleagues. They dropped out of school, or failed critical courses, or were banned from attendance for bizarre behavior and outbursts, and even reported to the authorities.
Weeks, months, years, nobody knows exactly how long it took for this to happen, but somehow these avid gamers had become raving lunatics. At best, a potential danger to themselves. At worst, an outright threat to society.
But were Loughner, Holmes and Sigg simply born like this, ticking time bombs of terror genetically destined to explode someday, or were their virtually-violent hobbies to blame for cultivating and unleashing their criminality?
Only their physicians can rule on that with any certainty; only extensive medical testing will show conclusively if the youths were drawn to violent gaming because of preexisting psychosis, or if it was violent gaming alone that drew them to the brink. But it’s interesting to see that there’s still a heated debate over whether habitually indulging in these kind of video games promotes aggressive tendencies or not.
The controversy is fairly unwarranted, however, since at least a decade’s worth of scientific research has proven it surely does.
Some of the starkest findings to date on the negative effects of repetitively playing violent video games come from a recent and comprehensive study conducted over a four-year period by scientists at Brock University. In it, researchers tracked the gaming habits and disciplinary histories of approximately 1,500 Canadian high school students as they matured, 49 percent of them males and 51 percent females. The results, published this year in the Journal Of Developmental Psychology, show a clear linkage between prolonged violent video gaming and increases in hostile behavior, in both the boys and the girls.
Needless to say, for being such a popular pastime, that has some very troubling implications: “This is an important and concerning finding, particularly in light of the hours that youth spend playing these games," the study’s lead researcher said. “It is clear there is a long term association between violent video games and aggression.”
That definitive report aids in bolstering equally disconcerting conclusions made in previous research studies from around the world. Below are just a few findings that gaming advocates aren’t too pleased with:
1. In 2008, a joint study by Stockholm University, Uppsala University and Karolinska Institutet found that, even from only short gaming sessions, there were long lasting physiological effects produced in males who played violent video games;
2. In 2010, in a study carried out by Ohio State University and Central Michigan University, researchers discovered that, at least for male subjects, ruminating about having played a violent video game increased the game’s potency for causing aggression long after it was turned off;
3. In 2011, scientists at the University of Missouri measured the brain responses of 70 young adult participants to learn precisely how the act of violent gaming provoked aggressive behavior. They discovered diminished brain responses to scenes of violence shown right after games were finished, and that the lower the brain response was in a particular subject, the higher their level of aggression was.
Understandably, the loudest critics of such damning evidence come from the gaming world itself, and, naturally, from the mega-billion-dollar industries that wantonly develop and distribute virtual mayhem for mass consumption to both adults and minors.
Often this alliance will point to allegedly declining crime rates to support its contention that programs like Killzone, Hitman, Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call Of Duty, and Mortal Kombat are not harmful products to make or play. Yet, when scrutinizing that data more closely, you’ll find their assertions are patently false because, while murder, forcible rape, robbery, and assault did reach a 10-year low in 2003, ever since that date these offenses have been steadily on the rise again—particularly among the young.
All across the nation police departments are reporting a spike in crimes perpetrated by juveniles, the very same demographic that, according to recent surveys, is involved in video games approximately 40 hours per week. That’s an alarmingly high usage rate for children, by the way, when considering that the only other activity which supersedes their virtually nonstop gaming is sleep.
“Kids are jumping into violence,” Boston’s police superintendant noted as early as 2005, a year that saw an astounding 103 percent surge in weapons arrests for minors in his city, together with a 54 percent increase in robberies. “We’re very concerned.”
Those stats aren’t an anomaly peculiar to Boston, either. For instance, in that same year the Minneapolis Police Department estimated that juveniles accounted for 63 percent of all suspects in assault and property offenses -- up 45 percent as compared with 2002’s crime statistics.
And this wasn’t to be a brief blip that would eventually correct itself. In 2008, the murder rate alone for youthful offenders rose a full 17 percent. Not just in isolated pockets of the countryside or inner city neighborhoods, but for the entire United States.
“We’re trying to figure this out,” a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors had promised, but a glance at the data for ensuing years shows that, while the issue remains a hot topic, it has hardly been fixed. Violent crimes are still trending, and far too many of the perps are kids.
In 2009, the arrest of Missouri teenager Alyssa Bustamente for the premeditated attack and slaying of her 9-year-old neighbor, because she “wanted to know how it felt to kill someone,” highlighted yet another troubling new development for law enforcement: That of the sudden rise of assaults and murders being committed by girls.
Female killers, especially young female killers, have always managed to garner a lot of media attention, but in reality they’re quite an exotic species, a class of offender that’s always been practically nonexistent in the criminal justice system. That would be changing fast by the beginning of the 21st century, though, as the virulent 15-year-old Bustamente and others of her ilk would soon prove.
Although Alyssa Bustamente is said to have killed just once, she actually dug two holes in the woods adjacent to her home at least a week in advance of the gruesome slaughter of Elizabeth Olten. Holes which investigators believe were intended for her own siblings, two younger brothers whom she’d often physically abused, sometimes videotaping these episodes and posting them live on YouTube. Police said Bustamente’s ultimate choice to victimize the child next door was merely a “crime of opportunity” that presented itself to a teen hungering for a thrill kill, and which was probably all that spared the boys.
On the day of the murder, Bustamente had coached a younger sister to lure the Olten girl to their property. Once alone with her, Bustamente beat, strangled and stabbed the child to death, burying her mangled corpse in one of the shallow graves she’d earlier prepared, and covering the spot over with leaves to hide the freshly turned earth. Later in the day, Bustamente would go on to describe the sensation of killing as “ahmazing” and “pretty enjoyable.” Callous words she penned into a diary just before heading off for church.
Coldblooded crimes of this nature are what have prompted prosecutors to start charging dangerous minors as adults and pursuing lengthy jail terms for them. Even though these kids can no longer be put to death or imprisoned for life without parole in the United States, the sentences they do get when treated as adult offenders are still much harsher than those they’d receive if tried in the juvenile courts.
So too, trials aren’t held in secrecy and criminal records aren’t sealed when children are brought to justice in adult proceedings. That means, so long as no gag order is in effect, the media can freely release names and photographs of minors as well as the gory details of their offenses, which, despite sensationalizing these acts to some degree, does help to publicize the fast growing problem of juvenile lawlessness.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 7,100 under-aged defendants were transferred to adult courts in 1998, although within that timeframe not all 50 states had laws enabling such an option. Today, however, every state in the nation has enacted legislation for facilitating juvenile transfers, and, as a result, the number of children charged as adults is estimated to have at least doubled from the past decade.
Prosecuting murderous minors as full grown felons is not done with relish, of course, and the practice is highly criticized in many respected quarters, both here and abroad. But, as is seen by the recent vicious acts of criminal justice student Austin Sigg, who obviously knew wrong from right and yet was morbidly striving to achieve fame as the youngest serial murderer on the books, it’s has become an unpleasant necessity.
“The decision to prosecute a child as an adult is a difficult one,” admitted New York’s former district attorney, Jeanine Piro. “It is not about being ‘hard’ or being compassionate. It’s about recognizing the evil that accompanies a killer’s choice to take a life…”
Yet the threat of stiffer penalties and unflattering coverage in the media doesn’t seem to have deterred youthful offenders one iota, nor has it curbed their insatiable appetite for blood. If anything, the crimes of the young appear to be escalating in gravity and depravity of late, almost as if they’re trying to outdo each other in some kind of insane way. Almost as if hurting or killing is fun.
“Sensational visual images showing hurting as powerful and domination of others as permissible are dangerous,” retired police officer Gloria DeGaetano told ABC News in a 2010 interview. An expert on the subject of juvenile crime and the media, DeGaetano coauthored the book Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill with West Point military psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Grossman too has a great deal of experience in this field; he trains mental health professionals in homicide prevention.
DeGaetano and Grossman’s treatise on how violent media desensitizes young people was first published in 1999, the year that rabid teen gamers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shocked our nation and the world with their bloody schoolyard rampage. The Columbine Massacre these boys carefully planned and heartlessly orchestrated was an unprecedented event at the time, but there’s been so many more school shootings like it since then. Some executed by child marksmen who haven’t even reached their teenage years yet.
DeGaetano believes this is what had to be expected if strenuous efforts weren’t immediately taken long ago to rein in the glamorization of ruthless killers and the marketing to youngsters of killing as a form of home recreation. “I predicted that we would see more 12-year-olds committing unspeakable crimes like mass murder,” she had warned.
And she was right.
But video games are big bucks these days and, in one way or another, almost everyone on the planet enjoys them, proponents of gaming also counter. That claim may be only a mild exaggeration on their part, but, whether the real figure is in the millions or in the billions, it’s important to point out that not all of the interactive programs people find so entertaining are based on the theme of mass murder. That’s relevant to the discussion because, according to all the experts, the less violence a video game contains, the less negative emotional impact it has on its participants. In fact, players of wholly nonviolent video games reportedly exhibit no acts of aggression whatsoever, no matter how many hours a day they devote to them.
Further, studies have shown that engaging in highly competitive violent simulations actually causes physiological changes in players of every age bracket, symptoms which are sustained as long as 24 hours after the game has ended, and which are far more pronounced in males than in females. Indeed, researchers discovered that the longer a player dwells in his mind on the game-play he’s just completed, the longer these adverse effects will last, including elevated blood pressure and an accelerated heartbeat.
It’s not hard to see how, over time, that could have dire consequences on a person’s physical and mental well being, especially because the majority of test subjects stated they weren’t even conscious of any kind of reaction occurring in them during and after the act of gaming. Moreover, almost all reported having no sleep-related difficulties, either.
This strongly suggests there is nothing to clue players in that the thing they are doing for hours upon hours, every day of the week, year after year, is overstressing their brains and bodies. Nothing to tip them off that they need to take a break from such a demanding activity, or else they’ll snap.
Simply put then, violent gaming, when done on a regular basis, is much akin to systematically abusing drugs or alcohol: it’s bad for one’s health and erodes sound judgment. But, as the studies have demonstrated, what makes it such an insidious problem is that, unlike substance abuse, most frequent gamers aren’t the slightest bit aware of what they’re doing to themselves.
And big business isn’t going to endeavor to enlighten them on this, sorry to say. That would be bad for sales. Instead, gaming giants just keep on designing more realistic slayer software, and hooking more unsuspecting “clients” in the process.
As is done with immensely popular products that pose substantial risk to consumers and to others secondhand, manufacturers have resorted to disinformation and misinformation to thwart full disclosure of the dangers of dangerous virtual play, particularly as it relates to children still in the formative years. Coupled with glitzy product packaging and placement, those campaigns have been highly successful ones, and greatly intensified by the very victims of this unregulated industry who, like addicts in denial, protest that their relentless gaming is completely normal and harmless, and that virtual killing is itself totally benign.
Adding to this potpourri of preposterous propaganda is the industry’s routine and disingenuous cry that any regulations attempting to restrict the marketing of exceptionally violent content would constitute “free speech” violations. A farfetched claim that would make most American citizens who know better laugh out loud, if it weren’t for the unfunny fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has baldly granted corporate entities “personhood” status and, hence, awarded these largely-multinational corporations the same constitutional protections as were originally intended only for real people.
Public safety versus corporate profiteering—it certainly is a tangled Web we have created. Nevertheless, any which way the numbers are now tallied and analyzed, they’ll always show us the same bleak picture. And these statistics are getting grimmer and grimmer by the year, the crimes of the young more and more diabolical.
Is playing at slaying to the point of excess truly the cause of all this bloodshed?
The answer is, as they say, an absolute no-brainer. From the once unthinkable massacre at Columbine high school way back in 1999, to the brutal kidnapping and murder of schoolgirl Jessica Ridgeway in 2012, the verdict is finally out on the value of violent video gaming: Virtual violence begets only…violence.
- Eponymous Rox, author of DUNGEONS DRAGONS MURDER