I opened the paper this morning to discover that yesterday, 16-year-old Nicholas Browning pleaded guilty to shooting his parents and his two younger brothers last February. As the story goes, he was playing video games at a friend’s house, and suddenly got up to go home. He used his father’s gun and afterward returned to his friend’s house to play video games, pretending that nothing had happened. The next day he went with his friends to a mall, then (according to one story, also linked earlier in this article) invited a large group over to his house for a party. Upon arrival, he feigned surprise in front of his horrified friends who had been told that his family was out of town for the weekend. Another statement is that a friend’s father drove him home from the mall, and after entering his house Nicholas came outside to tell the father that something was wrong.
I seized upon the video game detail. Whether or not video games are the direct cause of violence is difficult to know, and studies have been done which point both ways on the issue. In the case of Nicholas Browning, there may have been other elements involved–relatives and friends told the defense psychiatrist that they had seen Nicholas being by parents, and that he and his parents abused alcohol as well. Friends recall Nicholas venting a great deal of anger about his father, and that he joked about killing his family. However, I think there is something to Nicholas’ recollection of being in a trance-like state on the night of the killings, and also to the reports that he was playing video games immediately before and after the killings as well as the day following. Nicholas may have played video games every day of his life, so logging several hours in front of a console (his house had two) might not have been unusual, but that doesn’t weaken the point that the teen may have had an unhealthy relationship with video games. It can be hard to distinguish between fantasy and reality, especially when video games are used as a retreat–the world you want to live in and the world you actually live in start to blur together.
In themselves, video games are not necessarily a bad thing, but like any other unchecked addiction, too much time spent with them can lead to trouble. Nicholas Browning certainly represents a worst-case scenario; more often, video game addicts grow alienated from friends and family, or their health suffers from a sedentary obsession. None of the above is acceptable, and it is just one reason why all of us here at the LAMP feel so strongly about media literacy. If you’re worried about violence in your community, media literacy might not take away the guns but it can take away a lot of reasons for pulling the trigger. Violence is glamorized in many aspects of popular culture–as a path to fame, fortune, strength, power, sex and more–and that has to stop. It will stop when we demand that it stops, and not a minute sooner.
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