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Of Virginia Tech and video games: will somebody please do the math? April 25, 2007

Posted by @Doc in Blacksburg, Counter-Strike, Jack Thompson, Seung-hui Cho, Video Games, Virginia Tech.
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Video games killed those kids at Virginia Tech!!! So said self-credentialed media scholar Jack Thompson, whose uninformed hissy fit commenced roughly eight seconds after the shooting ended. Of course, FAUX News was happy to hand him a mic and point a camera at him.

If only they’d taught math at Jack Thompson’s school. Hard to blame him too much, though, because when it comes to the myth of powerful media effects the whole country seems incapable of parsing even the most basic statistics.

Let’s leave aside, for just a second, that Seung-Hui Cho was apparently driven into a homicidal rampage by a game he didn’t even play (that would be some powerful influence right there). Let’s just examine the plausibility of the assertion.

Assume, for the sake of argument:

  • a million kids play Counter-Strike, the game in question;
  • one of them goes nuts and commits a mass murder;
  • the other 999,999 … don’t.

What can we conclude from this set of circumstances, class?

The answer: in 99.9999% of cases, Counter-Strike players don’t go out and kill people. (Somebody double-check my math and make sure I have enough 9s after the decimal point, would you?) But in America, we form conclusions and propose policy based on the .0001% exception instead of the 99.9999% rule. In fact, we’ve been trying to do it since the late 1920s, when researchers first took up the question of media effects on behavior. 80 years later the attempt to make that case is as weak as it ever was. Can mediated stimuli contribute to anti-social behavior in some subjects if a number of other factors are also present? Sure – but there’s a buttload of ifs and variables in that equation, and with severely disturbed cases like a Cho or an Eric Harris (just tossing out a name here – according to a lot rocket surgeons out there it was the devil KMFDM that made him do it) even if you establish a correlation of some sort you still have indicated direction: did violent media make him do it, or was he attracted to violent media because of a homocidal disposition? (And spare me the Bobo Doll, okay? As staged lab stunts go that was a good one, but I’ve never seen anything credible that ties it to real-world behaviors like we talking about here.)

Violence in American media and society is an ungodly complicated soup of millions of factors, and witless demagogues like Thompson do us no favors when they try and reduce massively complex issues to inanely simple pronouncements (although that’s certainly how one goes about grabbing attention and power in an undereducated society).

When Thompson’s 15 minutes are up, though, I want to invite him over for a night of high-stakes gambling. He looks like a guy with money and I figure if I can get somebody with his head for odds and probability to bring his wallet I can pay off the house in no time flat.

[Thx to Jade23 for the tip.]

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Comments»

1. ChenZhen - April 25, 2007

Everyone seems to want to point the finger somewhere on this. I finally had to change the channel last week when Larry King brought Dr. Phil onto the show.

Violence in American media and society is an ungodly complicated soup of millions of factors, and witless demagogues like Thompson do us no favors when they try and reduce massively complex issues to inanely simple pronouncements (although that’s certainly how one goes about grabbing attention and power in an undereducated society).

Yep. To me, this kid was the perfect storm (combination of many factors).

Good post.

2. Sam Smith - April 25, 2007

Somebody has to be blamed and it has to be SIMPLE. The fact that it’s complex doesn’t serve our need for instant gratification. Blame somebody and hang ’em quickly – American Idol comes on in five minutes.

3. Tom Jackson - April 30, 2007

Jack Thompson is a dick.


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