This morning, Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced legislation in the Senate “to arrange for the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of violent video games and violent programming on children.” It’s depressing to see lawmakers rushing after diversions in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, when the conversations we ought to be having should be about gun control and mental health treatment, among other structural factors. And it’s even worse when you consider that Rockefeller’s wholly redundant bill has hit the floor of Congress before any gun legislation was introduced.
Part of what makes Rockefeller’s request that the National Academy study video game violence so frustrating to watch is that the Academy’s done just this before. The 1999 Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children Protection Act included a provision that had the Secretary of Education contract the Academy to study the origins of school violence, including “the impact of cultural influences and exposure to the media, video games, and the Internet.” Katherine Newman, the Johns Hopkins professor who lead up that team, wrote in Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, her later book on the subject, that “Millions of young people play video games full of fistfights, blazing guns, and body slams. Bodies litter the floor in many of our most popular films. Yet only a minuscule fraction of the consumers become violent. Hence, if there is an effect, children are not all equally susceptible to it.” In other words, finding out why a very small number of consumers are overly influenced by popular culture may be more useful than trying to measure the uneven and diffuse influence of movies, television shows, and games.
And that isn’t the only work the National Academy has done on video games and other media. The National Academies Press has published Deadly Lessons, a study of school shootings, that is non-committal on the question of whether there is a causal link between consuming violent media and violent behavior. Academics have presented literature reviews of the work on media’s influence on children and young adults to the National Academies of Science National Research Council Board on Children, Youth and Families. This is not a question the National Academy needs prodding from Sen. Rockefeller to consider, or that’s been ignored by other research organizations.
But it is a question the National Rifle Association and other gun control opponents would love to see energy diverted to. In a Fox News story about the NRA’s much-delayed press conference that suggested the lobby would seek to shift the debate to culture rather than to weapons bans, an anonymous source was quoted as saying: “If we’re going to talk about the Second Amendment, then let’s also talk about the First Amendment, and Hollywood, and the video games that teach young kids how to shoot heads.” That’s different from the kind of measured research that might debunk a causal link between entertainment and shootings. But it demonstrates how easily this sort of conversation can be employed as camouflage.
I have no objection to the idea that we should take the time to consider issues carefully and to introduce closely tailored legislation that will best address our policy needs. And at least Rockefeller’s bill calls for a study, rather than, say, banning first-person shooter games outright. But if the lawmakers who represent us are going to rush to respond to urgent social problems to score political credit, it would be nice if they prioritized substance instead of distractions.