Article By: Stephen G. Metelsky
Previous research on video game violence has revealed a significant relationship between exposure and aggressive behaviour (1) (“Violent video games desensitize youth,” Blue Line, June/July 2008, S.G. Metelsky) as it pertained to the Columbine shooting in 1999.
There also seem to be common underlying precursors amongst the school shooters at Columbine, Taber, Alberta, and Dawson College in Montréal. All three incidents involved perpetrators who had been bullied at school, were immersed in the violent video game culture, and showed signs of susceptibility to the contagion effect (copy cat phenomenon) stemming from some form of violent media.
The shooting at Columbine on April 20, 1999 involved two shooters who killed 13 students and wounded 24. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were addicted to violent video games, particularly ‘Doom,’ which was licensed by the United States Army to train soldiers to effectively kill.2 Harris and Klebold modified the game by superimposing faces of students and teachers who had wronged them in the past onto the faces of victims depicted in the game while obliterating the abilities of the characters to return fire. They played it to the point of intense obsession, constantly rehearsing shooting their victims. Some researchers argue that this repeated exposure to depictions of graphic violence can contribute to desensitization.2
Essentially, real life violence becomes a callous extension of violence that is repeatedly rehearsed within the confines of a violent video game. Behavioural scientists argue that repeat exposure to violent media can lead to a process of desensitization, whereby children develop normative beliefs that aggression is appropriate. There are currently more than 1,000 studies that point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behaviour in some children, six professional/medical organizations noted in a 2000 joint statement.3 Following the tragic shooting at Columbine, information surfaced regarding the climate of bullying that was occurring at Columbine High School. It was learned before the shooting that Harris and Klebold were subjected to an atmosphere of intimidation and bullying by the jocks at Columbine that was allegedly allowed to continue in a condoned, yet festering atmosphere. The future killers were jointly subjected to homophobic comments by other students with no action taken by school administrators, thus allowing the resentment to linger unabated.
The Ontario Ministry of Education is addressing the issues of bullying and other inappropriate behaviours at schools with Bill 157, which came to fruition on Feb.1, 2010. It puts the onus on teachers and other school staff to be responsible and more diligent with inappropriate behaviours. This is a positive step in a proactive direction. However, it is unfathomable to calculate the number of bullying incidents that went unreported and/or by the wayside in Canada and the US between any specified time frame. Overall, the focus has predominantly centered around the violence and aggression the bullies exhibit, with little attention paid to the long-term effects on the bullied students and their pent-up anger and frustration. The addiction to violent video games in conjunction with the simultaneous school victimization became ensconced in a vicious cycle that eventually spiralled out of control for the two Columbine killers. Momentary relief from the hostile environment was achieved by violently re-enacting the shooting of various students and teachers repeatedly in the context of a violent bloody video game. Researchers have subsequently argued that individuals high in hostility are more likely to become aggressive when exposed to violent video games, as opposed to persons low in hostility.4
The Columbine killers were fascinated with many other types of violent media. They were fanatical about the Oliver Stone Movie Natural born killers, which portrayed and somewhat glorified a killing spree by two people. They used the films acronym ‘NBK’ as the code in their journals and home videos. Specific acts and/or scenes may have caused them to become susceptible to the contagion (copycat) effect, but this is mere speculation. From their journals, it was later revealed that they equipped themselves with various explosives, in an attempt to rival the work of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVie. A speculative connection, albeit there’s no actual proof the killers viewed the film, also dealt with the 1995 film, the “Basketball Diaries.” One particular scene involves the main character wearing a black trench coat while shooting six students in a classroom. The immersion into violent forms of desensitizing media played a persuasive role in the violent outcomes of the Columbine killers. The historical significance may also have played a role with the contagion/copycat effect as well. The Columbine shootings occurred on April 20th, also coinciding with the birthday of Hitler. The killers had referenced terrorist bomber McVie, responsible for the April 19 Oklahoma City bombings, coincidentally the same date as the FBI standoff in Waco, Texas.
A mere eight days after Columbine, another school shooting occurred at W.R. Myers school in Taber, Alberta on April 28, 1999. During this incident, 14-yr-old Todd Smith strolled into his school and began firing at students in the hallway, killing one and wounding another with a .22 calibre rifle amongst several rounds of ammunition. Given the mere proximity to the Columbine incident, the Taber shooting was in fact a copycat event. The family of the gunman indicated that their 14-year-old had ‘snapped’ after watching media coverage of the Columbine massacre. Critics have always suggested that there is only a causal connection between violent media and violent behaviour(s), yet there is an overwhelming amount of clear and convincing behavioural evidence supporting this causal connection and thus refuting their claim.
A particular violent video game or movie will not simultaneously create a collective impulse for all viewers to become violent. Researchers have argued that violent youths have been predisposed to violence and desensitization. It is staggering to learn that the average adolescent has viewed approximately 15,000 simulated homicides in various forms of media.5 In 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a statement regarding violent video games, stating that perpetrators in games go unpunished in 73 per cent of all violent scenes, thus reinforcing and teaching that violence is an effective method to resolve conflict.6 To garner additional support that the Columbine coverage created a triggering effect with the Taber shooting, trauma psychologist Doctor Butterworth suggests:
You take a youngster who has that predisposition. You put them in an environment where the media shows these things (violence) and its like a triggering effect. The media doesn’t create, it triggers these people with the disposition.5
The extensive media coverage of Columbine clearly had a propelling effect on the violent behaviour exhibited with the Taber shooting. Clearly, there must have been some extenuating circumstances predating the news coverage of the Columbine incident. A common link between the Columbine shooters and the shooter from Alberta involved the issue of being bullied at school. W.R. Myers students indicated the shooter wasn’t overwhelmingly popular and had been bullied, including teasing and name calling. The shooter’s mother attested to the fact that her son had been routinely bullied and suffered from depression just prior to the shooting.7 According to court documents, Smith had been severely bullied at school, including one particular incident when he was doused with lighter fluid and threatened with being lit on fire. One can only speculate the levels of anger, resentment, and frustration pent up inside him. The Alberta shooter is a rare exception amongst the study of past school shootings in that he did not commit suicide post-incident; rather, the youth was arrested and subjected to the criminal justice system, albeit as a juvenile, to the chagrin of the Crown attorney prosecuting the case, who argued he should be tried as an adult.
The rare exception of a perpetrator surviving such an incident allowed a post-shooting psychological examination. Prior to Smith being released in 2003, a psychologist assessed his rehabilitative progress. Dr.J. Satterberg concluded that Smith still suffered from delusions and was obsessed with violence, primarily with movies and video games. He also concluded that he exhibited no signs of remorse and had a high probability of re-offending.7 Although it is difficult to determine what particular games/movies Smith was obsessed with, one can infer that the commonality between Smith and the Columbine shooters was violent forms of media. This represented an escape from school bullying as a viable forum to realistically vent their anger and revenge vicariously through violent game characters. They channelled this pent-up anger by incessantly playing the games to obsession and eventual desensitization to real-world violence while ensconced in a virtual fantasy sequence that involved revenge and retaliation against the bullies responsible for their frustrated dispositions in the real world.
Dawson College: Montreal, Quebec
A crazed gunman entered Dawson College in Montréal on Sept. 13, 2006 equipped with an assault rifle and long dark trench coat. Kimveer Gill began to shoot at students, killing one and injuring 19 in an incident unique from any other school shooting, as it intermingles the contagion effect and violent video games. The cliché of art imitating life and vice-versa is apparent. First, the killer was deeply obsessed with death and violence that seemed to possibly resonate from being bullied and victimized at school. Prior to the shooting, he had created an online posting under the tag name ‘fatality 666.’ One of the postings captured the following rant:
I am not a people person. I have met a handful of people in my life who are decent but I find the majority to be worthless. It’s not only the bullies fault, but the principal’s fault for turning a blind eye. It’s also the fault of the police. Anger and hatred simmers within me.9
The killer admits in his own words that he is angry at the people who bullied him and hates officials who failed to act and intervene. There may have been other extenuating circumstances that led to these levels of anger and hate, but this quote speaks volumes about bullying and the catalytic effect it had on the killer’s disposition and outlook on society. Aside from the online passages, the killer also posted photographs of himself with various weapons, such as knives and firearms, eerily similar to the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 students on April 16, 2007. Like the Montréal killer, he had a rant filled manifesto accompanied by various photos of him posing with his armoury of handguns. The aspects pertaining to the contagion effect and an obsession to addictive violent video games are intertwined and somewhat convoluted with the Montréal shooter. After the Dawson shooting authorities located a letter in which the killer
praised the two Columbine shooters. Further, it was revealed that he had a deep obsession with violent video games, particularly ‘Postal 2’ and ‘Super Columbine Massacre,’ a game created in April 2005, amid much deserved controversy. It allows the game player to assume the roles of the two gunmen while recreating the Columbine shooting, following them on a fictional adventure in perdition after they commit suicide.
Glorifying Columbine in a realistic video game, enabling countless youths to realistically recreate the actions of the two killers’, is difficult to fathom. Nonetheless, the game was released in 2005. Therefore, not only was the Montréal shooter obsessing and repeatedly re-enacting the Columbine shooting in a virtual world, the lines between virtual world and reality became blurred when he went on his shooting rampage.
The contagion/copy cat effect was present on two levels, the actual Columbine shooting and the video game version of the incident. The killer was obsessed with Columbine prior to the game’s release. One can only speculate that the vicious cycle began to spiral out of control in conjunction with the killers’ vicarious and empathetic view towards the Columbine killers after the game was released. The research has shown that repeated exposure to depictions of graphic violence can contribute to desensitization.2 The bulk of the research has been based on fictional violence as it pertains to video games. The Montréal killer may have been subjected to heightened levels of desensitization based on his repeated exposure to a violent video game rooted in realism. This hypothesis is again supported by the online words of the killer, who wrote:
“Work sucks, school sucks, life sucks, what else can I say? Life is a video game, you’ve got to die sometime.”10
Three psychosocial theories help explain the behaviour(s) exhibited by the shooters in all three incidents. The first is reactive aggression. Connor et al. (2004) define this as an angry defensive response to a particular threat or frustration specifically entailing an act of revenge against someone that has done you wrong.11 This theory applies to all of the shooters, primarily due to subsequent aggressive responses stemming from being bullied at school. Similarly, the next psychosocial approach details the inverse relationship between frustration and aggression, lending credence to explanations for the shooters’ behaviour(s). According to the frustration-aggression hypothesis, Dollard et al. (1939) proposed:
“People who are frustrated, thwarted, annoyed, or threatened will behave aggressively, since aggression is a natural, almost automatic response to frustrating circumstances. Moreover, people who exhibit aggressive behaviour are frustrated, thwarted, annoyed or threatened.”12
All of the perpetrators were subjected to varying levels of bullying at school, causing them to feel frustrated, threatened, and likely annoyed. The aggression and response to the bullying wasn’t instantaneous. All had an outlet to unleash their pent-up anger and frustration – violent video games. Even in a virtual world, it is likely they found some solace within a game that involved alleviating stress by realistically killing people. The Columbine killers even modified their game to incorporate actual students and teachers. The vicious cycle of bullying in conjunction with venting pent up anger/frustration in a video game resulted in tragic circumstances for these perpetrators, along with countless innocent victims. The third psychosocial theory involves displaced aggression, proposed by Denson et al. (2006). The crux of this theory occurs when a person is somehow provoked but unwilling (or unable) to act against the person who initiated the provocation. Essentially, the initial aggression involves retaliating against innocent bystanders who had absolutely no involvement with the source of the conflict, hence acts of aggression that are displaced onto unsuspecting people. This applies to all of the perpetrators discussed in this article.
The Columbine and Taber shootings involved victims who were not even the source of the initial provocations for the killers and who did not bully the perpetrators. Displaced anger was more apparent in the case of the Montréal shooter. The bullying and anger the perpetrator was subjected to were unleashed onto innocent victims in a school the shooter was never a part of, victims with absolutely no connection to the initial sources of conflict. There is no plausible explanation for this displacement of anger. The three common precursors linking the three incidents are not a generalized template for predicting a school shooting. This is a comprehensive examination of the underlying common denominators that were a precursor to each of the three shootings. Other youths may have likely been exposed to a similar set of circumstances involving the three common denominators: bullying, enjoying violent video games and being exposed to other violent media. When these three factors are present it is not an automatic precursor to an outburst of violence. However, the empirical evidence does overwhelmingly suggest a causal connection exists between exposure to violent video games and higher levels of desensitization, thereby leading to a greater tendency for aggression.
The limited research in this area tends to omit other mitigating factors that likely contribute to the vicious cycle of virtual and real-world violence, being the issue of bullying in conjunction with the contagion effect. Albeit limited, the existing research is definitely qualitative in nature. Given the extenuating circumstances of a rapidly advancing society, resulting in greater technology and increased violence in mass media, the quantitative research must continue. The video game market doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The game ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’ was released in Nov. 2009 and has already surpassed the $1 billion mark. The technological quality of the graphics continues to improve. The American military still uses video game technology to teach new soldiers how to effectively shoot and kill in a virtual world. The games are referred to as ‘murder simulators’ in some military circles.
The concerning factor pertains to the same technology being accessible to youths in the form of marketable video games, regardless of the allocated rating system for parental warnings. There have been several shootings in the United States involving youths who have never fired a weapon but were all avid violent video game addicts. The accuracy of fire was more indicative of a seasoned shooter than a youth who had only been exposed to firing weapons inside a virtual video game. An additional component of concern encroaches into the ethical dilemma associated with video games such as Super Columbine Massacre, Grand Theft Auto and 25 to Life. In ‘25 to Life’ players have more than 40 weapons available to them and assume the role of a gang member pursuing police officers to kill them. The condoned message reinforces that killing a police officer is justified. Similarly, in the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series, offences such as car jacking, armed robbery, homicide, drug use and prostitution are not only condoned; they reinforce that this is normative behaviour in the virtual world.
When a youth becomes desensitized to real world violence due to over exposure from incessantly playing violent video games, distinguishing between virtual world and reality becomes a blurred distinction, sometimes with aberrant ramifications. The US Secret Service published a report in 2002 that examined 37 US school shootings. Here are three relevant findings from the report: First, all of the attackers exhibited various behaviours prior to the shooting that caused other people concern. Second, most of the attackers felt bullied and/or persecuted prior to the attack. Lastly, most of the attackers had access to weapons that were used during the attack on their respective school.14
All three findings are consistent with the three incidents discussed, particularly the two Canadian shootings. The particular finding involving the behaviours of the perpetrators prior to the shooting is vital. The focal point of preventative measures has to involve parents being acutely aware of their child’s environment and social surroundings. Limiting children’s exposure to violent media, combined with positive family exposure, can be a preventative measure against negative media influences. Overall, a joint effort is required from various facets, including but not limited to health care professionals, social services, police, and school officials.
Published Research Article By: Stephen G. Metelsky (2010) #BlueLine