Call of Duty, Back in the Crosshairs

As details emerged about the killer* of 12 at the Washington Navy Yard yesterday, various camps began exploiting the tragedy for their agendas.

The first, of course, were the gun grabbers, with the always-nauseating David Frum (most famous for helping lie us into an unnecessary war) taking to Twitter before all the shots were even fired. With no knowledge at all about the shooter, his weapon, or anything else, Frum started attacking gun rights supporters, even adding preemptive mockery of anyone who might find his behavior ghoulish and inappropriate.

Next up: the game critics. An entire political infrastructure and corporate media machine–both dedicated to the almost-always-wrong idea that “Something Must Be Done!”–started digging into the life of the shooter and found the following details:

  • He heard voices and was medicated for mental illness.
  • He was known for his quick temper and anger issues.
  • He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after rescuing victims on 9/11.
  • He was paranoid and carried a gun everywhere, and would fire it now and then.
  • He said he was the victim of racial discrimination.
  • He hated America.
  • He claimed to have been screwed over by his employers (the US government).
  • He played Call of Duty 16 hours a day.

If you think the media led with any other fact than the last, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Call of Duty has drifted far from its roots. What was once a top-notch military shooter with a Teen rating has devolved into a sadistic blood-fest of mind-numbing violence.

I’ve written against the trend towards hyperviolence in games for a while now, even while 1) asserting the first amendment rights of designers to make those games, and 2) denying the direct linkage between violence in games and violence in the real world. There simply is no such cause and effect link.

The human psyche is a work of such baffling intricacy that we still barely understand its functioning. All the myriad influences, experiences, memories, dreams, thoughts, and biological elements that combine to form our consciousness create complex networks that make it extremely difficult to really trace a motive for anything, from love to racial animus to homicidal impulses. The mind can be at once amazingly resilient and distressingly fragile.

Does the troubled mind drift to violent entertainment to calm it, or does the violent entertainment create the troubled mind? The game industry is so afraid of possible censorship that it’s reluctant to ask the hard questions. Did violent games affect the mind of Navy Yard shooter?

Of course they did.

Perhaps for the better, by allowing an outlet for violent impulses, before those impulses overwhelmed him.

Perhaps for the worse, by allowing dark thoughts to feed on murderous fantasies and thus grow.

Be certain of this: they did something. It’s simply wrong to blame video games for mass homicide, but it’s equally wrong to wave away the possibility that there was no relation between a man playing Call of Duty 16 hours a day and that same man gunning down 12.

The games didn’t cause the man to kill any more than Catcher in the Rye caused the shootings of Ronald Reagan and John Lennon. They are, however, part of the total psychological portrait of a troubled mind.

The mere fact of playing a game for 16 hours a day is already evidence of a disturbed and wicked mind obsessed with violence. His gaming may not have been causal (the game didn’t make him sit there for 16 hours), but it was certainly diagnostic.

Yet the mainstream media will continue to batten on simplistic solutions—games bad!, gun control good!—to the extremely complex matters of human psychology and the real presence of evil in the world.

And the game industry does nothing to help their case when each new release tries to top the last for pure savagery. The same week the Naval Yard shooting took place, Grand Theft Auto V was released to huge sales and critical acclaim. In that delightful little slice of sadism, you can torture someone, even using the game controller to rip out his teeth and waterboard him in a series of minigames.

Just charming.

We don’t need this. No one needs this. It’s garbage. Adults should shun it on principle. And parents who let their children play GTA5 are just bad parents. Period.

Games can’t shoulder the blame for striking outbursts of violence, but it’s way past time that they clean up their act.


*I have a policy on this blog: I don’t use the names of mass murderers and spree killers. They commit their crimes to gain attention and fame. That is their primary motive. I will not help them with this.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Maggie Goff

    The best article that I’ve ever read on this subject. Thank you.

  • victor

    As with your other articles on the subject, this one was very well-informed and well-reasoned. To date, I’ve read only one other article (on a Nintendo-only site, so make of that what you will) which is overtly critical of GTA5. That article, by the way, is the only one I’ve read which touches on a subject which occurred to me as I was reading the glowing reviews: why would a games journalism industry which has of late been doing great things in terms of promoting parity for female developers and promoting healthier images of women in gaming give such a misogynistic series a free pass (yet again)?

  • DarthLevin

    Unless this guy was playing CoD at work, or never slept, how did he manage 16 hours a day? Of course, these same “sources” also told us he used an AR-15 shotgun, so…

  • Jakeithus

    Thanks for this well thought out discussion of this topic. Expecting the birth of my first child has certainly gotten me thinking about how to best handle violent video games in my own house. It’s not an easy question to answer given my own muddled and sometimes contradictory positions on violence in gaming.

    Deliberately realistic, overly violent video games hold no real attraction to me, and the violence present in Call of Duty or GTA turns me off from playing them, and will probably keep me from letting my children and teenagers from purchase them as well. Of course, I’m probably a little hypocritical, given how much I loved the Bioshock series, despite its use of extreme violence, and the fact I was allowed to play Wolfenstein 3D at what was probably far too young an age.

    Of the list of issues facing the shooter, video games is by far the least meaningful, although I agree the industry has often done itself no real favours.

  • Harry

    Both Gamespot and The Escapist have criticized GTA V for its misogyny and repellent, pointless violence and hideous characters respectively. Which is good – some people still have a conscience, at least…Though ultimately both publications still gave the game a high score – “Well, it IS degenerate rubbish but hey! check out that gameplay!”

    Also relevant – Rod Dreher’s post on the issue of videogame violence –

  • Paul Schumann

    This article directly addresses why they love it, making no bones about it.

  • Paul Schumann

    It’s very frustrating to see guns and games pinned as causes of these events when as you mentioned, there are far more deeply personal problems at the root.
    I’m very fond of my Battlefield 3 and Kiling Floor but I was playing Lego games in my youth in the early 2000′s not bloody shooters. (That was a result of my parents actually parenting!)
    I’m not in favor of restricting what gaming companies can do, but at the same time it’s depressing when COD & GTA is in the hands of almost every child with a console.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I wouldn’t compare Battlefield 3 to CoD. There’s depth to B3, and it lacks the raw savagery we’ve seen on display in later CoD titles. It’s just a better all-around experience. I don’t understand the continued appeal of grim gun-metal-gray-and-brown shooters like CoD. They’re just kind of crap.

    Parents just to stop outsourcing their responsibilities and automatically giving in to junior’s demands. I knew of 4th graders playing GTA. That’s not Rockstar’s fault. It’s Rockstar’s fault that they used their considerable skills to make a vile game (that’s their right), but not that some dipsh*t parents let underage kids play an adult game.

  • Paul Schumann

    I’ll admit I really liked Soap, Ghost, and Capt. MacTavish from CoD MW 1 & 2. Everyone says MW2 was the beginning of the end where multiplayer was concerned, but the campaign was an unbelievably cinematic experience. I still remember trying to get to the top of the White House to call off the airstrike: “Hammer Down in effect…”

    The Treyarch games’ campaigns seemed much darker and nihilistic in tone, and I didn’t enjoy their campaigns as much and hardly played the multiplayer. The sleeper hit of Zombies mode was what made me buy all of those titles, because it (like borderlands <3) was designed for 1-4 players, so my brother and 2 friends could all try to outlast the horde at a summer LAN party.

    But where multiplayer is concerned, yes I had the most fun with the giant maps and possibilities of Battlefield 3. Though I havent had time to game much since graduating from college, I've found Tripwire's Red Orchestra and Rising Sun to be a great attempt at a tactical WW2 shooter.

    (No comment on GTA… I dislike it on principle)

  • kwdayboise

    I have trouble seeing what this has to do with Catholicism. I’m not being flippant. I really see nothing reflecting the faith in this.

  • Advocate

    I’ve been practicing a similar “damnatio memoria” policy by not using the name of any mass shooter.

    Rodger Ebert said it best:

    Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for
    the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and
    was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked,
    “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I
    wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked.
    “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine
    gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief
    fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box
    office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine
    killers saw it.

    The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events
    like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced
    by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a
    school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news
    drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story
    is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the
    Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around
    the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk
    about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was
    thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have
    messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

    In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by
    violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news
    media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I
    commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper
    would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked
    me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used.
    They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and
    everybody was happy.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Catholicism doesn’t exist in a bubble: we live in real world, which is why the subhead to the right says, “Technology, Culture, Catholicism.” I began this kind of coverage five years ago because so many Catholic parents didn’t know what to do about videogames, didn’t understand them, and were unaware of their content. This is all part of our ongoing struggle to live the best we can as Catholics in a secular world.

  • w829zal

    so no one thinks that a man with a mental illness shouldn’t be allowed to have a gun.

  • Dale

    Hm? Anyone who poses a violent threat to himself, or another person, should not have access to a gun.

    I am not sure why you think anyone would disagree with that position.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Who said that? We already have laws about that.