Reports that Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza was a gamer have prompted a new round of discussion on whether violent video games can affect behavior in ways that other media can't. Now, US Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has floated a bill that would ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the effect of violent games on children. In a statement, Rockefeller criticized the belief that "violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better." He also said that recent court decisions show that "some people still do not get it," probably referring to a 2011 Supreme Court decision that recognized games as a protected form of speech and struck down a ban on their sale to minors.
"Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it."
This proposal, which can be viewed in draft form through Politico, isn't likely to go over well in the gaming community, especially given the long history of ill-informed speculation over games and violence in Congress. Rockefeller is clearly looking for a predetermined outcome here, though questions about what effect games have on behavior — and how they differ from movies or books — are far from settled. At the same time, Rockefeller's draft is really fairly innocuous. The proposal would require the NAS to conduct a study of violent gaming and children, including whether violence in games "causes children to act aggressively or causes other measurable cognitive harm" and "whether current or emerging characteristics of video games have a unique impact on children, considering in particular video games’ interactive nature and the extraordinarily personal and vivid way violence might be portrayed." Results would need to be returned within 18 months.
Rockefeller has also said he will talk to the FCC and FTC about the effectiveness of the games rating system and the effect of violent programming on children, though he didn't go beyond saying that a "fresh look" at these issues was warranted. While his overall phrasing is certainly leading, people across the spectrum have wondered about the relationship between media and behavior, and more information on the topic can only help debate. We just hope that the discussion of Sandy Hook doesn't stop at Call of Duty.