Every once in awhile, in the wake of a terrible mass shooting occuring in the United States (aka, a Tuesday), some in the hand-wringing news media trot out the ridiculous and long-debunked trope that video games could have been a reason for such an action. So, every once in awhile, we have to remind people of the fallacy of such an argument, with articles such as this one, originally posted to The Dot Eaters on Feb. 27, 2013.
As the first “superstar” Surgeon General of the United States, C. Everett Koop held a lot of sway over public opinion when it came to health issues in the 1980’s. With his passing on Monday at the age of 96, one figures he must have had some knowledge on the subject of longevity.
Koop took what was previously a relatively obscure governmental position and used his pulpit (pun intended; Koop was an evangelical Presbyterian), to push some important health issues into the fore, including critical education on the subject of the then burgeoning AIDS epidemic, as well as the lethality of smoking. It’s hard to criticize a man who fought so tirelessly in his surgical career to correct infant birth defects, who then went on to evangelize against stigmatizing AIDS victims and the promotion of inherently dangerous products by the tobacco industry, but when it came to the topic of the effect of video games on children, Koop was dead wrong.
Flyer for Death Race, the 1976 arcade game by Exidy that started the fear of videogame violence
He addressed a conference of public-health workers at the University of Pittsburgh in 1982 on the topic of family violence, and afterwards during a press conference he directly implicated video games as a main contributing factor of intrafamily violence, along with television and the poor economic conditions the country was facing at the time. For video games, he said:
[children] are into the games body and soul – everything is zapping the enemy. Children get to the point where when they see another child being molested by a third child, they just sit back.
It was the ever-popular “desensitized to violence” argument, and it flew in the face of reputable studies that refused to reinforce the idea that consumption of media can be said to be a main cause of real-life violence, either in adults or children. Koop himself, of course, did not cite any evidence to back up his claim, and it seems wildly irresponsible for such a notable public figure, who relished the ability to effect dramatic changes on U.S. health issues, to so baldy present the public with a red-herring as to the causes of family violence. Koop knew he could address any of the real factors: exposure to abuse as a child, alcohol abuse, an indifferent education system, personality disorders. There’s a shopping list of societal ills that could have accompanied poor economic conditions as reasons for family violence. Instead Koop decided to demonize video games as a causative factor.
Sure, Koop later stepped back from his initial comments, stating that there has been no causal link shown with video games and youth violence. But his initial comments helped take America’s eye off the ball as to solving the real causes of societal violence in the country, and for that it should be considered a grave misdiagnosis in Koop’s career as “America’s Doctor”.