James Holmes and Aurora massacre: Why?

James Holmes allegedly killed 12 and wounded 58 more in the Century 16 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Why? Lax gun controlMedia violenceBloody video games?The emergence of evilCultural declineThe macho gene?  No concealed-carry gun in the audience to shoot back? Take your pick. (Follow the links to see who is saying what.)

At this writing, the FBI has begun disarming an elaborate set of booby traps set up inside Holmes’ Aurora  apartment. But even before Aurora police could enter the 800-square-foot apartment to find evidence that might hint at what might have motivated Holmes, speculation already has begun. Explanations usually reflect one’s political and philosophical bent. (Update: It’s Sunday morning, and the usual suspects have appeared to tout their favorite cause.)

Like everyone else, I’ve got not a clue.

Except for this: It wasn’t a Walt Disney movie (Bambi?) that Holmes allegedly targeted. It was at a midnight showing of the popular “The Dark Knight Rises,” Hollywood’s latest Batman movie. It is a movie, like so many in this “genre” (hat tip to Roger Ebert) that exploits and feeds upon humankind’s most violent instincts. And because these depictions are interactive, the games actually reward violence. It drills into a boy’s or young man’s mind, desensitizing him to the true cost of violence.

Possibly, video games had nothing to do with the shooting. We have to wait for the evidence. Yet, entirely independent of that shooting,we should  think about the impact on young minds of violent video games. Especially after the Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutionally protected speech. (Bah.)

Here is just one sample of the research that supports the negative impacts of violent video games.From Violent video game exposure and aggression  A literature review  by  N. L. CARNAGEY, C. A. ANDERSON, Department of Psychology Iowa State University, Ames, IA

Despite how the news media [continue] to portray the effects of media violence, the re- search is clear: youth who view violent tele- vision tend to become more aggressive adults.25-31 Viewing violent television causes increases in aggressive cognitions, affect, and behavior. In a recent meta-analysis, Bushman and Anderson 25 found that the correlation of viewing violent television and aggression is greater than correlations of being exposed to asbestos and contracting laryngeal cancer, consuming calcium and increased bone mass, or wearing a condom and not contracting HIV.

Another media violence effect besides in- creasing aggressive behavior is desensitization to violence. There is an empirical basis as well as a theoretical basis for the desensitiz- ing effect of violent media. Research has shown that participants exposed violent me- dia (slasher films, police television programs, violent boxing matches) are less physiolog- ically aroused by real world violence than are those exposed to nonviolent media.32-36 Exposure to violent media also changes peoples’ perceptions of violence. Research has shown that after viewing several sexual- ly violent movies, participants rated the last movies in the set as less violent 32, 37 and showed less sympathy and assigned more responsibility to a rape victim compared to those who viewed nonviolent movies.37, 38 Exposure to media violence has also been shown to cause decreases in helping a vio- lence victim.39-41

The researchers then go on to examine the differences between violent media and violent video games:

Because violent video games are a rather new type of violent media, the literature ex- amining its negative effects on players is rath- er small, but a rather clear consensus has al- ready been reached. This consensus is virtu- ally identical to the conclusions reached in the violent television literature: playing violent video games increases aggression. Several studies, both correlational and experimen- tal, have demonstrated that playing violent video games can have a wide variety of neg- ative effects on players.52 Recent meta-anal- yses 52, 53 have demonstrated that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive be- havior, cognition, affect, and physiological arousal, and decreases helping behavior.


Over the last 30 years, the video game industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. More children and adults are spending time playing computer games, consoles games, and online games than ever before. Violence is a dominant theme in most of the popular video games. This article reviews the current litera- ture on effects of violent video game exposure on aggression-related variables. Exposure to violent video games causes increases in aggres- sive behavior, cognitions, and affect. Violent video game exposure also causes increases in physiological desensitization to real-life vio- lence and decreases in helping behavior. The current video game literature is interpreted in terms of the general aggression model (GAM). Differences between violent video game expo- sure and violent television are also discussed.

This obviously isn’t the last word. Is video game violence, for example, a cause of savage behavior? Or is the compulsive playing of violent video games only a symptom of some deeper trouble. Truly each case is different, but the truth is that we’re bringing up young men in a cesspool of violence. Even if James Holmes had never been born.

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