Last week, an eight-year-old boy picked up a loaded gun and shot his grandmother in the head a few minutes after playing Grand Theft Auto IV. You'll never guess which part of that sentence has become a talking point for pundits and media analysts over the past couple of days.
On Thursday, just after 5pm, the child shot and killed his grandmother in their trailer park home in Slaughter, Louisiana. Police said the kid was playing Grand Theft Auto just before the incident, and the headlines were written accordingly, with major media outlets like CNN and the New York Daily News emphasizing the ludic connection.
Somehow, an eight-year-old kid had access to a firearm, yet this weekend's debate question has not been "how the hell did that happen?" The media is not befuddled as to why a gun was lying around in this mobile home. Psychiatrists are not taking to television to ask why the boy's grandmother wasn't watching him more closely so he couldn't pick up a gun. Instead, cops and reporters are going down a familiar path: Are games too violent? Do they encourage kids to shoot people? Did Grand Theft Auto IV cause this?
While the motive is unclear, the sheriff's department implied the child's activities in a violent virtual world may have led to the killing.
"Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the Play Station III 'Grand Theft Auto IV,' a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred."
Fox News had their own unique spin, pulling in an expert witness to point out that video games are good practice for murder.
"From a behavior therapy perspective, I would say that's practicing," Kristopher Kaliebe, a LSU Health Sciences Center child psychologist told Fox8live.com.
"So if you have a video game where someone shoots at a target, that's sort of practicing shooting at a target. When you have a video game that is shooting at a human being, that is practicing shooting at a human being," Kaliebe said.
And then the pundits took to TV to start the discussion: just how bad are video games? Is violent media as bad as... heroin?
CNN's pundit points out that the correlation between the child playing Grand Theft Auto IV and the crime "cannot be overlooked."
Here's MSNBC talking about virtual reality:
And so forth and so forth. The cycle continues as it does. Video games are an easy target, a sexy issue, and a subject that many reporters find it OK to discuss without properly fact-checking—you don't get "points" for killing people in Grand Theft Auto IV, despite what the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff Department says. This has become as regular a routine for video games as inane local media broadcasts.
This blame game has become so ubiquitous that when a U.S. senator—an actual U.S. senator—declares that video games are a bigger problem than guns, everyone just kind of accepts it. When Louisiana police imply a direct connection between a horrific tragedy and an M-rated video game, that's what drives the conversation. The headline is not "Louisiana boy shoots grandmother after picking up loaded gun"—it is "Louisiana boy shoots grandmother after playing Grand Theft Auto IV." Catchy.
That's not to say we shouldn't be asking questions about what games do to our minds: here at Kotaku, we've spent a great deal of time researching and discussing the psychological effects of violent games. As with most questions that try to pinpoint how our brains function, there are no straightforward answers. Scientists are divided. There's consensus that more research needs to be done on the subject.
But there's one issue that needs no research: eight-year-olds should not have unsupervised access to loaded guns. Period. End of discussion. This debate over video game violence needs to be secondary to the debate over real violence. When Louisiana police imply that Grand Theft Auto IV caused this tragedy—and when the news amplifies that conversation with hyperbolic analogies and catchy soundbites—it distracts from the terrifying reality that an eight-year-old was able to pick up and fire a handgun.
Do video games make kids more aggressive? Maybe. Should an eight-year-old be playing a game as violent as Grand Theft Auto IV? Probably not. Did the game rile this kid up and make him shoot his grandma? I have no idea.
The more important question—the question CNN and Fox News and MSNBC and all the other pundits and analysts should really be asking—is this: How was an eight-year-old able to shoot his grandmother in the first place? He sure didn't use a video game.