Violent video games form a corrosive link in young minds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am

Further incidents of random murders on school and university premises, in other parts of the world, have met with horrified reactions. But could such a tragedy occur in Hong Kong?

Sad to say, these terrible incidents are no longer rare. Indeed, with recent attacks in Finland and Germany, as well as in their apparent home in the US, it seems the trend is spreading.

Many teenagers are brought up in an atmosphere of violence and this could very well influence some of them to commit horrific murders, such as massacres at schools.

The pernicious influence of violent video games on young minds should not be underestimated. The parents and educators of many Hong Kong youngsters will know well the captivating nature they have. We have seen cases where players drop from exhaustion after long hours spent playing these games.

That very obsession is, itself, a cause for concern. Most of these games involve a lone youth hooked up to a computer screen. No interpersonal interactions occur while playing. Thus the development of human social skills, which used to be at least partly achieved while playing outdoor games with other youngsters, remains dormant. It is no accident that the perpetrators of many school shootings have been revealed to be very isolated individuals with few communication skills.

When we look at the types of activity which these games represent, there is cause for even greater concern. Many of them are set up so that the player earns game points by 'zapping' others, thus equating killing with earning merit or respect. Equating violence with earning respect sets up a corrosive link in young minds.

That link is made the more worrying when we recall that the main players of violent video games are teenage boys and young men - precisely the age and gender of the majority of school shooters.

Clearly, for general social reasons, access to violent video games should be carefully restricted. Games manufacturers themselves should be obliged to temper the violence of their products.

Some so-called games involve shooting at pedestrians as a car drives past. Such incidents occur in real life with appalling regularity: it is reckoned that 550 people were attacked, many killed, in such drive-by shootings within a six-month period in America in 2006. Many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, were teenagers.

Overexposure to scenes of death and destruction can have a hardening effect on young minds. They can and unfortunately do see all manner of bloody carnage daily on the television or internet. Many of today's youngsters have a television in the bedroom, far from parental control; the same can be said of computers. Unrestricted access to the latter, in particular, can result in youngsters viewing much that is damaging to the development of healthy minds.

The unsuitable things they might watch also cover graphic sexual material, including violent sexual acts. Clearly, more watchful parental control can help avoid the exposure of developing personalities to much that might be damaging.

Some versions of hip-hop and gansta rap music glorify violence, with drive-by shootings made the subject of some entertainment of this nature. The main fans of these types of music also fall well into the band of teenage boys and young men. The ill-effects of their glorification of such wanton acts of random violence likely leave an impression, and a bad one at that, on their teenage audiences.

A connected and distressing matter must be the prevalence of guns in private hands: thought to be in the order of at least 200 million weapons in the US alone. It can be no accident that in such a heavily armed society at least 30,000 people die each year from gunshot wounds; about one-third of those are aged 15 to 24. From 1996 to 2007, there were 41 school and university shooting sprees in America, killing more than 110 people. Over that same decade, there were also 14 school shootings outside the US. It does not take advanced reasoning powers to be able to make the link between access to weapons at home and using them to kill classmates and teachers.

Indeed, in some American schools, pupils are by law allowed to bring concealed weapons into the classroom for protection. Clearly, the fewer guns there are in private hands - especially in teenage hands - the fewer killings.

The FBI has struggled to form a profile of potential school shooters, based on careful investigations of those who have committed such outrages. Hard as it is to generalise accurately, it appears that many such gun-toting murderers harbour deep-seated grievances against the educational institution; are isolated loners with limited interpersonal skills; are adept at the more violent video games; are male; are eaten-up with suppressed rage; have been conditioned to link killing with making themselves important; are young; and have ready access to powerful weapons.

The 323 school shootings in America, up to 2007, when widely reported, themselves make it more likely for the next disturbed young man to wish to hit the headlines by shooting up his school.

Certainly, Hong Kong has violent young criminals, as does any city. But luckily there are few guns in private hands here. And the police are very effective at regularly patrolling the city's streets. The deterrent effect of that makes our streets, and schools, some of the safest in the world.

However, the ready access in Hong Kong to things that harden youngsters to violence, which indeed may glorify violence, must be a worry for all those who are responsible for the safe upbringing of our younger generations.

Paul Surtees is a Hong Kong-based commentator