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New York - Op-Ed: Violent Video Games The Slaughter Of Our Children

Published on: January 30, 2013 10:40 AM
By: RABBI ELIYAHU SAFRAN
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New York - Murderous violence has been with us since the generation after Adam and Eve first trudged, ashamed and burdened, east of Eden, banished from the Garden because of their disobedience.  Through the ages, few things have defined us so much as our ability to visit horrific cruelty upon our fellows.  The ability to “mass murder” is anything but a new phenomenon.  Jews have a much too intimate knowledge of the horror and sadness that comes with the experience of the vicious slaughter of multiple numbers of innocents in a short period of time.

If technology has been consistent over the span of history, its greatest constancy has been is that it has always lurched forward in creating ever more efficient methods of killing.

Murderous evil is not new.  The recent mass murders are not wounds unique to our age.  What the base nature of man and technology has conspired to create that is new and unseen until very recently is the efficiency and effectiveness with which the latent evil of man has transformed too many vulnerable, damaged individuals into killing machines.  What is revolutionary to this moment in history is the veritable army of weak, damaged, vulnerable young people who have metamorphosed into agents of slaughter unshackled by the hand of the state.  That is, for the first time in history, mass murder is not directed by the state but by individuals who roam our streets and avenues; individuals not gathering beneath the banner of fascism or communism to serve as drones in the armies of a satanic leader but rather by the release of some restraint that exists within themselves.

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We see the evidence of the horror on our television sets.  It screams to us from the front pages of our newspapers.  It is a cancer, a sickness that needs to be healed.  But as we know only too well, addressing the problem of mass murder in our society is a complex issue and process.  Too often, in this complexity, viable and appropriate avenues of healing are ignored or discredited, almost always in the service of profit or power. 
There is much we do not know about the eruption of mass murders in our society but there are some things we do know which we must examine closely if we are to be successful at all in keeping our children safe and stemming the tide of violence.

Among the things we do know is that the slaughter of innocents, as we witnessed in Newtown, Connecticut, demands a specific mechanism of slaughter, a firearm that allows for many people to be killed and maimed in a very short period of time, and that it also demands a catalyst, something that transforms a damaged and vulnerable individual into a killing machine.

As for the “mechanism of slaughter”, apologists and lobbyists for guns and those who vociferously defend gun “rights” will reflexively refer to the Second Amendment or some trivial sentiment (“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”) to defer critique.  They will dismiss the “same old liberal complaints.”  They will also correctly point out that the vast, vast majority of gun owners do not commit horrific crimes or, indeed, any crime at all. 
What these apologists miss is the simple truth that no other civilized country in the world has so many guns, or so much freedom for its citizenry to own and use guns without a direct association to a formal, military involvement.  So too, no other civilized country in the world experiences such horrific gun violence.

That said, while we feel strongly that the proliferation of guns, and guns of remarkable lethal power, needs to be stemmed, we also acknowledge that ultimately guns are just the tool for accomplishing these evil and horrible acts.  And while it is manifestly true that denying access to the “tool” would forego the slaughter, the greater and more pernicious ill at work is a culture that glorifies murder and violence, a culture that finds its most damaging expression in violent video games.

On that count, we will hear too from the producers and apologists of video games that millions upon millions of players of violent video games do not engage in acts of violence.  We will hear from defenders of the First Amendment that denying producers of violent video games the right to produce their hateful product will compromise our essential freedoms. Both reasonable and important arguments. And while they are being made, children continue to be slaughtered.

Ultimately, both claims by the video game producers hinge on the claim that there is no causal relationship between violent video games and actual violence.  For if there is such causation, the other arguments become moot.  The First Amendment cannot be claimed as protection if the activity leads to murder.

In engaging in the question of the causality and influence of violent video games on acts of violence, and addressing the protests of the video game industry, it would serve us well to recall the many years that the tobacco industry protested against the effect of their product on health, arguing that there was no “causal” relationship between smoking and lung cancer, or heart disease or any number of other health issues.  Deflection, defense and the anecdotal evidence of a handful of individuals who smoked three packs a day and lived healthy lives well into their nineties should not have been allowed to pass for a sound argument.  In the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, the tobacco industry resisted, insisting on – how ironic in the context of our current discussion – a “smoking gun.”

But might there not be such a smoking gun?

There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest a direct connection.  Consider Mrs. Sherratt, an elementary school teacher in England, who notes that she has witnessed her class of four and five-year-olds in the playground, “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” to mimic scenes from violent games.

As a professional working with young children, she is well aware that children are often very physical in their play.  “We all expect to see rough and tumble but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping in the classroom for no particular reason.”

While apologists will dismiss her observations, they have yet to counter the thoughtful argument presented by my son Nathan Safran.  Rather than address the issue “head on”, my son suggests a compelling example of how video games directly impact attitudes and behavior.  He notes that the length and breadth of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has unwittingly provided clear evidence of the power of video games to affect players.

This extended military mission has resulted in an overwhelming incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) in the military, forcing a new urgency on military psychologists seeking to find a way to address this debilitating condition.

One of the most promising treatments the military is working with is virtual reality treatments; a combination of video and audio programs that are designed to be immersive and so most effectively counteract the violent experiences the soldiers experienced.  This treatment seems to be very successful because it seems to rewire the brain.

In other words, when used as a treatment program for PTSD, the very same immersive experience that gamers enjoy is effective because it alters emotions and behaviors by rewiring the brain.  We applaud the creativity and determination of the military psychologists.  We also wonder how this experience change behavior when it is used to treat PTSD but have no direct impact when the question is, Does it promote violent behavior?

Video games are unique in that they are immersive.  Players “live” in them.  They do not passively observe or listen to them, like music, television or the movies.  Players interact with the game.  The player decides what happens.  In video games, the player makes a conscious decision to “kill” a cop or innocent bystander on the street. The player decides to kill with his bare hands, with a baseball bat, or with a gun.  In a game like Nintendo Wii’s Manhunt 2, the player can literally simulate the movements of cutting his victims throat with a piece of glass or suffocating them with a plastic bag.

Think how that makes you feel when you are simply reading it.  Now imagine how it impacts the player himself as he experiences it.  It has to be a disturbing image, particularly for parents.

I would ask parents who do not believe that there is a link between violent video games and violent behavior and so intend to let their children continue to play to consider that, even in the absence of that “smoking gun” connection between violent video games and violent behavior, there is still the issue of “rewiring of the brain.”  Are you really comfortable with your child being affected in such a profound way by a video game manufacturer whose fundamental motivation is to manipulate your child’s brain to continue playing so they realize the greatest profit possible.
In other words, are you really comfortable submitting your child to what amounts to brainwashing by people for whom your child is essentially a disposable source of income?

In fairness, video game producers maintain that just because a violent person plays video games, the video games have not made the person violent.  After all, millions upon millions of people play violent video games without engaging in violence.  Right?  Perhaps.  We do know that in 1999 only 5% of students aged 12 – 18 reported being bullied in school while 32% complained of being bullied in 2007.  That these numbers correspond with a rise in video game playing cannot be discounted.

Nathan Safran suggests that the professed lack of a causal link between these video games and violent behavior has everything to do with science’s inability to document conclusively that the games have a detrimental effect on the neurology of children and not what actually happens. 
To scientifically conclude that video games have a direct causal relationship to violent behavior demands that researchers “feather out” some of the variables that impact behavior, i.e., environment, upbringing, genetics, diet, education, etc.

No doubt some are more susceptible to the influence of video games than others (most likely, the same players who become most immersed in the gaming experience.)  Certainly, the perpetrators of these mass murders have been individuals with significant social and psychological deficits.  However, with nearly 97% of 12-17 year olds playing video games, the number of young people drawn into these games is astronomical.

Perhaps most insidious about these games is something that Joshua Gardner points out a piece for ABC News.  He quotes Laura Davies, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in San Francisco who is reluctant to support tighter controls on media of any kind.  However, she believes too many children are exposed to too much violence through video games and that there can be consequences.

“A huge part of discipline and development is understanding consequences. Letting kids know that their actions have consequences,” Dr. Davies told ABCnews.com. “Video games like Grand Theft Auto turn the consequences into positives.  You kill a prostitute and get points, you’re rewarded.”
Video games are not only immersive but they upend any civilized moral system by rewarding murder and violence.

Even without the a clear, causal link between violent video games and violent behavior, there is one observation that we can make with certainty.  The proliferation of violent video games and violent media desensitizes players to real-life violence.  These games teach impressionable young people that violence is an acceptable way to solve conflicts and achieve goals.

From a Jewish perspective, the desensitizing is perhaps most fundamental (and suggests the nexus of causality.)  As Rabbi Emanual Feldman writes in his article, “Sandy Hook: A Jewish Antidote ” on Aish.com, there are no “quick fixes” to the problem of violence but Judaism offers some insight.  “The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) records an incisive tradition in which God says: ‘I have created the inclination to do evil, but I have also created an antidote, which is the Torah.’ Thus, man is not born a warm and fuzzy creature. He is born grasping and selfish, fists tightly closed, concerned exclusively with his immediate needs. Says God in Genesis 8:21: ‘The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his very inception.’ Left to his own devices, not taught the ways of civilized behavior, so will he remain throughout life: a rapacious, self-centered infant masquerading as an adult whose fists will not open until he departs this earth.”

We are profoundly physical beings.  We are, by nature, heavily influence by the physicality of life.  Our senses inform us and influence us directly and profoundly – which is why the immersive quality of these violent video games is so detrimental.  We experience the violence as if it were real.  We are rewarded for our violent behavior in the games.  When, in reality, because of our brute, physical nature, it is only Torah that offers the antidote to our brutishness – not a reinforcement of it!

As Rabbi Feldman goes on, the Torah’s teachings, “…enable us to construct and maintain self-discipline and self-control, and ultimately to metamorphose into a mensch. For one of the underlying purposes of Torah is to tame the savage beast within us and to transform us into responsible human beings with a conscience that enables us to differentiate right from wrong.

Man is a base creature with the same drives as the common beast.  He was brought into the world with an inclination to do evil.  However, he was also brought into the world with an inclination to do good.  The goal and purpose of mitzvot is to lift man from the pure physicality of the animal world and allow him to exist in a world of the spiritual, a world in which God’s goodness is evident.  We know that the performance of mitzvot uplifts.  Mitzvot elevate man to a higher level.

Just as behaviors change who we are for good, so too can they change who we are for bad.  In this way, video games, by immersing the player in the action and rewarding evil rather than good, changes the player.  If the gamer does not become more violent by virtue of his experience, he becomes desensitized to the violence around him.

Either way, he falls further and further from the ideal of the Torah life and closer and closer to a world in which the wanton murder of innocents is no more than a tree falling in the forest.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.

The above article first appeared in January 25th edition of Jewish Press 



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Read Comments (13)  —  Post Yours »

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 11:17 AM ayoldguy1 Says:

So... what are we to do?? Ban video games? If we do that, we're faced with the slippery topic of what is "violent" and what is not.
I'm tired of people trying to pin a single, unified "cause" for Newtown. The shooter was mentally unstable, not well, and we will never know what stimulus spurred him from mere fantasy to action.

Bottom line is, no one will argue that violent content is appropriate for children, for a whole host of reasons. We don't talk frankly about death with children because they are simply too young to understand death, and too young to understand the finer differential between reality and fantasy. We don't need more ink (virtual or otherwise) spilled on this topic because erecting straw men to beat up for Newtown is pointless, self-defeating, and dangerous.

This is a question of proper parenting, plain and simple. We need to be good parents for our children. End of story.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 11:17 AM yossele Says:

Rabbi Safran forgot to mention the 1.4 million gang members in the US. They might have a little something to do with our gun violence problem... In locals where gangs are active, they account for up to 90% of all violent crime.

Drop even a tenth of those gangsters in the UK and tell me what their gun violence problem looks like in ten years!

Go to fbi.gov and see the real statistics on gun violence, where it happens and who the perpetrators are, and you'll see that the only way to stop the violence is through good, old-fashioned crime fighting.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 11:27 AM Sherree Says:

Parents need to learn to parent no matter what other parents are doing. Especially in the secular world. I say especially in the secular world because when a 5 year old tells their parents that so and so's parent lets them have or lets them do, they have to realize that while they are 25 or 30, that child's parents can be 18 or 20! When we live in a society where kids are having kids and single parenthood has become a norm, we must recognize that we can't go by what others do we must use our own common sense and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong and how WE want our children to grow up!!

Whether we are secular, religious, modern, chareidi or chasidic, it is still up to us how we choose to parent, what house rules we choose to initiate, what we allow our children to read, listen to, watch, etc. Who we allow our children to play with, where we allow them to go, what time they must come home, go to bed, etc. The choices involved in parenting children belongs to the parents. Just because other kids have these games, books, cell phones, cars, permits, etc., does not mean that you have to allow it in your family.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 11:38 AM shredready Says:

please there are millions if not ten of millions kids and adults ho play these games. and no one has shown any link between actual violence and fantasy violence. What next movies and them ,maybe books that mention killings .

Sadly school killing have been around even in the 1800,s the big difference then one had a iz shooter and not an assault weapon and in Japan they love violent animation games even more violent than the USA and have low murder rate.

Video games sadly is an easy target and an simple answer

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 12:00 PM Anonymous Says:

I guess I'll stop reading books with violence in them. I don't want to be unduly influenced. Maybe even the Tanach since there is so much violence..

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 12:49 PM elireb Says:

don't quite understand responses here...the point Rabbi Safran makes is to be aware and cognizant of the great damage and negative effects of these violent games which make murder into a "game." It's no chochmah to say "oh it's all no big deal." This is a big deal which many continue to bemoan.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 12:58 PM Yiddl Says:

What about all the sexual content in the torah do we skip them on shabbos?

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 02:20 PM Babishka Says:

Movies and video games do not promote mass killing. Having easy access to firearms and large-capacity ammunition containers makes it easy to kill.

The Japanese play more violent video games than any other nation on earth, but they have a very low murder rate.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 02:32 PM SF2K1 Says:

"However, with nearly 97% of 12-17 year olds playing video games, the number of young people drawn into these games is astronomical."

And yet the number of murderers in infinitesimally small. Millions upon millions of people of all ages play these games. Far more of them become doctors, lawyer and even Rabbis than violent individuals, but we should blame video games rather than the mental illnesses and our failure to treat kids with such problems because it's a lot easier to complain about.

Safran makes it clear in this article. There is no proof of any link whatsoever, but we should fear what he tells us to be afraid of and blindly believe there is a link regardless because his son knows better than any scientist who has looked into this problem.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 03:24 PM Giggidy Says:

And this is why rabbis and politics should not mix,blatantly attacking both the second and first amendment?!! Wow just stick to shiurimon Jewish topics and stay out of politics!!!!!

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 04:46 PM Drtenb Says:

This opinion is so misinformed that it is an embarassment and I hope the outside world never lays eyes on it. New York just enacted a ban on "assault rifles" and "high capacity" magazines that the writer wanted. It will not stop anything. The mayor runs around with a well armed security detail, but normal people may not even carry. This is pathetic. I am not a gun crazy young kid. I am a former Israeli combat soldier and I have been around too much violence. You can figure out what I do by my email name. There is much less random violence and mass shooting in Israel b/c so many already carry guns. Same for some US States. My children have armed gurads at their school already b/c it is a orthodox school. I'm not going to even bother with the definitions of "assualt rifles" or "high capacity" magazines. There are no automatic weapons allowed in the US w/o special licenses which are heavily regulated and very rare (mostly for law enforcement). In every one of the recent mass shootings, the shooter was young, on medication, and alienated. Not one was a licensed mature adult. You New Yorkers think you have it all figured out - good luck with it. The Rav is right - it is not so simple

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 07:13 PM Anonymous Says:

Video games are somewhat constructive and if in some cases outright destructive to the will of the individual, fortunately we live in a society which will fix this problem. But all said, I played copious games as a child and I thought they were very fixative to my own personal intellectual development.

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 Jan 30, 2013 at 08:48 PM Brooklynhocker Says:

I see a lot of rhetoric and not much proof that these games are transforming our innocent little boys into zombie killers. What I see happening is a generation growing up with a "look at me" attitude. Proof of this is everyone of these young killers left a message on Facebook or Twitter before they committed the crime saying "something is about to happen". And the cases of PTS - ok maybe the war was too much for them, but how come we don't have these crazy outbursts of violence in Israel? They are younger and under more stress then the typical US soldier.
Rabbi Safran- demonizing the Wii for a game called "Manhunter" is like blaming a child for drinking a liquid that clearly says "poison, keep away from children". Like every good parent will tell you, you didn't learn to cross the street carefully because your parents looked the other way- they taught you only to cross once there were no cars. Life is like a busy street - but if you parent properly you can teach your child how to avoid danger.

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