As news broke that Newtown killer Adam Lanza was known to have played video games, pundits and experts revamped their arguments on a question asked many times before: Do first-person shooter games like Call of Duty influence their players to behave violently, in spaces both digital and material?
But what was Adam Lanza playing? It wasn't one of the usual suspects. It was StarCraft.
StarCraft is a game more often compared to chess than Call of Duty.
Since the information about Lanza dates back to 2007 and 2008, he was most likely playing StarCraft: Brood War, which expanded on the first in the series of real-time military strategy games.
The game franchise was first launched in 1998. Gamers everywhere, especially in Korea, embrace it as a transcendent form of strategic competition. The game's second expansion — Brood War — spawned a professional sport in South Korea.
As scenes from StarCraft’s latest expansion, Heart of the Swarm, flashed across news networks interspersed with photos of Adam Lanza, fans of the game and professional players were shocked.
Indeed, Koreans had elevated StarCraft to the same level of respect as Go, an ancient Chinese strategy game, and believed that it would be played and enjoyed for hundreds of years.
“I guess Starcraft’s violence is to blame, I mean look at all the school shootings in South Korea. Oh wait, there has never been one,” tweeted StarCraft 2 commentator John “TotalBiscuit” Bain.
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Bain’s statement reflects the global stage on which StarCraft is played professionally. In the bygone days of StarCraft: Brood War, the most passionate fans were teenaged Korean girls, swooning over their favorite players and being driven to tears when they lost.
A 13-year-old Korean girl hardly seems like an individual that could share a similar interest, or what could be called a near obsession, with a disturbed mass murderer.
For many estranged and fearful individuals following the tragedy at Newtown for the past few days, reports that Adam Lanza was a gamer will fit nicely into the profile of a killer. Experts will argue both for and against a causal link between playing violent video games and violent behavior.
The average viewer will distress over the sort of entertainment their own children are consuming; the average gamer will take to the internet to denounce the lack of peer-reviewed research on the subject; and some politicians may take their fight against video games to Washington.
Senator Joe Baca of California wants a warning label printed on video games that would state, “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior."
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“Research continues to show that playing violent video games is a causal risk factor for a host of detrimental effects in both the short- and long-term, including increasing the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior. American families deserve to know the truth about these potentially dangerous products,” said Baca last March.
The backlash against gamers following tragedies like the one that took place in Newtown on Friday or in Norway last year is part of an old media narrative that surprises no one. The strongest scorn is usually reserved for games like Call of Duty, the wildly popular, spectacularly violent first-person shooter franchise that has earned contempt from parents, politicians and even gamers themselves.
There is a degree of violence in StarCraft, but it is secondary to the mechanics and high levels of strategic design required for even low-level play. Just as important as defeating an opponent’s army is managing one’s resources. Top players often move so fast that images of violence flash for only moments at a time; the field of view is incessantly moving around the player’s monitor at mind-numbing speeds.
Considering the industry of professional players that have sprung up around the world surrounding StarCraft, it's difficult to imagine that it is the game that turned Lanza into a killer. And in spite of what the pundits say, the reasons for his acts may never be clear.
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