Today’s Piers Morgan Live (CNN) features an interview with Joshua Cooke–from prison. Cooke killed his parents with a shotgun ten years ago. At the time, news headlines called this The Matrix case, because Cooke admitted watching that film over and over. He also played violent video games, including Grand Theft Auto, BloodRayne, Resident Evil and Doom. (See this Washington Post story for details about the case.)
Because of the media violence angle, Piers Morgan’s producers asked me to join a panel to discuss the interview, with psychologist Xavier Amador and criminology professor James Alan Fox.
Three points I made on the show bear repeating:
- Like it or not, playing violent video games is, statistically speaking, a normal behavior for modern teenagers. Among the young teens I studied while at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, over two-thirds of boys (and almost a third of the girl gamers) played at least one Mature-rated violent video game on a regular basis. By contrast, fortunately, murder is an extremely uncommon activity.
- What made Joshua Cooke’s video game play unusual was isolation and lack of balance. Most teenagers–especially boys–who play video games view them as a social activity. More often than not, they get together with friends to play, or join games with friends or people they haven’t met (but may know well) on the Web. Cooke apparently played alone virtually all of the time. Moreover, he had few interests or inputs outside of violence-themed videogames, music and films. As he told Piers Morgan, “Sometimes I would play [videogames] 12 to 15 hours a day without leaving my room. I would have food…stashed over in my room so I wouldn’t have to leave.”
- It’s possible that for a while, playing video games helped Joshua Cooke cope. In the CNN interview, Cooke said, “When I would play these games, I just—it did a lot for me mentally, for I could release my aggression with these games.” In my research sample, many teens played video games to cope with difficult feelings; 45% of boys agreed that they played video games in part “to get my anger out.” In focus groups, boys made comments such as, “Getting wrapped in a violent game, it’s good. ‘Cause if you mad, when you come home, you can take your anger out on the people in the game.” Another boy said, “Last week, I missed one homework and my teacher yelled at me. . . . When I went home, I started playing Vice City and I did a cheat code to get a tank and I ran over everybody. And I smashed a lot of cars and blew them up. . . . I was mad, and I turned happy afterwards.”