Mike Snider, USA TODAY
More than a decade ago, the computer game Doom became a focal point when it was revealed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who committed the Columbine High School massacres, were players.
Violent video games will soon come under scrutiny again after another tragic school shooting.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) introduced a bill Wednesday to examine the impact of violent content, including video games, on children.
"At times like this, we need to take a comprehensive look at all the ways we can keep our kids safe," says Rockefeller, who serves as Chair of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "I have long expressed concern about the impact of the violent content our kids see and interact with every day."
The bill would require the National Academy of Sciences to submit a report within 18 months on whether violent video games and other programming adversely affect children.
Police have yet to release any information linking video games or other violent media consumption with Adam Lanza, 20, who fatally shot his mother and 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday before killing himself.
However, some of those who knew Lanza or came into contact with him have told news organizations that he had played the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, as well as PC strategy games StarCraft and Warcraft 3.
In the wake of tragedies, violent video games, movies and TV shows are often blamed as possible influences. But research into the effects of violent media -- and their desensitizing potential -- yield inconclusive results.
"Some commentators have argued that violent media, especially violent video games, are the primary cause of school shootings," according to a media violence report released earlier this year by the International Society for Research on Aggression.
"Other commentators have argued that there is no good evidence of any harmful effects of violent media, usually based on the results of one or two studies," the report said. "Neither extreme is supported by the vast body of research in this domain."
Violent video games, movies and TV -- along with gun control, school security and mental health treatment -- would likely fall under the purview of a national commission on mass violence, as proposed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent whose 24-year term in the Senate will end later this month.
Addressing the Senate Tuesday, Lieberman said he "heard rumors" that Lanza had played violent video games.
"Very often these young men have had an almost hypnotic involvement in some form of violence in our entertainment culture, particularly violent video games," Lieberman said. "And then they obtain guns and become not just troubled young men, but mass murderers."
As the discussion continues, it will be pointed out that video games are a protected form of speech, a status upheld in last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning California's ban on the sale of violent video games to minors.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, research showing a link between violent video games and aggression was dismissed: "These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively," Scalia wrote.
It wouldn't be surprising Lanza played video games. Some 99% of males, aged 12-17, played video games, as do 81% of all adults aged 18 to 29, according to 2008 Pew Internet & American Life reports.
Each day, new revelations in the Newtown tragedy provide potential insights into Lanza's life.
A former classmate, Alan Diaz, who had been in a high school technology club with Lanza, told CNN that Adam's mother invited his friends over to the home to play StarCraft and WarCraft 3, two sci-fi PC games that are rated "Teen," for those aged 13 and over. "He wasn't really into games, but as I recall he picked up on StarCraft really quickly," Diaz told CNN.
Another student, Joshua Milas, told The Los Angeles Times that Lanza occasionally came to parties where the PC role-playing game World of Warcraft was played, as well as Mario Party, a casual game series for the Nintendo Wii. "We were not in favor of first-person shooter games," Milas was quoted as saying.
But a different impression of Lanza came from Peter Wlasuk, a plumber who had been called to his Newtown, Conn., home. Speaking to the U.K. tabloid newspaper The Sun, he said Lanza was obsessed with guns and Call of Duty.
Lanza's bedroom walls, Wlasuk said, were covered in posters of guns and tanks. "The kids who play these games know all about [guns]. I'm not blaming the games for what happened," Wlasuk said. "But they see a picture of a historical gun and say, 'I've used that on Call of Duty'."
The multibillion-dollar selling Call of Duty series -- the games are rated "Mature" for ages 17 and over -- has a single-player story mode and a multiplayer mode that lets several players engage in combat online. They can select from various weapons and customize them.
Call of Duty publisher Activision and industry trade group the Entertainment Software Association declined comment.
Studies into mass shooters do not find links with video game use, says Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology and communication at Texas A&M University. And the overall effect of violent video games on aggression or violence is "indistinguishable from zero," says Ferguson, who completed an analysis of past research on the subject in 2009.
"The occasional return to video games after tragedies like this is part of historical patterns of 'moral panic' in which media are blamed for societal ills, much like comic books in the 1950s," he says, noting that The Washington Post this week published an international analysis showing that video game consumption is not associated with gun violence, but lack of gun control laws are. " During the past 20 years as video games became more popular, youth violence plummeted to 40-year lows, the lowest since the 1960s," Ferguson says.
Still, the research into violent video games does show an effect on aggressive behavior, says Douglas Gentile, a member of the media violence commission and an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. Findings suggest that exposure to violent video games can have the same effect as other aggressive behavior risk factors, such as abusive parents and a crime-infested neighborhood, he says.
"We shouldn't need events like this to force us to ask the right questions but it does seem that these are the only times we talk about these issues," Gentile says.
"Usually we ask the wrong question like, 'What is the cause of this? Are violent video games the cause?' or 'Is bullying the cause?': Gentile says. "The question already pushes down the wrong path because there is never a single cause to an event like this. ... We do really need to have a serious conversation about what all the serious risk factors are."