When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

Violent Video Games and Adam Lanza's Inner World, Part 1

Setting the stage

At the risk of being premature, I think enough material has now accrued for me to ask certain questions and offer specific conjectures about the inner life of Adam Lanza in the days and even minutes leading up to the Newtown shootings.

As is already known, for many years before the killing spree, Lanza’s peers and neighbors perceived him as a peculiar, socially withdrawn adolescent. His brother has reported that he suffered from either autism or Asperger’s syndrome, conditions highlighted by an inability to read the social cues of others, a problem that may explain his painful, social isolation. School acquaintances recall instances of his eerily sidling backward along school corridor walls whenever they tried to approach him, a behavior suggesting significant fear and even paranoia. For a time he may have been home schooled, a way of life that only isolated him further from his peers. Not surprisingly, once high school ended, he became even more socially withdrawn.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, at least one report describes the twenty-year-old holing up for hour upon hour in a basement area inside his home, outfitted with computers and a TV. This windowless space contained a bathroom and bed as well as a locked cupboard filled with guns, and its walls were plastered with posters of weaponry from the 1940s onward. There it seems he hid out for hours on end, solely engaged with the computers and the television.

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The police also describe discovering a vast cache of video games, many with violent content, in particular the game entitled Call of Duty. Since Anders Brevig, the Norwegian mass murderer, claimed he practiced for his mass shooting by playing this same game, many have already wondered about this seeming coincidence. Was this simply a fluke or not?

When the first version of Call of Duty initially became available in 2003, it soon became wildly popular. Due to high sales, its creators generated numerous sequels, and these games continue to fly off the shelves into the hands of eager kids and adults—such as Lanza—to this day.

In Call of Duty 1, 2, and 3, the player takes on the identity of a fighter in World War II battles. Inserted into the British, US, and Russian armies, he goes toe-to-toe, battlefield to battlefield, house to house against the Nazis. He dons the persona of soldiers in the three armies, and often spends multiple hours gunning down Nazis in cold blood with weaponry from the era. In more recent iterations of the game, the enthusiast becomes a CIA agent, a Special Forces fighter, or a black op. In these, he engages in shoot-outs around the world during the Cold War, then hurtles forward into present wars and beyond into a distant realm of 2028, where he fights zombies attempting to take over the planet.

The common thread running through all of these games is that that player becomes the shooter, from whose vantage point behind the gun the player sees the world. The player points his weapon at his enemies and learns to pull the trigger with ever greater efficiency. Often he uses an automatic rifle with numerous rounds of ammo in every cartridge case. The enemies are always dehumanized—Nazis, Vietcong, zombies—and the shooter perfects the techniques of pointing accurately, squeezing the trigger smoothly, and moving on to the next victim.

To be sure, thousands of young people in this world, most of them male, have played these games for hours on end, and few have gone on killing crusades. Yet only a few, I suggest, have sequestered themselves in windowless rooms in basements and, cutting themselves off from most human contact, have played these games for such unending marathon sessions as Lanza seems to have done.

It is likely then, given how utterly he was secluded from the outer world, that the imagery of these games had become deeply imbedded in his memory and his psyche. In addition to this probability, we know through his acquaintances that Lanza was especially fond of using an automatic rifle for honing in on his prey.

Be sure to read Part 2: Entering More Deeply Into His World.

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author ofThe Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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