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17/01/2020 Communication Science news and articles

The entertainization of school shootings: “Active Shooter” and the marketing of violence

School shootings have become more and more prominent over the years in the United States, but what exactly drives someone to doing such a tragic deed?


There have been a tragic amount of school shootings this year already in America. Most of the times, a student of the school he goes to resorts to gun violence against his fellow students, but what makes an ordinary middle school student walk into his classroom and open fire against his classmates? How can we explain the recurring episodes of violence that plague U.S. public opinion, becoming object of concern for the international community?

On May 25, only one week after the Santa Fe School massacre, a young student injured two after opening fire at Noblesville West Middle School in Noblesville, Indiana. Reality appears staggering: according to CNN, in the first 21 weeks of 2018, there have been 23 incidents similar to the just mentioned one. Everytown for Gun Safety registered over 310 cases of gunfire on school grounds since 2013, with an average of 52 shootings per year: the independent and non-partisan organization, aims at reducing the incidence of school shootings by focusing on the underlying causes of this phenomenon.

A scientific perspective: the exposure to media violence as predictor of teens’ violent behavior
There is no much left to say when looking at these data: violence speaks clearly. Greater interest should therefore be put into the analysis of those that are the triggering factors for the raising gunfire rate at U.S. schools.                    

In the past decades, an incredible amount of research attempted to identify the intrinsic motivations and consequences on youth of the exposure to media violence: scientists wanted to deepen the hypothetical negative influence of violent video games on players’ behavior. The results, however, were mostly conflicting: not even longitudinal studies succeeded in drawing clear and homogeneous conclusions.

Nevertheless, evidence was found proving that violent teenagers are subjected to a worsening of their behavioral traits after being repeatedly exposed to media violence. Should we hence consider violent video games (e.g. Call of Duty and Gears of War) only dangerous for the emotional balance of subjects already presenting other risk factors? Science seems to suggest so, yet it’s hard to tell.

The Anarchist Cookbook: a literary precedent and shooters’ source of inspiration
In 1971, the then 22-year-old William Powell wrote The Anarchist Cookbook: the book is a catalogue of instructions for “the manufacturing of explosives, rudimentary telecommunications phreaking devices, weapons and drugs.” This piece of writing was to be a remonstrance against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Powell, who eventually regret the publication of his work, is known to have inspired many of the protagonists of the discussed school shootings. His book not only fostered the harmful intentions of the shooters, but it also provided them with factual knowledge concerning the home-made fabrication of their arsenal.

“I have no patience with individuals who claim that everything will be beautiful if guns and other weapons are outlawed. […] There is no justice left in the system. The only real justice is that which the individual creates for himself, and the individual is helpless without a gun.” – William Powell

Conscious of the implications the distribution of this work had for many generations, we are called to contextualize its matter in order to justify the origin of such a controversial book. Product of the counterculture era, The Anarchist Cookbook reflects the dissatisfaction with any established expression of power and authority. After the Second World War, U.S. counterculture activists engaged themselves in the non-violent movement opposing racial segregation and overall racial discrimination. The cultural phenomenon also took position in supporting causes such as environmentalism, minority rights, and birth control. Accordingly, the book needs to be read taking into account the socio-cultural context within which it took shape.

The marketing of violence between profit and ethical implications
Violent video games are also held responsible for the spread of violence within schools. Proposals of video games regulations have been normal agenda since the release of Death Race (1976), the first game to arouse controversies because of its violent content. Titles such as Mortal Kombat (1995) and Night Trap (1993) provoked the foundation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (Suddath, 2010), an independent panel meant to monitor the presence of violent and sexual content in video games.

Despite the premises featured by the gaming industry in the past decades, not many would have expected such questionable developments: “Active Shooter” is a video game that allows players to simulate school shootings by either taking the role of shooters or the one of SWAT team members. The release date of the computer game was set for June 6: however, the game caused a massive outrage and more than 100,000 people signed a Change.org petition to block its distribution.

Given the role played by entertainment in the spread and maintenance of social norms, behaviors and beliefs, a question which arises is whether profit-driven interests are sufficient to legitimize the selling of violence to the global audiences. Relying on science to raise awareness about the influence of violent media content and personality traits on human behavior, people should lay the foundations of a future in which school shootings are still fortuitos tragedies rather than daily facts.

Countering any form of violence, society needs to prevent further incidents to occur by progressively rebuilding public safety and mutual trust.

Cover: Tim Mudd / Final editing: Kyle Hassing

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