Like many countries around the world, the U.S. is a society steeped in violence. It’s clearly true at the national level: despite all our posturing as the globe’s stalwart ambassadors of peace, the U.S. is arguably the most aggressive military power ever known. In fact, America has been almost continuously at war since the very first days of our republic. The numbers are jarring: we’ve enjoyed peace for precisely 21 of the 241 years we have existed as a nation (less than seven percent of our history).

As we see too often, this violent tendency exists at the local level as well. There is no need for me to document our country’s history of mass shootings and similar acts here; it’s a litany we have all grown far too accustomed to.

Tip to toe, our American experiment has been a violent one. And connecting the dots between our hyper-competitive system and the violent images and themes that pervade our entertainment is something our culture has been hesitant to do. But if we are going to have any hope of solving this crisis, connect them we must.

In the midst of a crisis in gun violence, you might not want to give your kids murder tutorials. Click to Tweet

Of course, at both ends of this spectrum lie one glaring similarity: way too many fucking guns. I’m not interested in having a Second Amendment debate here; in terms of gun policy, its protections are a fraud that our lawmakers will figure out eventually, or not. And there are plenty of people talking about that already. But you can’t deny this basic truth: whether you’re talking about our neighborhoods or our armed forces, More Guns = More Violence. Our military doesn’t build weapons to store them; they never have. Like most militaristic nations, we use them.

A screengrab from Grand Theft Auto, the popular first person shooter series.

Likewise, American citizens like to use their guns–mostly on one another. You can point to gun ownership and homicide rates in Sweden (or wherever) and scream “guns don’t kill people” until you hyperventilate. Go ahead. It won’t change the fact that the U.S. is not Sweden.

Because there are a handful of things that make our country unique. In the interest of connecting just a few of the aforementioned dots, here are some of them.

With its interventionist foreign policy, our military sends the same message to our citizens every day: violence is a reliable way to solve your problems. Or as street artist Banksy put it, “when all else fails, call in an airstrike.” Pithy.

At a deeper level, our society’s focus on individual achievement and competition (and its deemphasis of collective effort and cooperation) has created a citizenry geared for clash and conflict. Traits like empathy and compassion are devalued, and cast as weaknesses in this environment. Our entertainment and news media constantly reaffirm these values. The average American citizen can hardly be blamed for having an adversarial worldview.

And we don’t just accept or condone violence in our culture. We fetishize  it. Our books and films dwell on the most perverse, debased violence imaginable. There are successful Hollywood franchises based solely on themes of elaborate, sadistic torture. We consume cruelty like potato chips in Americaand it’s an insidious diet.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the first-person shooter game. The black sheep of the video game world, the first person shooter game has been vilified and railed against, but still dominates as a gaming category. Children, teens and adults all over the world play the games, which allow players to take on the role of combatant/soldier/active shooter in a variety of virtual environments. The general idea: to shoot as many people as possible.

Now, on the face of it, creating an immersive facsimile of a murder/combat situation would seem to be indefensible for anything other than training soldiers and cops. And in fact, the military does use these games for training, and has a long history of using games for this purpose (before video games, military board games were actually common). 

Of course, in our timeline these video facsimiles were promptly branded “games” and marketed to our children as entertainment. Our culture’s collective decision to hand hyperrealistic murder fantasies to our children seems irresponsible at best, and suicidal at worst.

This doesn’t seem like a complicated point, but there are are a handful of studies out there that claim to disprove any connection between these games and real-world violence. The statistics, we are told, just don’t bear out the theory that these games contribute to violent acts.

But statistics are slippery things. There are a lot of factors that contribute to violence, and teasing out one factor and showing a clear correlation isn’t an easy thing to do. But common sense tells me that when your society is in the midst of a crisis in gun violence, you might not want to give your kids murder tutorials.

Our obsession with violence and conflict is a national burden, one that exacts a terrible toll. Violent images will always be a part of our entertainment culture, as First Amendment protections insure. With first-person shooter games, however, our culture has crossed the line into senselessness.

The epidemic of violence that consumes our nation today has a host of causes, and in a culture as complex as ours, sorting them out seems a daunting, almost impossible task. But some things are simple, and this is one: these games are not acceptable as entertainment, and certainly not for children. As Americans, watching reports of the latest school shooting, we feel horror–when we should feel shame.