December 28, 2012

It was 2005, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Jauhar Abraham, who co-founded Peaceoholics with me, and I were headed to Oak Hill Youth juvenile detention facility to conduct group sessions with troubled youths. When we walked into the facility, we found the teenagers glued to the TV playing “Grand Theft Auto,” a video game in which players steal cars and otherwise commit murder and mayhem in huge amounts. Many of these youths wound up where they were for committing crimes very like the ones they were committing in the video game. Needless to say, we were outraged.

To find out what kind of impact such games had on them, we held focus groups with the youths. I recall one of them telling me that, before he started playing the games, he would have never gotten into a stolen car, a step which led to stealing cars later on and eventually to violent carjackings — just like in the game. Then one youth I will never forget said that playing the games put him “in a zone” to do what he had to do to survive. This young man would later be killed, and after his death several murders would be attributed to him.

It was obvious that the violent games desensitized these youths to violence. But I didn’t really need them to tell me this. The focus groups brought back memories of when I was growing up. I was just as easily influenced by the entertainment industry. Many of my friends either wanted to be like Michael Jordan — or Scarface.

Did we idolize Jordan because he was the most exciting basketball player of all time? Or could it have been because he showed up in pretty much every other commercial on television? Scarface was a different story. Tony Montana — Al Pacino’s character in the movie of that name — was admired for how he rose in the drug game. I saw the influence firsthand when some of my friends began saying, “Say hello to my little friend” — Montana’s famous line — before committing acts of violence similar to what they saw glorified in the film.

Abraham and I knew we had to do something with what we were learning about the negative impact of violent media. With the support of civil rights activists, we set out to train youths who were once members of rival gangs to become activists. During our sessions with them, we discussed the impact of violent video games. They came to see themselves as change agents with the power to stop this poison from reaching their peers.

We had some successes with our work and started attracting media attention. Adrian Fenty and Jim Graham took the lead on D.C. Council legislation aimed at stopping violent and sexually explicit games from getting into the hands of minors. But once the powerful lobbyists from the video game industry got involved, it all went nowhere.

Now we have seen the horrific massacre in Newtown, Conn., and we’re having the same conversation all over again. For District residents, the violence displayed in Newtown is all too familiar. In 2010, five young people were killed and nine wounded in the South Capitol Street massacre, only a few miles from where our president resides. Data show that murder is down in the District, but this is misleading to some degree. Since 2005, thousands have fallen victim to assaults, stab wounds and gunshots — all of which our children act out daily in video games that grow more violent all the time.

And yet some continue to argue that our violence-infested entertainment cannot possibly influence an individual to commit acts of terror. They are wrong.

It’s time for the District’s legislators to bring back the bill ensuring that parents and merchants are obligated to keep these games out of the hands — and minds — of our children. Additionally, we must ensure that every child in America who needs mental health services gets them, while also stopping them from self-medicating through violent games. Remember, hurt people hurt people. Let’s all be responsible and act before the next massacre.