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When the media sensationalises tragedy

On Monday this week, CNN published the following blood-chilling headline:

“8-year-old shoots, kills elderly caregiver after playing video game.”

According to the article on, 87-year-old Marie Smothers was pronounced dead at the scene in the mobile home park in Slaughter, Louisiana where she lived. She had been killed with a gunshot to the head. Authorities believe that the 8-year-old boy responsible "intentionally shot Mrs. Smothers in the back of the head as she sat in her living room watching television."


The young boy will not face any charges as under Louisiana law, a child younger than 10 is not considered to be capable of criminal responsibility. He has since been released into the custody of his parents.

This tragic incident appears to have no particular motive assigned to it. However, the shooting has of course, been linked to the fact that the child was playing Grand Theft Auto IV on his PlayStation 3 prior to the event.

Because the child has not had to face any legal consequences for his actions, CNN states that:

"We have a child who does not know the impact of the consequences of the act he committed," Sclynski Legier, a lawyer, told CNN affiliate WAFB. "He truly doesn't understand that."


Former senior policy analyst for the White House Office of Science and Technology, Constance Steinkuehler has since spoken to the Christian Science Monitor about the discussion surrounding the “involvement” of Grand Theft Auto in the death of Marie Smothers:

"If you look at the state of research right now, there isn't a causal link between violent media and violent behaviors…That's contested in some corners.

You have to keep in mind that in much of that work that's trying to assert there's a positive relationship, it's pretty tenuous – showing, for example, that after 20 minutes of playing a game subjects have an increased likelihood to fill in a letter in a word that is EXPLO_E as 'EXPLODE' rather than 'EXPLORE.' ...There are a lot of inferences that you have to draw in order for that to work."

Video games as a cause of violent behaviour is an issue we have been over repeatedly. It’s very easy to see why the media would be attracted to the use of video games as a scapegoat, because sensational claims of that nature spark numerous debates and discussions, satiating these news sites lust for page views. However, this sensationalism has many negative and far-reaching consequences, the tarnishing the good name of our favourite hobby being one of the least of them. While everybody is once again getting all a-fluster about GTA being the cause of murderous behaviour, the following facts are being side-lined:

1.     The boy shot Marie Smothers with her own firearm that he has somehow found.

2.     The 8-year-old was playing a mature title that he should not have access to.

I am not trying to lay blame at the feet of the victim, or to blame his parents for allowing him access to restricted media.

I am not anti-gun ownership, because although I personally would be way to intimidated to have one in the house with me (least of all because I am ridiculously clumsy), I think that individuals should have the right to own a weapon if they so choose.

Those things being said, it’s now time to answer the question that lies at the crux of the matter:

Whom or what should be held accountable for this incident?

Once again I turn to the words of Constance Steinkuehler:

"If you want to hold the stance that games are a powerful vehicle for learning in subjects like social studies, or history, or science, or math, but not in terms of violence, or things that concern us ... I find that argument difficult to swallow…I have a hard time dismissing the concerns of the public over violent media."

To be fair, this does actually make sense. At the same time, we cannot conclusively state that it was a video game that made this child behave in the fashion that he did.

I also find it difficult to blame an 8-year-old in entirety for this incident. It’s difficult for me to write this in all honesty, because it involves a lot of speculation as to the child’s state of mind when the incident occurred. We don’t know his thoughts or feelings prior to or at the moment of the shooting; and we probably won’t ever know what they were. However, I was an 8-year-old once and I can attest to the enormous amount of curiosity I had about the world. I wanted to learn things; I wanted to know “why?” If this child’s mindset was anything like mine, it’s highly possible that he picked up the gun after playing a video game and thought “I wonder what would happen if…?”

Perhaps these things sound like excuses, but to me personally it appears that the variables of video games full of mature content, childish curiosity and a gun combined into an equation that resulted in an extremely sad and needless death.

I do not believe that there is one thing we can conclusively blame for the events of Monday, but there are still some things we can learn and take away from them:

I think that these occurrences highlight the need for responsible gun ownership. Keeping your gun in a place where children absolutely and under no circumstances can gain unsupervised access to your firearms would be a very good idea (as well as leaving them unloaded to be honest).

We must also learn to talk to our children:

If you own a gun, teach them the consequences of firing such a weapon…educate them about the responsibilities and obligations that come with its ownership.

Talk to your children about the video games they play. If you choose to allow your children to be exposed to mature content, you should be there and be prepared to discuss these themes with them.

We live in a society that is full of both light and darkness. Finding blame with one catalyst involved in an event does nothing to hold the darkness at bay if we do not analyse all the factors surrounding what happened.

Stephanie's Twitter / MWEB Gamezone Twitter | Facebook

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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd

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