Connecticut town holds drive to collect and destroy violent video games

A small community about 30 miles from the site of the Newtown massacre is organizing a voluntary video game return program, aimed at collecting violent video games from families and likely burning them.

The Violent Video Games Return Program offers up gift certificates in exchange for violent games, music and movies turned in during an event later this month.

The collected items will then be broken and later incinerated by town employees.

The Jan. 12 event is being organized by the SouthingtonSOS, a collective of representatives of Southington, CT community organizations that includes the Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, board of education, fire department, town officials, United Way and local clergy. The group was formed in the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina as a way for the community to quickly organize help in the wake of national and local tragedies.

"There are youngsters who appear to be consumed with violent video games. I'm not certain if that's a good thing."

The idea for the return program came about a month after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 28 dead, 20 of them children.

Following the shooting, Southington School superintendent Joe Erardi said that he was flooded with emails from concerned parents asking what could be done to help both the nearby Newtown community and their own.

"What happened in our community, very similar to communities across the world, is everyone wanted to do something for Newtown," he said. The SOS "convened and we looked at how do we continue to pray and support Newtown and how do we do something perhaps meaningful for Newtown and our own community."

At the heart of the Violent Video Games Return Program, inspired by a similar program kicked off by a 12-year-old in Newtown, is the need for parents to have a "real, sound conversation with their children about video games," Erardi tells Polygon.

"There are youngsters who appear to be consumed with violent video games," he said. "I'm not certain if that's a good thing. If this encourages one courageous conversation with a parent and their child, then it's a success.

"We're suggesting that for parents who have a child or children who play violent video games, to first of all view the games. We're asking parents to better understand what their child is doing. Have a conversation about next steps. If parents are comfortable (with their child's gaming habits), we're comfortable."

If parents aren't, he said, then they can head to the local drive-in movie theater on Jan. 12 to turn in those video games in exchange for a $25 gift voucher intended to be used for other forms of entertainment, like perhaps, a local water park. The gift certificate will be donated by a member of the Greater Southington Chamber of Commerce as a "token of appreciation for their action of responsible citizenship," according to a press release.

While the return program calls out violent video games, violent movies and music will also be accepted.

Game, movies and music turned in will be snapped, placed in a dumpster and later incinerated.

Once turned in, those discs will be snapped, tossed into a town dumpster and likely later incinerated, Erardi said.

"The group's action is not intended to be construed as statement declaring that violent video games were the cause of the shocking violence in Newtown on December 14th," according to a statement from the organization. "Rather, SouthingtonSOS is saying is that there is ample evidence that violent video games, along with violent media of all kinds, including TV and Movies portraying story after story showing a continuous stream of violence and killing, has contributed to increasing aggressiveness, fear, anxiety and is desensitizing our children to acts of violence including bullying. Social and political commentators, as well as elected officials including the president, are attributing violent crime to many factors including inadequate gun control laws, a culture of violence and a recreational culture of violence."

John Myers, the local YMCA director, said the idea was to figure out how to "put a safety net around our kids" and to provide an opportunity for "kids and parents to have a conversation around violence."

Mostly, he said, the reaction has been positive. Though Art Secondo, president of the Greater Southington Chamber of Commerce, said the not all of the reaction has been supportive.

"I did receive a sarcastic sort of email asking if they could turn in BB guns," he said.

While the image of burning creative works might be alarming to some, Erardi was clear that the destruction of those games wasn't the goal of the movement, just a possible outcome.

"Our message is fairly simple: Have the conversation with your child," he said. "If you conclude your child is done with these games, drop them off and let's move forward. That is all.

"It's not about the NRA endorsing, or video game production companies defending, it's a grassroots movement. It's simple and we believe it's meaningful."

Secondo points out that violence in video games isn't something Southington connected to the shooting. It's becoming a growing topic of debate.

"The group's action is not intended to be construed as statement declaring that violent video games were the cause of the shocking violence in Newtown on December 14th."

The National Rifle Association partially blamed violent video games and other violent entertainment for the school shooting. A Democratic Senator introduced legislation in Congress that would direct the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of violent video games and other content on children. Even a group of gamers came together for a momentary online cease fire in first-person shooters. The renewed interest in the impact of violent gaming on children comes just over a year after the United States Supreme Court confirmed video games' status as a protected medium under the First Amendment.

That protection, David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, works both ways.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated that video games are — like books, plays and movies — forms of expression protected by the First Amendment," McGuire told Polygon. "That means children and their parents are free to choose whether to buy, keep or discard them."

SOS held a press conference this morning to get the word out on the Violent Video Games Return Program. Erardi said that he plans to explain the program to the district's school administrators later this week and write about it on his official blog.

School principals will encourage students to have a conversation with their parents, he said. And parents were notified about the program and the idea for this community conversation via the school's email and phone tree.

Erardi, the father of two grown children, said he didn't believe he has the expertise to discuss whether violent video games played a role in the shooting, when asked.

"I don't have the expertise to share an opinion on that," he said. "There is never anything wrong with parents having a courageous conversation with their children. And when you're stepping into the domain of your child, it's always a courageous conversation."

Update: A leading expert on the impact of violent media on children warns event organizers that they could be doing more harm than good.

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