There is a long-running debate about whether or not violent media perpetuates violence in real life. I remember this debate hit home with me as a child when I would read my GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly magazines and they would have letters, editorials and articles about the state of game-related legislation, ratings and content. As a child who could feel his rights and freedoms potentially being infringed upon, I took the position that there was no harm in violent video games and for the life of me I could not understand why my parents reacted so irately when I told them I had seen the coolest game (Mortal Kombat) at a friend’s house. It was them after all, who allowed me to watch Conan the Barbarian.
This was okay
Now I don’t think I need to point out to you the conflict of interests I had in this regard as a child; how could I acknowledge any harm in sexy/violent games if I wanted to keep playing them with impunity? Well, now I don’t have any such conflict because my video game playing is minimal and I’m like 28 now. So what do I think now that I have the benefit of more experience and knowledge? Have I recanted my juvenile assertions about the harmlessness of violent games? Have I become the responsible adult hypocrite my childhood self would beat the shit out of?
Hardly. Adult Me would beat the ever-living fuck out of a chubby bitch like Childhood Me.
Less of a beatdown and more a rape, really.
However, my views have evolved some. For one thing, you may remember me making reference to root causes at one point. Or perhaps you remember another time when I talked about how we need to view violence in a broader context, because the currently-received narrow viewpoints don’t actually do anything to reduce occurrences of violence. I gotta be fair and apply the same logic to my previously-held viewpoints regarding video-game (media) violence to see if they hold up.
So according to my own currently-held understanding of the world, does violent media have an effect on violence in the real world?
Yes, but not in the way they say it does on the news or in parliament.
See we tend to frame the debate about video-game violence (all media violence really) on how it figured into the lives of school shooters or whatnot. Everyone knows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold played Doom prior to shooting up their high school back in 1999. But you could easily make the counter-argument that not everyone who plays Doom shoots up their school, so it can’t be the game’s fault. Whatever side you subscribe to, I think both sides miss the point. You see it isn’t the digitized blood and guts of early first-person shooters that make people wanna kill people.
Does this make you go into a kill-frenzy?
I think the larger problem is that video games like Doom tend to reinforce a good vs. evil duality. This is really a structural problem and one I have alluded to in the past. Often we tend tend to frame our conceptions of conflict in terms of us vs. them. And since our side couldn’t possibly be the wrong side, and furthermore because our perfectly empirical objectivity (especially during times of emotional turmoil) would never allow us to take a flawed position, we tend to see the other side as more wrong, bad and irrationally evil as their opposition to us becomes more and more staunch and pronounced.
If you think about it this same type of duality is reinforced in much more (seemingly) benign ways than violent video games. I remember watching cartoons like Care Bears as a kid, where you had evil assholes like No-Heart
being absolutely evil for no reason. We never see any depth to the character or find out his motivations (beyond the fact that he has no heart). Now you may say that as a kids show we can afford to be light-hearted and vague about the antagonist’s motivations because important lessons are being taught. Well, if you maintain that important lessons are being taught, you are implying that children’s programming serves as a kind of well…programming. So while the kid is learning that he shouldn’t be an evil douche like No-Heart, he is also being programmed on a more sublime level to believe that evil douchebags like No-Heart exist, that is to say, people who do what we would call “evil” for no apparent, justifiable reason.
Think about it next time you are watching your favourite programming. So often television shows and movies paint the antagonists as evil for evil’s sake. Or if they are shown as having legit motivations, their actions in search of retribution are always shown to be disproportionate to the initial slight. It’s hard to get on board with villains like this because evil is something morally upstanding people like us just don’t understand (Hint: because it doesn’t exist)
So when we watch media like The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, or any number of other examples where the evil characters are shown not just to have motivations, but defensible motivations, we are shown a more realistic perspective. We laud these shows because they show the causal chain which leads an evil character to do evil. We see characters like Tony Soprano living the only life he has ever known while at the same time trying to do right by the people he cares about and stay afloat amongst the various everyday pressures of his line of work. He is never irrationally malicious; on the contrary, when he is malicious, reasons are always given or implied. Rather than being seem as a rake, we see Tony as an endearing, likeable character. BUT HE KILLS PEOPLE (DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY) ALL THE TIME.
And lest we forget that shows like this have pretty mature themes and are not designed to appeal to children. No, these shows are marketed to adults who have already been programmed since their childhood to view things in terms of good and evil. But instead of having the desirable effect of educating people that there is no such thing as a good vs. evil duality in real life, I find the more common outcome is that people tend to idolize characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White while still viewing real-life transgressors as evil. Essentially they have learned nothing from the truth lurking in fiction and have instead built a fantasy around someone who challenges the status quo in ways they do not. Interpretation fail.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a purpose to having character’s who are good and evil. In summer blockbuster type movies for example, where there is an emphasis on special effects and plot is relegated to afterthought status, having too complex a villain can take away from the enjoyment of having the CGI Low-Orbit Ion-Cannon destroy him and his base. After all, if empathy is generated, you might feel pangs of regret seeing him destroyed so roundly. As an aside, this was actually one of the cooler aspects of 2012’s Dredd 3D. The villain, MaMa, gets summarily wasted by
Dredd at movie’s end but as you see her fall through the window to her death it’s hard not to consider her horrible past which the narrative had earlier gone on at length to divulge. She is most certainly a sympathetic character (although she is admittedly vicious), and her summary execution at the hands of Dredd seems like it was a conscious decision by the filmmakers to be an indictment of totalitarian law enforcement as well as our “punishment” approach to crime. Here was a rare example of a blockbuster style of movie that also did enough character exposition to paint morality in shades of grey. Great Job!
I hope my point here is clear. There’s is a reason why TV Tropes tells its contributors not to use real life examples for the good/evil alignment page. In their words:
“Due to the controversial nature of this trope, and not to mention, it’s considered shoe-horning to categorize people with these kind of tropes, there will be no real-life examples under these circumstances, since it invites an ‘Edit War.’
I feel that bit about shoe-horning is particularly important as labeling someone with either a positive or negative distinction negates the whole system(s) which contributed to their disposition and actions at any given time. You may notice this is me up to my old tricks again, but I really can’ t talk about this shit enough. Really look at the entertainment, news stories, and opinions you take in and make an effort to scan them for signs of superstitious concepts like good and evil. You may find they are more prevalent than you would assume in a technologically and scientifically advanced society.
Let me wrap up by explicitly relating the perpetuation of the good vs. evil duality to the proliferation of violence. To do so, I want to cite Lt. Col. (Ret.) David Grossman’s book, On Killing. I found one of the most profound parts of that book was where he talked about how militaries around the world have traditionally coaxed young men into killing other young men by establishing some distance or separation from the enemy. This separation has been along many lines: while Bolshevik leaders may have played up socio-economic distance to incite the oppressed poor of Russia to kill their fellow Russians, the Nazis emphasized genetic and religious distance to dehumanize the Jews and ultimately make the prospect of executing them more palatable to the wretched post-WW1 German population. At the most basic level, if you want to create distance you play up the good vs. evil angle, painting your side as good and the other side as evil. If you want to see the ultimate outcome of dehumanizing people like this look no further than the news, where undoubtedly there will be a story somewhere about one group of people killing another group of people for supposedly righteous reasons.
Insofar as our video games reinforce a clear line between good and evil they are harming us by encouraging us to see the world through the lens of duality. But I think the premise that digitized blood makes people kill is flawed. By my rationale, my parents should have been less concerned about me playing Mortal Kombat, with its largely morally-ambiguous characters, than they should have been about me playing Super Mario Bros. where the message that evil, giant turtle-dinosaurs are laying in wait to kidnap and rape my girlfriend was constantly being hammered into my head.