Let’s Get Real About the Cultural Impact of Violence in Media
Last week, America experienced yet another tragic mass shooting when a government contractor used his security clearance to enter and open fire on the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. He killed twelve people and died himself in a shootout with the police. Within 24 hours another, much lesser, tragedy began playing out in the media reporting on this sad event: the shooter, Aaron Alexis, was, according to friends and neighbors, “obsessed” with playing “violent video games.” This simple fact, and potential focus of blame, was referenced again and again at all news outlets, red and blue and even those without a supposed political bent. The same pattern happened again after Newtown, after Aurora, and after Tucson; dating at least as far as Columbine and littered all over the history of mass shootings when the perpetrators are white middle class men in their teens to their mid-30s.
Because there have been, on average, one mass shooting every three months since President Obama took office, the debate over the impact of violence in the media — especially in the video game industry — has been occuring more and more frequently, with even politicians afraid to challenge gun control laws pointing to media as potential avenue for reform. Forget about any other possible correlative or causative incitements, from the economy to foreign policy to mental health to removing the ban on assault weapons purchases. Why is it we always rush to judgement on the bloodier, explodier elements of our popular culture?
As a pop culture aficionado since before the Internet became a universally used communication tool, much less since before I started writing critically on it, it is very easy to immediately dismiss any arguments against violent media, even violent video games, as unwarranted censorship by luddite dumb-dumbs that just don’t get it, man. I watch violent movies and TV shows. Many of my favorite pieces of entertainment feature the absolute worst elements of the human condition; they display innards and guts as much as they display interior emotions, often more likely the former than the latter. Yet, I’ve never killed any other human being. The only life I’ve taken, besides mosquitoes who deserve no quarter, was a bird that I hit with an acorn fired from a slingshot as it flew overhead in its flock one autumn afternoon in the mid-90s. I never used the slingshot again. I still feel guilty about that bird’s death to this day. I am not going to open fire with an automatic rifle loaded with a drum full of armor piercing ammo anytime soon, no matter who many cops I run over, accidentally or not, in Grand Theft Auto V.
I imagine anyone who has ever watched Sylvester Stallone’s ouevre or played all the Halos, the GTAs, the God of Wars, etc., etc., feel the same way. After all, according to studies, 91% of American kids play video games (many or most of them “violent”) and yet mass shootings only amount to 100 out of 12,000 annual homicides in this country. That’s a less than 1% incident rating, which is probably a similar percentage of violent video game players who also participate in mass shootings. There’s also the fact that while violent crime has decreased steadily in the United States since the 1990s, the growth of console video game culture has exploded alongside more action-packed movies and television programs. (This, in spite some anti-media-violence crusaders pointing to a rise in crime in earlier decades being linked to media violence.) We’re at the point when more people have played violent video games than seen the year’s biggest blockbusters, and each are equally loaded with more explosions per minute than the entire Middle East. With the percentages so off and the decades of violent media saturation and sales correspond with actual drops in actual violent crimes, it really does seem like those trying to lay the blame for horrific real life events at the feet of those who make and consume totally fake representations of horror are, at least, overreacting. At worst, it begins to look and feel like opponents of the current pop landscape are demonizing real life human beings who are otherwise culturally harmless.
But, and here’s the thing, not everyone who wants to “do something” about violent video games and media entertainment is that totally off-base or, necessarily, pushing a political motive. I’m loathe to give the Parents Television Council credit for anything other than providing rhetoric that makes them look more like tetotaling blowhards rather than sincere scolds, but they have accumulated an impressive amount of data that purports to prove their claims that violent media has a net-negative effect on children, and, therefore, society. More than anything, it would seem these “facts” are more pertinent to the claim that video games, movies, and TV are major time-sucks and possibly stopping some people who would otherwise do something more relevant to their local communities than they are damning evidence that video games, movies, and TV are scarring our children for life. There’s some logic to that, because who among us can’t say we haven’t lost a friend (for some period of time) to World of Warcraft? Then again, the time spent in front of a screen with moving pictures could also prevent some people from committing those crimes, if we want to give the distraction argument any balance.
More to the point, though, the PTC does have legitimate pyschological resources that back up their overarching claim that violent media can and does effect the brains of the humans perceiving or experiencing that violent media. Studies have shown that watching violent media may decrease the brain’s regulating of aggressive behavior, at least for a very small window of time after the media was consumed. There is, as yet, no relevant data that suggests violent media, video games or otherwise, have any long term effects on players’ minds. However, because there is some vague connection, most psychologists are willing to state that media may play a small role in real life violence, but that it is also hardly the only element that would.
And, yet, did we really need psychologists to study violent media consumption’s real-time effects on our brains to tell us that violent media consumption affects our brains? Of course it does, and this is something those would argue against the censoring luddites know but do not like to discuss. All media consumption does something to the organ inside our skull. Whether we know it through studies or from the sheer fact that box office receipts put a dollar amount on just how much we enjoy people and inanimate objects blowing up in ridiculous CGI guysers of blood and flame for our pleasure, it’s obviously true. Why else would any of you reading this come to Pajiba? Why would I be writing here? Why would anyone working in Hollywood, or anyone working in any enterainment field around the world, spend so much of their time and money making things for other people’s enjoyment if our brains didn’t dramatically respond to those things? The narrative doesn’t need to include human-on-human violence to cause a chemical or electrical reaction, it just needs to appeal to one of the spots on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (the lower on that list, the better). It’s naturally human to tell stories, just as it’s naturally human to consume them. The heart wants what it wants. Culturally, what we want is for things to go boom.
And, yet, simply because media, including the violent kind, does have some effect on our minds, that is still not enough to attempt to outlaw, margianilize, or demonize those who would subject themselves to it. There is no science saying that even the dampening of mental restraints on aggressive behavior while playing a violent video game, or watching a violent movie, is negative or positive. (Your mileage on competitive attitudes generally and being called a “faggy bitch” on Xbox Live specifically may vary.) It is irresponsible to argue either side, because while we don’t need scientists to tell us what we already know, we do need them to tell us how much of what we already know matters. Since all media has at least some mental effect, one would then have to raise up or bring low all other forms of media, including ones they would rather ignore. Not everyone who watches superhero movies dresses up in a costume and tries to fight crime, but a very small percentage of people do. Does that say anything about superhero fans, or this country or its people, or humanity as a whole?
Interestingly, there does seem to be some correlation between the release of video games and the decrease of criminal activity, which could point toward either criminals play a lot of video games or new video games help prevent crime for a short duration, but neither conclusion could say fault or credit the piece of entertainment itself. Entertainment can’t pull a trigger or set off a bomb, but a person can if their brain tells them to and if our laws allow them easy access to those tools of destruction. Entertainment, then, is neutral. If that’s true, then consumption of violent media should come down to the individual person doing the consuming and how they respond to it, not tar all consumers with the same brush. Making it harder for people to watch or play with pop culture artifacts that trade in violent imagery is not an answer to curbing real violenc, not when humans were necessarily violent, in order to survive, long before we started telling stories. Unless people starting using their Xboxes and Playstations as murder implements en masse, targeting video games is a pointless exercise in moral posturing.
I am not Aaron Alexis. I am not Adam Lanza. I am not James Homes. Chances are, neither are you.
Rob Payne also writes the web comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. His first essay on media violence was written in high school, when the focus was on movies like Natural Born Killers, and he’s found that the arguments never change.