What You Should Think About Violent Video Games

October 18, 2007

“Violence isn’t always evil. What’s evil is the infatuation with violence.”

–Jim Morrison

There are many roads to popularity for politicians and pundits. Unfortunately, the easiest shortcuts tend to be found on the lowest roads. Railing against contemporary culture while pining for a sugar-coated version of yesteryear is an effective way to exploit a wide variety of passions and prejudices. The world offers constructive thinkers no shortage of real problems to confront. Yet this does not prevent the unscrupulous from grandstanding in crusades against non-problems.

In fairness, depictions of violence are all but inescapable in most cultures. This is no modern phenomenon. Even the Bible is thick with tales of brutality and warfare. In ancient times people engaged in all manner of peaceful activities. Yet the number of truly epic stories involving violence clearly outnumbers those that do not. Conflict is the essence of drama. Violence is never an ideal outcome of conflict, but often it is a realistic outcome. Thus there is nothing surprising about an abundance of violence in literature, film, television, and even video games.

As with other media, quality varies from work to work. Some video game violence is mindless, tasteless, and artless. Yet much of it has redeeming value. The foremost component of that value is entertainment. It is true that participating in an interactive game is different from a passive experience like watching a movie. Yet this argument leads only to the absurd. Are performers in violent plays and films exposing themselves to danger of becoming psychopaths? Would it be anything other than crazy to be fearful of an invitation to dinner with Sir Anthony Hopkins?

Sensible people do not have difficulty distinguishing reality from imagination. Yet calculating panderers use rhetoric to blur this distinction, establishing a false narrative about the role of violent storytelling in discussions about actual violence. It is true that actual violence sometimes takes the form of fictional events. However, it is counterproductive to focus on the form rather than root causes.

To the degree that killers actually do emulate what they’ve seen in culture, vivid window dressing is presented to the world. Preventing real world violence requires looking beyond that window dressing and into the core of violent motives. Death metal does not prevent responsible actions taken to diagnose and treat mental illness. Hip hop music does not obstruct measures to bring economic opportunity to inner cities or remedy racial inequalities. Likewise, every moment of school shooting coverage squandered on violent video game theories is time that is not being spent exploring non-ridiculous explanations of how the tragedy came to be.

In all fairness, young children may have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction. One of the great things about being an adult is freedom from the constraints that shelter children. An individual so young as to be considered sane while inclined toward interaction with imagined entities should have adult supervision. In this area, peculiar American sensibilities related to sex and violence are evident. If a parent permitted a young child to view tremendous amounts of hardcore pornography, courts may question the fitness of that parent. A consistent approach would also handle excessive exposure to violent imagery this way. Surely that is a better alternative than industry-wide censorship, forcing people of all ages into a childish context.

Complaints about violence in entertainment may go back as far as the first embellished war story told about a campfire. Especially with recent slippages back toward barbarism, it should be easy to see that real causes of real violence have their roots in equally real (i.e. non-fictional) phenomena. Those who would contend “things are so much worse nowadays” must be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays or gratuitously gruesome fairy tales that have only fallen out of fashion in recent generations. Yet even if one grants that horror films or violent video games take depicted violence to some sort of new level, how does that mesh with the fact that in times past torture and murder were hardly absent from reality?

Modern knowledge gives us the tools to examine real problems related to violence. In large part it even gives us the tools to solve these problems. What seems lacking is the will to use them. Universal mental health screenings in adolescence might not eliminate the problem of school shootings, but surely such a policy would reduce their number. Of course, it would also offer many other benefits. However, discussion of a sensible measure like that is all too easily crowded out by scapegoating. When such tactics are employed, violent video games are fast becoming a favorite target.

In some part this has to do with the way media has changed. Electronic entertainment offers amazing visual spectacles and even downright surreal experiences. A psychological expert giving nuanced opinions about the kind of conditions that can provoke violent attacks in schools is not going to hold a mass audience very long. On the other hand, a montage of violent video game scenes combined with crude appeals to fear or hate will tend to improve ratings. Since news producers are much more inclined to believe it is their purpose to sell advertising than to believe it is their purpose to inform the public, insight is traded away in favor of bluster and nonsense.

In the end, the greater problem is not that violent video games exist, but rather that this issue provides a means by which people lacking positive or useful messages can still manage to achieve popularity. Outrage can motivate public action even as it obstructs public contemplation. Energy and attention that could be channeled into legitimate approaches of reducing violence winds up misdirected into moral crusades with no chance of accomplishing any better purpose than to nourish the sanctimony of participants.

I suppose the silver lining in all of this is how it may expose the opportunistic insincerity of social manipulators. If you see or hear of a public figure harshly condemning the gaming industry (or the music industry or Hollywood, for that matter) from the perspective of a self-appointed “culture warrior,” it is a safe bet you have encountered an extremely bad source of social and/or political analysis. These distractions from serious informed efforts to promote peace in all its forms may either be a sleazy rhetorical tactic or a sign of personal ignorance. Either way, they should serve as a red flag to indicate that their source has little regard for what you think, instead building their popularity on an ability to make audiences feel negative emotions. That is never a process that increases the measure of wisdom brought to bear on public policy decisions.

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