This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
While children aren’t more hostile or violent than adults, and on the whole seem to do a lot less damage, on average they do seem a bit more cognitively pliable. This is partly explained by the fact that their brains have not fully developed, and partly because they haven’t had time to learn what’s right and wrong in many cultural contexts. If a child is angry it may seem, from the point of view of the child, like a perfectly reasonable response to pick up a toy and start bashing someone. If the child is fortunate, that decision then leads to a reasoned teaching moment about social norms from a nearby adult. Precisely because children need to learn what society expects and how to control their emotions, however, it does seem prudent to watch out for influences that could teach behaviors which are the opposite of what society desires.
In that context the first thing we can say about attempts to blame any medium of entertainment for acts of real-world violence committed by anyone of any age is that we are justified in making a distinction between groups that are and are not likely to be influenced. Our concern, as it was with the mentally ill, is that children may have a harder time distinguishing fantasy from reality, meaning the more a given medium replicates reality the more likely it might be that children could possibly become confused or led astray. For example, while we don’t believe that watching a violent movie over and over will make the average adult more likely to commit acts of violence, we do think — again, with some plausible justification — that doing so might affect a child, or perhaps even a group of young people if such experiences are communal. In response to such concerns, movies have long been given content ratings so busy adults do not have to preview each title in order to know if it’s appropriate for younger viewers.
As to which mediums of entertainment we should be most concerned about, that’s a more complicated question because blaming mediums of entertainment for acts of violence is not a rational pursuit. Not only can any medium of entertainment be used to demonstrate, depict or dramatize acts of violence, violence is routinely used in all mediums for the express purpose of entertaining an audience. When it comes to scapegoating or assigning blame to mediums for acts of carnage, however, there is almost always a perceptible bias toward some mediums and away from others. While usually self-serving, such scapegoating has appeal because it provides an apparently plausible rationale for tragic events that would otherwise remain uncertain as to cause. Even better, having done our civic duty and singled out one medium for blame, we can then go back to lustily enjoying bloodbaths and unspeakable acts of cruelty in the presumably innocent mediums of entertainment we prefer.
The idea that any medium of entertainment is incapable of triggering or contributing to a berserk act is of course nonsense, if only because — as we’ve maddeningly discovered — we can never know for certain what motivates such behavior. If a medium of entertainment can be experienced by human beings, and if we can never predict what will trigger someone to go berserk, then either all mediums of entertainment have the capacity to trigger berserk behavior or none of them do. Since we generally seem to agree — at least for children and the mentally ill, if not sane adults — that mediums of entertainment can influence behavior, then we have to allow for such influence across all mediums. [ Read more ]