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.
The Medium is Not the Message
So what qualifies as a medium of entertainment? To avoid the obligation of compiling a tediously exhaustive list we will say that all mediums of entertainment exist on a line defined by pure storytelling at one end and rules-based competition at the other, including competitions in which the only rule is that there are no rules. In terms of pure storytelling we can think of the oral tradition or the novel, and in terms of pure competition we can think of games like tic-tac-toe or go. Between the two extremes lies every medium of entertainment ever imagined or yet to be imagined.
Mediums that emphasize rules and competition include not only computer and video games, but all live-action sports (both participatory and spectator), many of which not only dramatize or depict violence but feature the infliction of physical damage on real human beings as a selling point. Violent live-action sports include but are not limited to boxing, MMA, American football, rugby, hockey, and even baseball, where a pitcher may be ordered to drill a batter with a potentially lethal ninety-six-mile-per-hour fastball because of a perceived and usually imagined breach of etiquette. Mediums that emphasize narratives — in which violence is generally simulated or implied — include every technology imaginable from film to television to radio, photography and computer programs, but also live-action performances such as theater, dance, concerts and the like.
While few people throughout history have probably ever believed that lyric poetry or hopscotch triggered a killing spree, we cannot — as you are doing right now — dismiss such possibilities out of hand. Admittedly, however, at any point in history some mediums seem more likely than others to provoke violence in individuals who would otherwise not have gone berserk, and in the past few decades the mediums garnering the great majority of suspicion after an act of mass murder have been computer and video games — hereafter collectively referred to as interactive entertainment. While a sensible and compelling choice because the interactive audience often participates in acts of fictional mass murder, many of which are mandated by gameplay, real-world mass murders did take place prior to the invention of interactive entertainment. Predictably, those berserk acts were attributed to, in no particular order, the television industry, the recording industry, the film industry, the publishing industry, or any other entertainment industry that could be accused of corrupting the mind, while also helpfully deflecting societal attention from real-world factors that have also long been suspected of contributing to acts of delinquency or violence. (Examples include physical, emotional or sexual abuse and poverty.)
To be fair to those who feel uneasy about interactive entertainment and its potential for triggering acts of violence, not only is it an extremely persuasive medium that does a great job of simulating real-world choices and actions, the industry itself proved to be a bad actor in its early years, not only denying any possible culpability for acts of violence that seemed to mimic interactive works, but denying the possibility that interactive entertainment could in any way nudge someone over the line. Having worked in the interactive industry myself I can tell you that such denials were routinely made by people who were, by odd coincidence, making a lot of money selling violent games to kids. Fortunately, over time, the industry not only realized that treating its customers like morons was a bad public relations move, some of the brighter lights realized that the industry was not just showing embarrassing disregard for a laudable moral obligation parents were struggling to meet while grappling with a new medium they didn’t understand, they realized the industry itself was being embarrassingly hypocritical.
One the one hand, the industry insisted that interactivity was a powerful new means of learning and improving all kids of positive skills ranging from physical reaction times in twitch games to tactical and strategic thinking to building empathy and sympathy for characters in games that included narrative elements or cooperative play. On the other hand, the very same industry was adamant that even egregious amounts of time spent playing titles that featured hunting and killing everything from goofy non-representational enemies to graphically realistic characters — which were often dispatched in hyper-graphic death animations — had absolutely no capacity to increase anyone’s tactical lethality, let alone their propensity for violence. (As I said, it was beyond dumb, but when there’s money to be made reason always takes a back seat.)
The Medium is Not the Motive
Fortunately, after legitimate and sustained public outcry, industry veterans who were not wholly corrupt realized that allowing parents to know which games were violent not only met an absurdly low bar of cultural responsibility — which most mainstream entertainment mediums had already adopted — it would do little to discourage sales precisely because everyone would want to play the edgiest titles with the gnarliest ratings. Parents with the nerve and stamina to actually parent could keep their tots from hacking people to pieces six hours a day, while parents who didn’t could live with the potential consequences, which, frankly, often seemed less frightening that being trapped in a house with an enraged child who could not play whatever trendy violent game their friends were playing.
There is general agreement that practicing any task will eventually make you better at performing that task. Practice multiplication tables and you get better at solving multiplication problems. Practice remotely controlling machinery and you will be better at robotic surgery or piloting drones. Practice throwing a baseball or a block in football or a punch to the face in MMA and you’re going to get better at doing those things, including better at maiming other human beings in the process if that’s your objective. Practice any of those things in a virtual setting — also known as a simulator — and you’ll still learn things that improve your performance in real-world scenarios, which means that all the time people spend practicing the strategy and tactics necessary for knifing or shooting people in a virtual setting also improves their ability to do those things in real life.
Despite all the virtual violence taking place in the medium of interactive entertainment, however, there still doesn’t seem to be any evidence that doing so causes people to go berserk — at least any more than endlessly watching slasher flicks begets roving hordes of slashers, or listening to death metal begets roving choruses of incoherent screamers, or doing multiplication tables begets roving bands of math majors. In fact, given the millions of hours spent in virtual death mills every day, there seems to be a spectacular lack of correlation between virtual violence and real-world violence. With regard to children specifically, were violent video games truly capable of causing otherwise normal but immature children to go berserk, we should have seen a cosmic explosion of violence that simply hasn’t taken place.
Maddeningly, in our search for motive we once again find that any entertainment medium may, either alone or in concert with other factors, contribute to a person acting violently, but in no case will we be able to use that knowledge predictively. Even if exposure to violent content makes children more aggressive or violent in some statistically meaningful way, we will never be able to predict in advance which children might act out. The most we can do is suggest that decreasing exposure to violent content, on average, will decrease spontaneous acts of violence among children who become confused about how to act appropriately. If bashing things in a game is good, it’s understandable that children might need to learn why bashing things in real life is bad, but such life lessons are hardly new or a byproduct of violent virtual play.
— Mark Barrett