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.
In considering the degree to which interactive entertainment may trigger individuals to commit mass murder we have unwittingly fallen into a logical abyss from which we cannot escape. Hand in hand with any brain training that occurs while playing computer games is the narrative context in which interactivity takes place. Because it’s assumed, with some plausible justification, that brain training makes interactive works potentially more dangerous, the narrative aspects of interactive titles tend to be viewed differently when compared with similar narrative elements in passive mediums such as film or television. For example, a movie which depicts the slaughter of tens or hundreds or thousands is presumed to be less potentially harmful than an interactive work which requires the slaughter of tens or hundreds or thousands.
As you’ve come to realize, however, from the point of view of motive this distinction produces no practical or actionable difference. Were we to exclude all interactive works from the marketplace by dialing the clock back thirty years to see if doing so prevented acts of violence from taking place, the answer would clearly be no. Prior to the invention of computer games only a few decades ago there was no shortage of mass murder, serial murder, massacres, atrocities, crimes against humanity and attempts at genocide — meaning whatever it is that motivates such acts on an individual or group basis, the impetus seems to be inherent in human beings, not inherent in mediums of entertainment.
With regard to computer games, however, the question of interactivity and brain-training cuts both ways. If what you’re practicing in a virtual setting is violent, it may also increase your chance of survival if the world actually is overrun by alien invaders, Nazis, terrorists or zombies — all of which currently serve, at least in the United States, as acceptable narrative foils for entertaining and ruthless acts of patriotic or godly barbarism across all mediums. Swap out such socially acceptable antagonists for farm animals, school children or the handicapped and almost anyone would be revolted by the ensuing carnage, let alone by actively participating in such fictional crimes, yet at root the brain-training play mechanics would remain exactly the same. Meaning it’s not the interactivity per se that’s the potential problem, but the context in which that interactivity takes place.
If you’re mowing down horde after horde of evil incarnate — or whatever social, ethnic, political or extraterrestrial group you see as evil — by definition that cannot be bad, at least in a narrative context. On the other hand, mowing down innocents, even using the exact same mechanics, would be not only reprehensible, but dangerous in terms of a specific kind of brain-training we call desensitization — which in itself is also not inherently negative. For example, if you’re afraid of spiders a prescribed round of clinical desensitization may cure you of that problem. On the other hand, if you normally empathize and sympathize with your fellow man, but find that spending a few days or months or years fiddling with a murder simulator erodes your reluctance to go on a real-world killing spree, that would obviously not be a good thing. [ Read more ]