This is the first in a series of posts exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world.
A few weeks back I ran across yet another article purporting to shed light on the decades-old question of whether video games beget real-world violence. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the article was merely another grinding of the ever-glistening axe which both sides in that debate are all too eager to wield in service of their own disingenuous agendas.
Here is the opening paragraph from the article, which took journalism to task for suggesting that violent video games and real-world murder might somehow be related:
In the wake of the killing of the schoolteacher Ann Maguire last week, the question has again been raised of whether playing violent video games could lead someone to commit murder. It’s a common link that we see suggested in the media whenever tragedies of this sort occur, but the scientific evidence simply doesn’t support these claims.
As we’ll soon see, implying that a lack of scientific proof voids any possible causal complicity is a gambit exploited by every industry that has ever been accused of fomenting real-world violence. Such arguments are at best legal and at worst deceitful, and in no case scientific. The inability to prove cause and effect by scientific means does not mean there is no cause-and-effect relationship, merely that it can’t be proven — and the first people who would tell you that are actual scientists. As we’ll also see, the last people who will ever admit that’s the case are members of the press because they have a vested interest in leveling such charges whenever it profits them to do so.
In attempting to understand cause and effect we’re taught — rightly — to put our bedrock faith in facts. Because science is very good at unearthing facts it may seem that a lack of scientific evidence is somehow important to the question at hand, but it isn’t. We need know nothing about science in order to determine whether violent video games or video games in general or entertainment of any kind can cause an individual to act in a particular way at a particular time. Abandoning science may seem to leave us bewildered about how to prevent acts of violence in the future, but in fact the opposite is true. By stripping away improper appeals to science and eliminating false hopes arising from such appeals we end up in a very certain and logical place that allows us to keep as many people as possible from being murdered. Or would, if all parties were in agreement with that laudable objective, which unfortunately also turns out not to be the case.
Subsequent to reading the above-mentioned article, but prior to writing the first draft of this post, yet another mass killing took place in the United States. Confounding accusations traditionally leveled after a killing spree, however, was the radical assertion from at least one quarter that those particular murders were motivated not by violent video games but by motion picture comedies. While odd, it’s critical to note that this charge ultimately differed only in kind. Instead of blaming violent computers games, the accuser blamed another medium of entertainment for causing real-world acts of violence that ostensibly would not have otherwise taken place.
It’s understandable that you are at this very moment dismissing the possibility that a romantic comedy could cause someone to go berserk and commit mass murder, but even your common-sense skepticism misses the point about how real-world violence becomes manifest. In order to better understand how stories, games and entertainment of any kind may or may not trigger murder we’re going to break down a depressingly common generic scenario and analyze its constituent parts using a familiar methodology. Using that analysis we will then consider how to make cultural and public policy changes which decrease the number of murders that take place. While such changes unfortunately have no possibility of being implemented any time soon, the more we understand what our options really are the more likely if not inevitable such changes become.
Real-World Violence and Opportunity
To begin, imagine that a murderer has been apprehended without incident after killing a dozen human beings in a single horrific act of violence. In setting out to understand why the perpetrator acted as they did — particularly so we can prevent such acts in the future — we will consider how opportunity, motive and means factored in those killings. As it turns out, the first of those concerns is the easiest to analyze and dispense with as a possible source of useful information.
If someone suddenly decides to kill a bunch of human beings it should be fairly obvious that they will have plenty of opportunity to do so. While they might not always find the same individuals or groups in the same place at the same time, even a spur-of-the-moment killer can pretty much guarantee they will be able to find small groups to victimize any time of the day or night. Large groups may be harder to locate immediately, but because such gatherings often announce themselves in advance mass murderers who are more premeditated than berserk can schedule their mayhem.
Because of the social nature of human beings and the mechanisms of society it’s impossible to prevent people from grouping together and turning themselves into targets of opportunity. Even if we could, however, it wouldn’t be an impediment to anyone who wanted to kill multiple human beings. Instead of doing so in a single instance killers would simply have to move from location to location. While that requirement might make it easier to interrupt a killer once word of their rolling rampage got out, it might also make them much harder to locate, pin down and neutralize.
From the point of view of prevention, any attempt to mitigate the opportunity for mass murder short of physical restraint does nothing to preclude someone from committing mass murder. At best we might increase security and deter killings in places where large groups of people can regularly be found — sporting events, artistic performances, tourist spots, and, ironically, security checkpoints — but in doing so we would have to acknowledge that we were only changing where a mass murderer would strike, not how many would die. If we truly hope to save as many innocent victims as possible, then, we’re going to have to look elsewhere — meaning inside the mind of our generic incarcerated killer.
— Mark Barrett