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.
The Omnipresent Power of Narrative Context
It may well be that from time to time an individual is driven over the line from passive witness to active killer by the narrative context of a work of entertainment in any medium, but in the lab experiment called the United States we know without question that such evolutions are exceedingly rare. While the United States does seem to generate a depressingly steady stream of berserk killers, and cultural factors clearly do seem to play a part, given the amount of violent programming piped into American homes twenty-four hours a day via both television and the internet, along with any violent gaming being done, there should clearly be a great deal more violence taking place if violent entertainment truly is to blame. Since we’re not all dead or in jail — at least not yet — we can summarily dispense with the question of whether entertainment itself is at fault.
In terms of preventing acts of violence, however, what we also want to know is whether one type of entertainment is more likely to cause someone to go berserk than another, and unfortunately we have no basis for that conclusion either. In fact, despite the participatory nature of interactive works, a compelling argument can be made that emotional involvement is much easier to generate in passive mediums. In any case, all mediums of entertainment are not merely capable of triggering emotions but designed to do so, including the triggering of real human emotions in response to fictional events. When contemplated in the context of losing it and going berserk that capability is more than a little scary, yet not only don’t we think of manufactured emotional experiences as abnormal, we seek them out and pay for them, and happily expose children to them as well.
When we watch movies and laugh at a comedy or cry at a tragedy those responses aren’t any less genuine than our response to a sporting event or interactive title because we are real. Movies and TV shows are fiction, yes, and interactive titles occupy some bastardized middle-ground between pure fiction and reality, but what we feel in response to such experiences is as real as anything we experience. Whether what we’re witnessing or participating in is real-life, fiction, virtual, or some permutation thereof, we simply don’t have separate biological channels to sort all that stuff out. We may consciously let go of the fake stuff more easily, but even simplistic fictional works can motivate us to respond psychologically and physiologically, including crying, laughing or even becoming enraged, perhaps even to the point of going berserk if we’re already in a precariously fragile state.
While most people would reflexively deny the possibility that a medium of entertainment could affect their real-world interactions with others, almost everyone can remember a time when their favorite sports team lost or the game they were playing went against them, thus precipitating a period of anger or moodiness. While falling far short of a murderous rampage, the very fact that we all know we might end up treating the real human beings around us — and often those we care about most — with less than our usual kindness suggests that such reactions are normal and vary only in degree. Narrative context, whether fictional, personal, social or cultural, can be an incredibly powerful agent not only in how we think and what we feel, but how we act.
As culturally convenient as it may be — and probably always has been — to blame a new entertainment medium such as interactivity for acts of real-world violence, it’s doubly useful in allowing us to ignore the role that basic human physiology and psychology have always played in monstrous acts. Whether a given beserker perceives existence from a scientific or religious point of view, history unquestionably shows that any rationale may serve as an excuse for bloodletting. You don’t need blinking lights and a CPU to be driven murderously mad, all you need is a human noggin that ponders a bunch of existential questions and concludes that violence is the answer. Killing because of deeply held religious beliefs or scientific aspirations is no more enlightened than killing because you want to play out passive or interactive fictional carnage in real life. That we culturally accept and suspect some motives more than others only exposes our capacity for bias, not understanding.
Narrative Context and Motive
While it’s again frustrating to learn that we cannot reliably predict future violent acts by learning how people live or what kind of entertainment they prefer or even what they think, it turns out that our persistent inability to pin down human motive with any certainty has long been acknowledged by storytellers themselves. In fact, the whole point of storytelling as a paradigm is that it allows human beings to clearly discern motives that usually remain shrouded in real life. By designing a work in which fictional characters make clear fictional choices we can connect causal dots leading from an initial internal state to some later change in behavior, including, perhaps, going berserk and killing a bunch of people.
Unfortunately, the more a storyteller makes a character’s motivations obvious, the more cartoonish and less realistic that character becomes. Watch an action movie and there will never be a moment’s doubt about the motivation of any character on screen. Black hats, white hats, good versus evil — such simplifications are useful and perhaps even culturally important, but they’re also conceits. Conversely, read any great work of fiction and you will often find that the motives driving individual choices are often cloudy, and perhaps even unclear to the characters making those choices.
Because humans instinctively prefer clarity to uncertainty we not only tend to manufacture certainty in the narratives we consume for entertainment, but in the narratives we adopt to explain real-world events that are inherently inexplicable. Yet in the end all of that individual and communal storytelling does nothing — can do nothing — to help us predict when the next act of violence might occur or who the perpetrator might be. No matter how we focus on motive in order to limit acts of violence we cannot reliably predict when someone will go berserk, up to and including situations in which an individual actively professes the intent to do so. The factors that move a person from inaction to action — the critical recipe of contributing influences, events, perceptions and tendencies — while necessarily present in theory, can never be distilled in practice.
We may correctly perceive some individuals as high-risk or low-risk, and even have a statistical basis for doing so, but on any given day the high-risk group may remain peaceful while a low-risk individual erupts. Because it’s difficult to cognitively confront that kind of uncertainty, let alone get out of bed every morning and wander around in it, we tend to protect ourselves by doing the only thing we can do. We tell ourselves stories, including stories about how certain mediums or certain types of people are to blame, even though we don’t have any data that supports our assertions. Unfortunately, while easing our own minds, this dose nothing to keep other people from being killed.
— Mark Barrett