We should be ashamed of ourselves as a society if we learn nothing from our recent national tragedies, or if we waste this opportunity to have a real discussion. If we lose focus, and allow our current mood of self-reflection to devolve into just another witch hunt, I believe we have done a disservice to the memory of the children of Sandy Hook, and all the others whose lives have been cut short by these horrible events.
There are no witches to burn here. But according to a group of high-minded culture warriors called SouthingtonSOS in Connecticut, violent video games will serve as an acceptable substitute. I'll leave it to you to tease out all the hypocrisies and double-talk the group presents in that article alone, because I want to talk about the root cause of this video game burning instead: the larger issue of media-scapegoating.
We are shocked, and appalled, and we want to make it better.
We are all painfully aware of the massacres that have occurred. This spate of senseless violence has forced itself on the public eye. If anything positive can possibly come out of this, it will be a mature discussion of the real issues at work here, and an acknowledgment of the complexity of the problems we're facing; it is patently shameful that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to spark the conversation, but at least it's happening. It's happening on TV, it's happening in Washington, and it's happening in our living rooms.
It's hard to pull apart this knot-work, though. There are so many factors involved--including our mental health care system, gun control, and even, yes, violence in media and society. This latter issue then blooms out into issues of parenting, the economy, homes with two working parents, and the list goes on and on. When the problems are this complicated, there's nowhere to point blame. At least, there's nothing that can be legitimately blamed in isolation.
This makes us crazy. There we are, swollen with emotion. We want to do something, we want to feel like we're fixing something, we want to find the cause of this horror and put a stop to it. It's natural. But the problem is this: we don't just want to point fingers. No, we want to point one finger, in one direction, because it makes it easier to feel like we're doing that something. The irony is that by doing this, we fail to do anything at all.
Scapegoating prevents us from addressing the real issues.
That is the charge I lay against the forces who are trying (again) to blame all of societies ills on violent media--and the evil du jour, of course, is violent video games. I've been arguing against this for years, but I don't think I've ever come across a video game burning event before. I'm not going to go so far as to compare this to Nazi book burnings, but I think we should be deeply concerned whenever a piece of media is literally burned like a witch on the pyre of moral panic.
It's hard to know where to start here, but let's try an admission of guilt. Sort of.
Violent media of any kind is almost certainly bad for young children. Violent video games and media can be harmful to some teenagers, but so can peanut butter.
We have an excellent video game rating system in this country, the ESRB is one of the most successful rating systems in the entertainment industry. And as far as I can tell, it is easier to access their ratings information and content-summaries than it is with any other ratings organization. (I think gamers in general are very much in support of the ESRB, by the way.)
When I was sixteen, I was unable to buy M-rated games; as much of a hypocrite as I feel saying this now, that is as it should be. This allowed my parents to decide, based on me as an individual, what kind of games were appropriate for me. That is to say, if I had a history of violence and a demonstrated lack of empathy or conscientiousness, it probably would have been inadvisable for me to play modern incarnations of Call of Duty for six hours a day.
In June of 2010, the American Psychological Association published a special issue of their journal, Review of General Psychology on Video Games (Vol. 14. No. 2). Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, of Texas A&M International University was guest editor of the issue, and had this to say: “Violent video games are like peanut butter. They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems.”
I'm not trying to say there are no studies demonstrating negative or potentially negative effects of violent video games on children. In fact there are scores of them. But even Ferguson admits, “Much of the attention to video game research has been negative, focusing on potential harm related to addiction, aggression and lowered school performance.”
To compare: minors are legally allowed to attend R-rated movies if they are accompanied, because in the end it is the parents' responsibility to decide what is and is not appropriate or acceptable for their children to consume. In the recent case between California lawmakers and the Entertainment Software Association, the Supreme Court agreed (7-2) that video games shouldn't be treated any differently. The ruling stated that the proposed California law, “violated the first amendment,” and was, “greatly overinclusive, since not all of the children who are prohibited from purchasing violent video games [by the Act] have parents who disapprove of their doing so.”
The Court also stated, “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”
Don't tell me what to do.
America is about freedom of choice, about individuals, and that's where the argument against video games breaks down, especially the one presented by the California lawmakers. I doubt Americans really want some foreign body deciding what they can and cannot allow their children to see, read, hear, and play. So you're left with that simplest of options: if you don't like something, don't support it.
If the majority of Americans really believed there is too much violence in today's media, they would change the channel, they would go to a different movie, they would buy different games. But they don't. The entertainment industries, like almost every other industry, work on supply and demand. If we didn't consume violent media by the trough-load, there wouldn't be all that much of it.
Despite widely held beliefs to the contrary, violent crime has decreased, and per-capita spending on video games by country shows no correlation with gun violence.
It turns out that crime rates were at a 40-year low as of January 2010; “crime has plummeted to its lowest level since the early 1960s.” And there has also been a distinct downward trend in violent crime rates over the last 5 years, with an overall 18.1% decrease in the violent crime rate over the last 5 years, and a decrease of 21.9% over the last 10.
Furthermore, based on an analysis of the 10 countries who spend the most on video games around the world, there is no correlation between per-capita video game spending and gun violence. And you'll notice two things: first, the United States is, by far, an outlier on that graph; second, that the two countries with the highest per-capita video games spending do not significantly outrank the other countries in gun-related crime rates.
It's worth noting the caveat that this graph looks specifically at gun-related violent crime, and that other countries' gun regulations are probably a factor in the results. That does not discount the reality of the death-rates, and the sobering facts of the gun regulation debate. I am not in favor of outlawing guns, but it seems obvious to me that a psychopath who wants to kill people is going to be a lot less effective with a sword than with an assault rifle.
Let's ban Shakespeare while we're at it. His work is just so violent. And Loony Tunes too.
Violence in media is a tricky subject, but it's important to keep the slippery slope principle in mind. It's hard to draw the lines once you start regulating violence. How many people die in Hamlet? Or how about the part in Titus Andronicus, where a woman is tricked into eating a meat pie made of her own sons. Heavens to Betsy. That sounds horrific. We should ban it because it's violent and violence is bad.
The confounder is context. The above-mentioned accidental cannibalism is indeed horrific--and that's kind of the point--but it serves a legitimate purpose in context. It's emotional and cathartic, it has a causal root, it moves the narrative. It is necessary and valuable within the proper context.
It seems to me that when the non-gaming public thinks about “violence in video games” their first thoughts are things like Mortal Kombat, and Call of Duty. And, okay, those are pretty blatant examples of violence for violence's sake. That is: non-contextualized violence, where the violence serves no purpose other than to be a spectacle. It would be absurd to argue that these things are categorically “good for society,” but from the outside you also can't make a blanket statement that they're not capable of doing good for an individual.
Maybe Call of Duty helps John Smith, a downtrodden man who hates his job and his boss, blow off some steam at the end of a hard day. Maybe he needs that relief. And is it all that different from the sports fan screaming at their TVs? These ultra-violence video games aren't going to be working their way into high culture any time soon, but that doesn't mean they deserve to be categorically demonized.
That said, I do think that an over saturation of non-contextualized violence can be demonstrably harmful to young, developing minds. A good friend of mine told me about his little brother who laughed at dying soldiers in Saving Private Ryan. That's a disturbing image, to be sure, and I won't even try to claim that a violence-saturated media environment was not a factor there.
Parents already have the tools to make informed decisions.
Consider that all the media society has been blaming for decades now has a ratings system in place--movies, music, video games, and comic books / graphic novels. There is a debate to be had about the effectiveness of some of these ratings systems, but the fact is they are there, and the information is out there for parents.
The same industries that serve up the violence also empower parents to limit access to it, if need be. Televisions come equipped with V-chips and cable services usually have parental controls that can block anything over a certain rating. Video game consoles have password-protected parental settings which can do the same for games.
And I won't apologize on this point: ignorance of their use is no defense. If a parent wants to limit their child's access to violence, it's as easy as typing into Google, “xbox parental controls” or “comcast parental controls.”
Blaming video games as a trigger for psychopathic behavior is unreasonable; if it wasn't video games, it would have been something else.
Charles Manson thought The Beatles were telling him to kill people and bring about the end of the world. Let me emphasize that: The Beatles. Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon and was (allegedly) inspired to do so by The Catcher in the Rye. These are, of course, only a couple of the more widely-known examples, but I think they serve the point. A mentally unstable person with violent tendencies, with a psychopathic disregard for life, and who does not receive adequate care will find something to justify their actions. If a person has become so disconnected from reason that they plan to kill people like this, then something, anything, could trigger it. But maybe we should take away Timmy's copy of Yellow Submarine, just in case.
We want to find a cause, to find some kind of rational reason, but we can't search for rationality when we are talking about people who have lost theirs. The admittedly oversimplified assertion I made in my response to the Aurora shooting was: “He is a psychopath, end of story.” I still believe this is true in terms of after-the-fact discussion, but the more complicated question, the one worth discussing, is this: How did we, as a society, allow him become this way by failing to provide help?
Society has been scapegoating its own failings forever.
Did you know that Socrates was to blame for the corruption of the youth in ancient Greece? The same Socrates we revere in our philosophy classrooms all across the country. Okay, that might be kind of a facile argument, but it still serves its purpose.
At some point we also burned a lot of women alive, because they were witches and were therefore responsible for all our problems.
In modern times, we've been pointing blame at various supposed media “corruptors” since the early 1900s. For instance, The Comics Code Authority was a “result of moral panic,” in the words of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. This restrictive censorship organization nearly destroyed the comic books medium in this country by driving away creative people.
We're lucky it didn't. Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen appeared on Time's List of the 100 Best Novels published between 1923 and 2005. That is: List of Best Novels, not graphic novels specifically. (It did make that list as well.) I think we can safely say that comic books have matured into a respectable artistic and literary medium over the years, and I would argue that we are richer and more diverse as a culture because of it. We have reached this point only in spite of the Comics Code Authority, and only thanks to the perseverance of artists in the face of censorship.
Not all comics are going to achieve the artistic level of Watchmen, Maus, Fun Home, or Sandman, of course, but neither are movies all going to achieve the level of Schindler's List. Just because Dude Where's My Car? exists doesn't mean that all movies exist on the same intellectual plane. It's the same equation regardless of the medium.
Later, in the 80s, the heavy metal band Judas Priest was blamed for the suicides of two teenage boys. This led to a much broader assertions of guilt by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), and a vocal Tipper Gore. In an op-ed article around that time, Gore claimed that a song, Under the Blade by Twisted Sister, included lyrics encouraging things like “sadomasochism, bondage, and rape,” and on a list published by the PMRC, the song We're Not Gonna Take It was accused of containing “violent lyrical content,” an accusation which is laughable, as you'll know if you've ever rocked out to it.
Dee Snider, Twisted Sister front-man, writer of both Under the Blade and We're Not Gonna Take It, and a parent, appeared before a congressional hearing to refute these claims, and to give a speech which should be remembered and admired. Whatever your opinion on Twisted Sister's music, Snider's speech was impressive, and is as relevant today as it was in 1985. (As a demonstration, I will replace the phrase “PMRC” with “SouthingtonSOS” in the following quote.) Here is just a small excerpt from Snider's statement:
“It is my job as a parent to monitor what my children see, hear, and read during their pre-teen years. The full responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us. Parents can thank the [SouthingtonSOS] for reminding them that there is no substitute for parental guidance, but that is where the [SouthingtonSOS]'s job ends.”
-Connor Thomas Cleary, January 2013