Last night I threw on the documentary "Moral Kombat", looking to kill some time while Christina was doing some school preparation. It is a documentary that explored the impact of violence in video games. I found the style of the documentary rather irritating. It is an hour and a half of low attention-span cuts, interspersing interviews and digitally rendering these interviews into the sets of various video games...cool idea, and a cool motif...for 5 minutes, but not an hour and a half.
Anyway, ignoring my feelings about the film technique, it raises a lot of questions that I find myself discussing often. In the film we hear from both sides of the argument. The "violence poisons our mind and desensitizes us" side, and the "Free speech" counter-point. This is an issue that rears its ugly head with each generation scapegoating art as the devil. In the early 20th century, the devil was jazz, in the 50's it was Elvis, in the 80's it was slasher films, and now it's video game violence (along with cable television). I have always argued that it was Disney all along...
The point that I hear resurface over and over again from the right wing activist side of this argument is that we live in an increasingly violent society. Children are exposed to a shocking level of violence through television, film and video games, and that it impacts physiological change on the brain, causing them to desensitize.
First off, any peripheral study of history will show that we, especially Americans, live at a time of unprecedented peace. At other points in human history, villages were routinely pillaged, we were constantly at war on our own soil, and the process of simply feeding ourselves meant hunting, putting the participants into extreme mortal danger. Civilian militias were a continual threat, capital punishments were medieval, and the medical profession routinely enacted amputation and bloodletting with no anesthesia. The settlement of white people in America was established by the near complete eradication of the indigenous people through traditional warfare and biological warfare in the form of smallpox, and our country was founded in bloody revolution.
We face none of these things on a regular basis. Aside from a few uncomfortable moments in the NYC subway, my life has been largely devoid of the experience of mortal danger.
Also, I am part of a generation that has grown up with the safety of a professional military. My parent's generation is one scarred by the Viet Nam experience in particular, and the era of the draft. I am the first male on my father's side of the family to not serve in the military. My grandfather drove tanks in World War 2, my uncle was drafted as part of the first wave of troop deployment in Viet Nam, and my father enlisted shortly after and was part of the army band stationed in Germany. I will, most likely, never have the experience of being commanded by my government to kill strangers. My terrible eyesight and flat feet all but clinch the deal. This is a privilege I do not take lightly.
So, while we clearly have problems with gang violence, especially in the inner cities, we have an obsession with guns, and school bullying is becoming increasingly scarier, we are, as a whole, a safer society than just about any other in human history.
It has been substantiated that young children and teenagers process the experience of vicarious violence differently than adults. They are more likely to form patterns and lasting behavior based on their experiences, even the vicarious ones like video games. But for the millions of kids raised on video games there are very few instances of video-game-dictated violence being committed in the real world, and none where the video games themselves are the culprit. I think it is reasonable to say that a violent video game may fuel an already violent tendency, but it will not create one. Unhealthy people are motivated by many different stimuli to commit violence. David Berkowitz claimed that a talking dog motivated him to commit the Son of Sam murders. Any psychological profile of a serial killer informs that sociopathic behavior is almost always rooted in the relationships within the nuclear family, or in scarring experiences in the real world. For the great majority of us, video games are an outlet, a neutral experience that is as healthy as the person is who engages in it.
I have often wondered if coping with violence, and the fight or flight response is somehow a necessity of the human experience. I consider myself a peaceful person by nature. I tend to be a moderator in conflict, I rarely get angry, and I haven't had a piece of meat in 13 years in part because of my feeling that it is unnecessary to kill other animals to survive in modern society. Yet I have an appetite for horror films and I listen to a lot of aggressive music. I absolutely enjoy the vicarious experience of peril, when experienced within the safety of art. I think that violent art is an opportunity to cope with and experience violence in a safe way without hurting anyone. I believe that for some people with tendencies toward violent behavior it can be a safe substitute. And for the rest of us who are relatively well adjusted, it's a window into a darker side of our psyche that we rarely get to vent in our every day interaction.
My mother who is very calm, collected, spiritually centered, and conscious of her role in the global family routinely watches suspense and horror movies. I always thought it was sort of odd and incongruous with what she projects to the world. I asked her about it one time and she said that she found it comforting to watch situations where people's lives are infinitely worse than hers. Her comment stuck with me.
In the film The Hurt Locker the idea that "War is a drug" is demonstrated throughout. There is no doubt a hormonal response we have to violence and certain addictive personalities are drawn to that experience, and some in a habitual manner. Some of these people, like the main character in The Hurt Locker, go into the military. Some others enact their violence on their families, on animals, their car horns, on the guy with 13 items in the express checkout lane at Stop and Shop...and others play video games. Of these possible outlets, video games are clearly the least harmful of them.
Again, I'm reminded as I write this that my reference point for understanding violent people and those who experience violence is film. I feel that exposure to that kind of psyche through art has informed me about parts of the human condition I rarely experience. I feel more armed to deal with it and can recognize violent indicators in behavior, and cope with it and protect myself from it.
A point is made in Moral Kombat that video games parallel the kind of programming that are used in the military. Simulators prepare us for the experience of battle, and they hone our reflexes and our skills at the particular task. There is also some mental conditioning at work to distance soldiers from the realities of their job: That there are real human beings at the receiving end of their rifles. While there may be some truth to this, there is a vast chasm of difference between killing an opponent in a video game and the harsh reality of death in real life. Anyone who can't differentiate the two has a larger problem than playing too many video games.
I believe video games also aid in developing problem-solving abilities and they help to keep the mind active and sharp. Truthfully, I don't have the patience to play most modern video games. I'm really impressed with how far the craft has developed but I don't feel particularly motivated to figure them out. There is a level of immersion that I'm just not willing to allow into my life. I play a lot of Chess. The violence implied in Chess isn't nearly as visceral as those in modern video games, and few would have any opposition to their kids playing more Chess, so a logical question to ask is whether or not the problem lies in the level of realism achieved in the gaming world..
I have always felt that the most irresponsible movies are those that are very casual about their violence. The 80's and early 90's were filled with them. True Lies jumps to mind, which also had the added benefit of reinforcing terrible racial stereotypes and painfully unfunny comedic scenes starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Pretty much all of the Schwarzenegger output of the 80's falls into this category. He would mow down 40 enemies with machine-gun fire, there would be little blood, and no consequences. His characters were blanketly heroes, never plagued by any regret at having claimed larger body counts than most natural disasters. These were the films few politicians complained about...Politicians hearkening back to a more innocent age in film where the cowboy in the white hat was the good guy and his killing was just. The evil guy with the black hat fell over unceremoniously at the end of the film and the hero walked off into the sunset, on to kill more evil-doers in the next town. Former president George W Bush reflected this kind of black and white point of view throughout his presidency. Our current world is more nuanced than this. Our heroes have continually been exposed as flawed human beings...that murder is murder. This is closer to reality. However, when art depicts violence in a more realistic way, politicians get upset. Or more to the point, the extremist christian lobby gets upset, and the politicians adopt their stance while putting their hands into the coffers. The violence in The Sopranos is shocking and horrible...as it should be. It is still less shocking and horrible than it is for those who experience it first hand.
I believe that the most responsible thing an artist can do when depicting violence is to look at it from all sides. I think it's interesting that the most recent incarnations of the James Bond character were allowed some real humanity. Bond is tormented by his life of violence. So, while the modern Bond films are more violent than they used to be I believe they are far more responsible in presenting real consequences.
In Moral Kombat an interviewee suggests that while video games started out as entertainment for younger children, the current target audience is quite a bit older now. A similar trend has happened in comic books, the mind-killer du jour of 1950's America. Comics have evolved into an adult trend especially in the last 20 years or so...It has also become a fringe scene in the states, although it enjoys a higher level of popularity in other countries, Japan in particular. The graphic novel has been a medium that has rendered some of the most imaginative and multi-faceted art of the literary world...but it is certainly not geared for children. Video Games are clearly moving toward more adult themes, not only because of their violence, but because the medium has grown to really support larger, more detailed narratives. In the same way that I don't think that everything that I write in this blog should be watered down; all big words, and all frightening ideas removed so as to not threaten five-year-olds, I don't believe that all games should be written with a child's perspective in mind. It is a parent's responsibility to monitor what their children are exposed to, and I believe that in the same way they would meet their child's friends, and go to their baseball games, the should share in the experience of playing video games...if violence is encountered in them, it should be discussed openly. I don't believe that the advancement of art should be hindered because of a parent's laziness or lack of discretion. To completely block children from the experience is to distance them from their classmates, which generally works out so well for little Xavier in the corner of the lunchroom, being pelted with pickles. Also, I believe neglecting them from this experience may impact their relative dexterity and certain types of problem-solving abilities.
Back to Disney. I think there are few more dangerous things than giving the "Suitable for all ages" stamp. One hour of Disney programming will show you the blatant sexualization of pre-teens, a total casualness toward violence, and blatant messages about the necessity of conformity. It's all under the housing of being cute and G-rated, and all the more insidious for it. It also features more product placement than I can stomach...frankly I'd rather watch some intestines spewed than another Apple product placement.
On the other hand, Disney's affiliate Pixar released the Toy Story movies which my nephews love, and I think represent the best of children's entertainment. I wish I could bottle the spirit that inspired those movies and plaster it all over the world. They are parables, they deal with danger and very real conflict that impacts us all, and still manage to be respectful to both children and to adult intelligence.
No matter what you let in your home, your kids are going to experience violent video games. They are also going to experience bullying, bad teaching, parental mistakes, and sometimes tragedy. They might even fall down a few times or break an appendage, and quite possibly hurt another child. These experiences will shape their world. Being a good parent isn't just about shielding them from these experiences and protecting their innocence, it is about helping them cope with what they've seen and experienced. The faerie tales from The Brothers Grimm are exceptionally violent, but are housed in a context that allows children to safely experience them and assimilate them into their world. No one is trying to put out legislation to edit the Brothers Grimm, yet for a young child with an active imagination, this represents as violent an experience as any. The fact that it is being read by a parent, a trusted figure, and the children are in the safety of their home and beds, softens the experience.
Someone who has manically disinfected every surface in their home, obsessively protecting themselves from disease, has just made it more likely that when they DO get sick, and they will, their system will not be properly equipped to deal with it, because it hasn't had the chance to properly develop antibodies. Your children will encounter violence, fear and anger. They need to understand how to deal with it. It is a parent's job to be part of those conversations and a voice of reason. Or else this could be your child: