Entertaining Violence

Entertaining Violence

On June 27, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors. Jon Stewart explained the ruling on his Comedy Central Daily Show, with an example of the kind of graphic, gruesome, and gratuitous video game violence that is now Supreme-Court-approved for sale to children. Click here to watch Stewart’s report.

Justice Scalia wrote, for the 7-2 majority:

Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.

Scalia acknowledged that video game violence can be extremely disgusting but opined, “Disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.” Click here to download the entire Supreme Court opinion.

A problem is that repeated exposure to violence, even the imaginary violence of video games, may be harmful to the healthy social development of young people. As a multidisciplinary research group associated with Harvard Medical School found, in 2008:

Compared to other boys who played video games, boys reporting frequent play of at least one M-rated title… were much more likely to get into physical fights, to hit or beat up someone, to damage property for fun, or to steal something from a store. They were also much more likely to report poor school grades, to get into trouble with a teacher or principal and to report being threatened or injured with a weapon such as a gun, knife or club. The odds of boys’ involvement in all of these behaviors increased with each additional M-rated title on their “frequently played” game list.

Some of these problem behaviors were even more pronounced among girls who frequently played violent video games. A correlation is not a cause, of course. The authors of this study were highly skeptical of claims that violent video games cause antisocial behavior, in any direct way. Even so, they conclude that there is a very disturbing pattern that turns up in countless studies of all kinds of violent entertainments. This fact cannot be swept under the rug.(Kutner & Olson, 100ff.)

There is no question that violent entertainments stir up ideas, impulses, and feelings that are associated with actual violence. Some psychologists and social scientists argue that this makes violent entertainments a significant “risk factor” for violence and other antisocial behavior (e.g., Anderson et al). If you spend a lot of time involved in make-believe aggression, they reason, particularly in your developing years, you are more likely to engage in actual aggressive behavior. Researchers who study actual violence and anti-social behavior tend to focus, instead, on social and psychological factors that ordinarily inhibit or prevent such behaviors (e.g. Collins, Grossman, Baron-Cohen). Aggressive thoughts and impulses are commonplace, they reason. In fact, most people who play violent video games are emotionally healthy and socially well adjusted. When entertainment leads to violence, whether we are talking about video games, action movies, or sports, it is because something short-circuits normal inhibitions against actual violent or anti-social behavior. The critical question is therefore not whether violent entertainments stir up violent ideas and impulses. It is whether and when they undermine or counteract normal inhibitions against actual violence and anti-social behavior. This is a question that media effects researchers have scarcely addressed.

If violent entertainments are capable of decreasing inhibitions against actual violence, it makes sense that they might just as well increase them, by making violence seem frightening or disgusting, for example, or by arousing empathy with its victims. Scholars in the humanities, including philosophers, educators, and critics, tend to suppose this is the case (e.g., Jones, Gee). They reason that engaging imaginatively with troubling, dangerous, or anti-social ideas, through stories and play, can help people cope with real-world stresses and think through the consequences of real-world behaviors. In these ways, violent stories and games can in principle serve as powerful and positive instruments of socialization. Scientific research on rough-and-tumble play in rats and primates seems to support this hypothesis (Pellis & Pellis). If in actual fact violent video games and movies sometimes have negative social consequences, by lowering inhibitions against violence, for example, the challenge is to figure out when and why, so that we can distinguish healthy and constructive forms of imaginative engagement with violence from unhealthy and antisocial ones. In this area, again, media effects research has not been particularly helpful.

The century-long scholarly and political debate about the costs and benefits of violent entertainments seems to have run aground, once again, on the shoals of strong gut reactions. Some people, including many humanities scholars, enjoy or appreciate violent entertainments, ranging from fairy tales to video games, and therefore suppose that they are in some respects intrinsically worthwhile. Other people, including many media effects researchers, find new interactive and extremely graphic forms of virtual violence particularly disturbing and distasteful and therefore suppose that they are intrinsically harmful. The truth is that video games and other violent entertainments have both positive and negative effects. Scholars and scientists need to do a much better job of discerning and explaining the difference if they wish to give good guidance to parents and public policy makers.

Justice Breyer, in a dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court decision, argues that the protection of children ought to outweigh the right to make and sell violent video games without restriction. The trouble is, we simply do not know enough to sort out the risks of violent video games to children’s social and emotional wellbeing from the manifest pleasure and other social and emotional benefits that such games may provide. Any sweeping restriction on violent entertainments risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Justice Breyer sees this as an acceptable risk. Justice Scalia and the Supreme Court’s majority do not.

A better option, obviously, would be to separate the baby from the bathwater. A good place to begin might be by focusing on the two neglected questions posed above. (1) When and how do violent entertainments undermine normal inhibitions against actual anti-social behavior? This relates to such matters as habituation and desensitization toward violence, dehumanization and the erosion of empathy, and when and how the boundary between the imaginary worlds of fiction and games and the real world of actual social interactions breaks down. And (2) What is the difference between engaging in imaginative violence in positive and healthy ways and engaging in it in negative and unhealthy ways? This connects to specific questions about when and how violent entertainments foster or undermine social connectedness, the acquisition of social skills, empathy, emotional health, ethical discernment, and so on, as well as to broader questions about the ways in which violent entertainments shape our cultural norms. Both humanities scholars and empirical researchers can contribute to addressing these important and still largely unanswered questions.

Works Cited:

  • Anderson, Craig A., Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.
  • Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Basic Books, 2011.
  • Collins, Randall. “The Micro-sociology of Violent Confrontations,” in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. illustrated edition. Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Grossman, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Revised. Back Bay Books, 2009.
  • Jones, Gerard. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. Basic Books, 2003.
  • Kutner, Lawrence, and Cheryl Olson. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  • Pellis, Sergio, and Vivien Pellis. The Playful Brain: Venturing Limits of Neuroscience. Reprint. Oneworld Publications, 2010.

Leave a Reply