Do video games and movies perpetuate violence?

This argument has been made by many more eloquent than I but it’s still worth talking about. Is our popular culture resulting in a propensity towards violence? I sincerely wish that the answer could be a definitive no, but I don’t think that that is the case.

What brought this on was the movie Sin City. I saw it for the first time last night, and I found myself laughing a good bit. That got me to thinking: what in the world is so funny about someone getting blown to bits or shot in the head or committing suicide? Stuff like that is tragic, not humorous. If you saw it in the newspaper or on the 6 o’clock broadcast you’d shake your head in disgust at what is going on, shrug your shoulders at the injustice of it all, and that would be the end of it, but at least you’d be disgusted about it if only for a fleeting moment. Contrast that with movies where those sorts of things draw cheers and riotous laughter or awe (as in "Wow! That was cool!). The disconnect there is astounding. Is this an example of our desensitization and/or propensity towards violence? I’ll let you be the judge.

Video games are a similar beast, but they add another element: you are the one doing the killing. One of my favorite games is Call of Duty, a first-person shooter where you are a member of the Allies during World War II. When you’re playing the game it’s easy to hate the Germans for what you know they did during that time, but all the same the game has detailed rendering of faces, thus making them more human, and in some cases requires you to shoot them while they’re wounded and on their knees which these days would be outright brutality and might even be a war crime. On top of that, there are save points, medpacks, and restarts, so you’re essentially immortal, when (I hope) we all know that that is not the case at all. Other games require you to speed in a vehicle with no regard to traffic, and if you hit something you just reset and continue or, in some cases, you get no damage at all.

There is no restart, there is no second chance, and killing someone exacts a toll for most people. Very few people can kill indiscriminately or wantonly. Most people involved in shootings feel considerable remorse or guilt, even in the most justifiable circumstances. But in games and movies there is no remorse. In fact, it’s often portrayed as outright funny. Shoot the guys in an outrageous manner, say something funny, smoke a cigarette, and ride off into the sunset. That’s the plot of too many movies nowadays.

I am loathe to ask this, because I am an advocate of personal responsibility, and while this does not mitigate that responsibility, it may be a justification, albeit a poor one. Are we breeding psychosis among our populace? If so, what do we do about it? The genie is out of the bottle. Or am I just blowing smoke? It could be, and again, I’d like to think so. Even so, I feel a certain awkwardness laughing at violence, because it’s not supposed to be funny, and I can’t help but think that when violence is portrayed that way it lessens the impact, thus making it more, shall we say, accessible than it used to be. I have to raise a son, and he has to go out into a world where he might get hurt or killed for laughs. That scares me. Should it?

I think violence on screen (TV / films / games) can desensitize people to the real effects of violence.

In real life there’s no “reset” button, and dead is forever, but games especially don’t represent that.

In some ways I think it follows society though…

Food and Gardening TV has taken off massively in the last 10 years, as a result of our time-pressured lives having no time for cooking or time outside.

And as our lives get safer, we feel able to “indulge” in violence, because we’re not exposed to the real thing.

The last 60 years (ie. since the end of WWII) have been free of massive, society-wide wars - death in battle happens to professional soldiers, not the conscripted kid from next door.

We’ve “forgotten” what violence is like in many cases - maybe games help us remember?

There’s a graph floating around Slashdot that contrasts sale of video games to the rates of violent crime in youth over time. As sales rise, crime falls. Correlation does not equal causation, but it does a decent job of denying the opposite causation.

There is a hypothesis in evolutionary psychology (an untestable hypothesis, but that’s EP for you) that the laugh response evolved specifically as a release to a false alarm: something’s coming, watch out! Possible threat! Get ready to fight or run away. Oh, it’s only dad! Release the tension as the relief floods from your limbic system. Ha ha ha.

If so, the reason you laugh at Sin City is because you know it isn’t real, that the guy was an actor and that there is no real threat or danger which you need to be ready to react to. (The brain evolved when there was no TV, so recognising a real human in real danger conveyed to you by an optical device still does trigger your empathy modules, unless of course you suffer from a disorder called psychopathy in which those modules do not function correctly.)

So the question is, what of the statistics? Have violent psychoses increased in number over the last 50 years? The number of cases in which a credible case has been demonstrated of the accused committing violence because they genuinely struggled to distinguish reality from artifice is very small, involving outright mental illness which has existed for as long as humankind has had a brain.

It was an old E.C. Comics Crime SuspenStories made real. These comics never caused any kind of increase in violence. I don’t recall the Dead Rabbits street gang didn’t have any encoragement from comics, and they, the teens of the 1850s were far more violent than the teens of the Ec Comics era, the 1950s.

Read some old fairy tales. The real versions, not the new sanitised ones. Plenty of blood and gore, gruesome murder, torture. (There’s also a lot more sex than in the modern versions, but that’s another topic.) “If you succeed,” said the king, “I’ll let you marry the princess and give you half the kingdom. But if you fail, I’ll cut three stripes from your back and pour salt on.” Or read old myths. There’s a norse one, where the gods need to make a furious jotun woman laugh. So the god Loki ties a rope to the horns of a goat, and ties the other end of the rope to his own balls. The goat tries to get away, Loki yells in pain – and the jotun woman laughs. I suspect that using violence in some form as entertainment, and laughing at the misfortune of others, is as old as mankind.

I have to say even though I watch quite a few horror movies (Especially flesh eating zombie type movies) and laugh and enjoy them I am still squemish when it comes to real horror. I play war games and enjoy those two, but I detest real war and am staunchly against any War unless it has a very narrow and just purpose.

Pictures from Iraq showing blown up bodies and dead children still turn my stomach. Real life vilonce including accident that show average people being hurt make me wince and feel badly for the people (including those stupid America’s funniest home video accidents). I think as long as you have a healthy mind you can seperate the fake violence from the real and will react accordingly.

What makes us entertained by the fake violence is another question. I mean really, what hardwiring do we have that we should find the death or injury of fictional people entertaining?

I think a movie, like Sin City, will make you laugh at someone being shot because it is fantasy violence.

That movie plays like wrasslin’. You have good guys and bad guys. (the twist is that the good guys are whores and thugs). But the bad guys are clearly bad. Seeing them taken down elicits a cheer because the audience understands that they are bad and deserve their punishment.

First and foremost, Airman Doors: I love Call of Duty, and have been addicted to the multiplayer online game for several months (using my PS2). Do you play online?

Secondly, I don’t know the answer to your question. I think that violent media reinforces some people’s thinking about violence, and I suspect that it amplifies it for some, but it clearly does not necessarily cause violent behavior among the non-violent. Those of us who abhor real life violence may still enjoy playing these games. I love first person shooter games, but my stomach turns if I see any of those real life accident video clips you can find at some websites. Sometimes, they make it hard to find porn clips by interspersing them with violent deaths, the bastards!

On the other hand, there is a range of response within myself that I could see as making me more or less prone to an aggressive response. After watching Fight Club or Rocky III for instance, I am aware of feeling a bit more pumped. I may drive a tad more aggressively when listening to Iron Maiden than I do when listening to Debussy.

So my answer is an entirely unhelpful observation of individual differences and ranges of response within the individual (likely further dependent on context), but I would guess that the prime mover is still what the individual brings to the equation before exposure to violent content.

I think one of the hallmarks of sanity is that you recognize the difference fantasy (Sin City, comics, movies, etc.) and reality. Most people are sane, they know the stuff they see on screens isn’t real and shouldn’t be copied over in the real world. Some people are insane and do the horrible thing you see on TV and in the movies in the real world. But it’s their insanity that makes them do it, not what they see on TV or the movies.

Video games and movies beat public execution and gladitorial games.

What video game did Cain play before he slew Abel?

And to steal from the comic strip Dork Tower, if playing violent video games makes people violent, then it should follow that playing “Tiger Woods Golf 2004” turns them into PGA Champions…

Possibly, but I wouldn’t blame it on the games and movies. You can find folks encouraging violence and showing disregard for their fellow man at a boxing match or football game, for instance.

Thought experiment:

An events entrepreneur buys or constructs stadia outside major metropolitan areas in which Roman-style entertainment is offered, including gladiatorial combat, executions, animal slaughter, and so on. Disregard the fact that in reality this would be illegal and not permitted; assume only that the entertainment is offered to the public.

The question is not whether people would go, because even the most idealistic among us recognizes that some would. The only question is how many would go, and how popular the entertainment would be.

I suspect it wouldn’t be as popular as, say, professional football, but that it would be more popular than, say, college lacrosse.

Now, ask yourself, which is the more reasonable position: that the mere presence of the entertainment is itself enough to cause the culture to be degraded, or that the simple demand for the entertainment says more about the relationship between true human nature and what we paradoxically wish it actually were?

I suspect it’d overshadow all organized sports inside of a decade, if not much sooner.

Ah, I long for the good old days when it was Beavis and Butthead and Looney Toons that were responsible for the violence.

You kids today with your Call of Duty and your Sin City. Back in my day we had to watch Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd have a gun blow up in their face…or a cigar blow up in their face (no Clinton jokes please) to get desensitized to violence. And we had to walk thirty miles in the snow to do it. And we liked it!!!

In all seriousness, no. Video games and movies really aren’t that much worse than what the parents are watching on the news anymore. There is still a fair amount of difference between killing in a video game or a movie and seeing it in real life. There may be some for whom this sort of thing is a problem, but odds are they weren’t all there to begin with.

Back when I was designing tactical shooters I spent a fair amount of time talking with people in the military training community. They were (and still are, I assume) very interested in taking off-the-shelf games and turning them into training tools because of the cost savings compared to developing a training system entirely from scratch.

It was interesting, however, to hear how they wanted to use the games. After all (not to put too fine a point on it) the Army is in the business of teaching people how to kill, so you’d think that if computer training simulations had a significant impact on the psychology of killing this would be something they would be interested in exploiting.

That’s not what they were interested in at all.

They were primarily interested in using the games to teach teamwork and doctrine. They liked them because they gave the soldiers the opportunity to practice working together without going to the expense of conducting numerous field exercises. And they liked them because they could set up little test situations so the soldiers could practice doing things “by the book.”

They thought the idea that someone could learn to shoot from a game laughable. The gulf between actually firing a real weapon in combat and clicking a mouse was so large that they didn’t think there was any training value there at all. Similarly they weren’t interested in realistically simulating any of the actual violence on the battlefield as some sort of exercise in desensitization. They saw simulations purely as a tool for training tactics.

There is NO clinical evidence suggesting that videogames promote violent behavior. There are some inconclusive studies that suggest they may promote AGGRESSIVE behavior, but goodness, anything that gets your adrenaline pumping does that. You might as well ban riding rollercoasters and watching football.

(When I lived in Chapel Hill I watched basketball fans RIOT IN THE STREETS after a big game. I have yet to hear any reports of videogame players getting so worked up that they overturn a car and set it on fire … .)

Supporting article: Doom Goes To War

Reading this thread makes me want to go play Postal 2.

Well, I once crushed a bag of Funyuns into powder…

The same thing that’s funny about someone dropping a bowling ball on his foot, getting slapped, poked in the eyes, hit with a pie, or sprayed with a seltzer bottle. Violence (happening to someone we know will be fine) has been a part of comedy for ages.