Call for Comments: Virtual Violence

From Mav: First of all, if you haven’t seen it, the first episode of the podcast is up, so come check it out. And we will be recording the second one tomorrow, so there’s still time to add your comments on pop culture nostalgia. Now with all of that out of the way, I’d like to introduce another member of our team, Katya. as I said in the beginning, this was never supposed to be just me and Wayne. Katya and I were in the same cohort when I did my Masters. She’s an expert in cultural analysis of video games, so that’s what we’re going to talk about this week.

From Katya: If you are alive and have been paying attention to the American political scene recently (or the last several decades, really) you know that we have a shooting problem. If you’ve been paying attention for the last few decades you also know that have video games been regular scapegoats for it since Columbine. (Including from the NRA’s own Wayne LaPierre, despite having their own game which simulates a shooting range and was only last month removed from the Apple store after being released in 2013.)

There’s little evidence to support that video games produce violence. Most studies are so limited in scope that they inspire a resounding shrug of inconclusiveness at least insofar as they relate to substantial, longterm effects. I’m even forced to agree with the late Antonin Scalia’s opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association in which he stated that video games were protected under the 1st Amendment because they “communicate ideas— and even social messages” in the way that books, film, television, and other historically protected mediums do.

Anecdotal evidence, and at least this player’s own lifetime experience,  suggests that many players replicate their real world morality in the games they play in situations where the game triggers emotional responses similar to those IRL. In BioShock, for example, players have the choice to “harvest” characters called Little Sisters for a power up or “save” them, turning them back into more or less normal little girls, for a substantially lower boost. While different players obviously do both, it’s a running joke that “harvesting” is an emotionally traumatic experience to be avoided even by those that want to experience the alternative ending it provides. We import our moral and ethical codes in-game in certain situations which are compel us in ways that real-world violence might.

On the other hand, I don’t regularly mow down hundreds of aliens in my regular life, nor am I likely to do so should the opportunity arise (lets not have that opportunity arise, shall we?) But my lifetime in-game body count is substantial and it seems plausible to me, as a scholar of popular culture, that regularly enacting violence has some impact on me.

Video games, after all, have educational origins that are linked to violence. Digital military simulators build on the use of analog war games to train soliders and have been used since at least the 1960s. These simulations help users prepare for the real thing by rehearsing behaviors they will later use in the actual world in a digital landscape with minimal consequences. These games may not make us violent but they might make our violence more effective. In less combative contexts, games are now being used in fields like nanotechnology to teach users about environments which we cannot experience directly, like the laws of physics at an atomic level, and even to do original research about the actual world through these artificial simulations (see Colin Milburn’s Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter.) The efficacy of any of these depends upon the ability of a media facsimile to produce the kinds of knowledge and habits which the actual experience of the real thing would produce. They presume that digital experiences travel outside of the game itself and into the actual world.

I might not be transformed from my normal, cuddly self into a hardening killing machine even if I regularly play one on my PS4 but if I’m importing my own moral codes into the game environment it doesn’t seem irrational that data flows in the opposite direction. In my experience, the emotional responses (or lack thereof) when I play games are instructive. Violent video games, for me, have made me think more critically about my relationship to violence and popular culture more broadly. I have a lot more to say about the role of interactivity, video games and shootings, and digital experiences broadly but we’ll save that for the pod!

From Mav: I think video games are sort of one step in a long line of bogeymen that we attribute to juvenile delinquency. At one point it was jazz. At one point it was rock and roll. Sometimes it’s movies or television. It’s been role playing games, and professional wrestling, and rap music. Once upon a time, a long time ago, people actually feared the dangers of children reading too many novels. Now, we’re moving into a time period where it’s youtube videos. Back when comic books were assumed scourge destroying the nations children, largely spurned on by Frederic Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent. there were congressional hearings that resulted in the dismantling and near death of the industry and shaped how comics had to be written for decades.

This is sort of the dark side of nostalgia. In much the same way as we fetishize the popular culture of our own childhoods, we demonize the culture of the next generation. Part of it, I think is the fear of the newer generation taking over and killing us off. And yeah, they’re totally going to. Children are smarter than you, faster than you and they want you dead. And you probably deserve it… just think about how you’ve fucked up their world! Yeah you!!!  Anyway we need something to blame for that, otherwise you have to default to blaming the parents for being crappy, or admitting that children are just evil (or that we just deserve whatever torturous hell they have in mind for us… and I for one welcome our new tiny overlords). No one wants to do that, so it’s sort of easy and convenient to just assume that the thing doing the damage is some random new thing that we don’t understand and don’t really care for anyway.

One of the things confusing things to look into here are studies that show how much more likely violent criminals are to enjoy FPS video games. However, this isn’t necessarily causal. It’s just as likely (frankly more likely) that they’re seeking out entertainment that they enjoy… because they’re violent. And to take that away doesn’t solve the problem. It just makes the fan seek out that release in other places.

But video games are somewhat special amongst other media that we tend to blame. There’s an immediacy to it because the fan has control over the narrative. This isn’t true for most of these forms (outside of role playing games). However, there’s an additional aspect that I find really odd. Video games are the one mass media type commonly available in America that I can think of where the public is more worried about violence than sex. I’m not quite sure what causes that. Does having more control over the product change your outlook? Is it just that there are fewer sex games out there? The only big named things I can think of with any real controversy are the Grand Theft Auto and God of War series, and both of those typically have the violence far overshadowing the sex.

From Katya: Our ideas are formed by our experiences and our experiences of these simulated environments are real experiences, even though they’re also faked/fictional/artificial/manufactured/whatever else they may be. But what might these experiences do, or what might they be made to do? I have a lot of Thoughts about how this is/might be done for the podcast but what do you think? Do video games impact how people perceive reality? How they act in it? Are we living in the Matrix? Do you wish people would stop asking that question, dammit?

 

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