When I started this column, I had this idea. I wanted to write about that space where fantasy escapism (i.e. popular entertainment) and social forms meet. I wanted to talk about why we make the entertainment we do and what that entertainment does to us.
Because I do believe that the process of doing something changes us. And since I’ve taken the Area Of Effect title I’ve done pretty much everything but actually talk about that.
Until this week. This week a president decided to lay down some new rules about how guns are purchased in this country while petitioning Congress to make even more.
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook there’s a resurgent question in the air. What causes gun violence and how do we stop it? An associated question: do violent video games kill people?
My first instinct is to say no. I love violent video games. They are the only games I play, and I have yet to kill anyone. But I’m an individual, not a statistic. And individuals are pretty bad at working out patterns in huge numbers of people by eyeballing it.
1. The U.S. has the highest rate of fire-arm related murders of any developed country in the world.
2. Americans are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than someone in another developed country.
3. An average of 82 people (8 of them children) die in the United States every day from gun violence.
The Sandy Hook tragedy is a single example of something that’s happening in this country every day. After more than a week of media blackout, the NRA came back with a condemnation of the cultural glorification of gun violence in video games. Guns don’t kill people; video games kill people.
Personally, I thought it was laughable at the time. This is an old argument from the ’90s. And, to me, an obvious opportunity for the NRA to guide the conversation away from gun control. Apparently that’s not the case, as a real conversation about video game violence seems to be in the works.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe video games do anything to us. I think the mass consumption of violence is probably doing a lot of things to us, but I don’t believe it makes us kill each other. And science doesn’t believe it either. Academic studies continue to show that there just isn’t any substantial evidence that video games are a causal mechanism for violence.
Here’s the thing. I actually do think video games and violent media in general do something to us. Just this week I commented on how messed up it is that movies universally recognize domestic violence is bad while at the same time romanticizing boyfriends that kill. And I think it does a lot to reinforce stereotypes about race, gender, and a on and on until we drown in an ocean of political correctness. But there are some important caveats.
First, cultural artifacts like movies and video games are the product of a culture as well as a means for reinforcement. The stuff we see on the screen doesn’t appear from a vacuum. It is somewhere in the society and somewhere in us. That’s the reason someone makes it and the reason other people pay money to consume it.
Guns are a part of our national persona because violence is a part of our national persona. Ask yourself a question. When’s the last time you watched a movie where the protagonist overcame his challenges without using violence? I can’t speak for you, but of the top 20 grossing films of all time I see only two that didn’t need violent protagonists: Titanic & Toy Story 3. And I’m reluctant to give Toy Story a pass.
My point is violence is the most popular way our heroes solve problems. There is a corollary between the the games we play and gun violence, but it’s more apt to say that the idea of gun violence causes violent video games rather than the reverse. Robert Brockway at Cracked may has one of the best takes on it:
We’ve spent the vast majority of our national history involved in active, bloody wars. We won our independence with gun violence; we stayed a nation with gun violence; we helped stave off worldwide genocide with gun violence. Gun violence has, generally speaking, been working out pretty spiffy for us. The vast bulk of our movies, television shows, and, yes, video games revolve around praising gun violence. And we’re all writing, approving, designing, and buying these things, then turning around and looking at the finished product like we’ve just discovered a rabid animal in our bathroom. Everybody is standing there aghast, wondering which of our media caused all of this violent thinking; nobody’s asking why we made them all in the first place.
Second, everything I’ve read and come to understand about popular media consumption tells a story of perspective rather than impetus. Pop culture may cause us to feel certain things, and it most certainly impacts our thinking, but it does not build within us a drive to murder children.
Consider Spec Ops: The Line for a moment. We did a whole write-up of it at the end of last year because of how profoundly and completely it highlighted the problems with military shooters. The short version is that combat shooters use something that isn’t real, a fun war experience, to make war seem sexy. While I doubt these games cause players to up and join the military, I do think they shape the way we think about warfare and help us ignore some of it’s nastier consequences. Just the same way I think images about race or gender repeated over and over by popular entertainment shape the way we think about those topics too.
What they don’t do is cause stable, mentally healthy people to kill. Video games aren’t the problem, though they are symptomatic of a problem. People are the problem. In a sense it’s true that guns don’t kill people. People kill people with guns.