Culture of Violence: Are games & media part of the problem?

This is the 4th and final Wild Duck editorial related to the Newtown school
massacre in December 2012. Scroll down to view these articles:

■ Logan’s Guardians: Poignant Sandy Hook back story
■ 3-Prong Approach to School Security Avoids Lockdown
■ Few tributes to killer’s mother? Don’t feel guilt
■ Violence in Games & Media: Not part of the problem

Liza Long has become an internet sensation of sorts. Her Blog post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  [alternate site] went viral in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting. Of course, she is not Nancy Lanza. The shooter’s mother was the first victim of a calculated rampage that left 28 dead in all, including 20 first-grade students and 6 staff members.

Mrs. Long’s 13 year old son exhibits periodic, aggressive and threatening outbursts. This violent behavior alternates with longer periods of high-performing academics and true remorse over the violent episodes. As you can imagine, the boy has had numerous diagnoses. Brief episodes of aberrant behavior interspersed by apology or confusion could be a symptom of mental illness, a tumor, or even a trauma. It could relate to his food, his family environment, or even religious delusion (In this case, none of these are among the various diagnoses of mental illness).

But the article is not an analysis of the boy. It is a sharing of the enormous effort and anguish of being parent to a teenage child with mental illness and, as Liza explains in follow-up interviews, it is a plea for help and also an expression of her opinion that identifying and treating mental illness may save more lives than gun control.

Mrs. Long is one heck of a great writer! Her story column is among the most compelling and persuasive editorials I have ever read. I could learn from her communication style: captivating, thought provoking, and very clearly articulated.

I suspect that both issues factor into the number of mass murders: mental illness and easy gun ownership & transfer. But some pundits, including the current head of the National Rifle Association are pointing to America’s culture of violence, especially the violence depicted in Hollywood films, on TV and in computer and video games.

I would not be quick to ban violence in films or in fiction (TV and video games). It is a slippery slope that easily leads to banning Roadrunner cartoons (Wiley E. Coyote frequently blows himself up or falls into canyons). What about non-fiction? Why not ban guns and bombs in historical documentaries? What about War and Peace? What about Disney? (the beginning of Bambi or Finding Nemo). What about the Bible? That’s probably the most violent book ever written!

In my opinion, banning violence in media provides a false panacea. Research demon-strates a connection between fictional violence and immediate attitude. I acknowledge this. For example, when kids play military “kill” games, they are more likely to react to an innocent bump as if it were intentional—and they are more likely to escalate the interaction.

While I do not dispute these findings, I believe that the reaction is temporary and superficial. The Japanese culture is filled with horrific violence in both games and fiction. Hentai cartoon books are a popular staple in subway kiosks and snatched up by business commuters. They depict rape, gore and dismemberment. Yet, the incidence of real violence, including violence directed toward woman and children, is almost non-existent. It is far, far below the statistical rate in America.

In fact, a contrary force may actually correlate violent media with peaceful coexistence. I suspect that fictional violence provides a personal release for aggressive tendencies and therefore reduces violent interaction in the real world.*

If I am correct (that fictional violence offers a relief valve), then the real question is what mechanism or what types of individuals cross the chasm from imagination to practice? Certainly, easy availability to weapons can play a role in transforming a moment of intense passion or rage into an act of aggression. So, introducing gun control is very likely a good thing. But guns will never be impossible to obtain, and so we must also explore the roots of mental illness and more importantly, the mechanisms or identification of individuals who may “cross the chasm”.

Some people choose to commit suicide by jumping into the Grand Canyon. Because of this, the National Park Service briefly fenced off every lookout point in the mid 1980s. I was incensed! They were taking away from every citizen and visitor the privilege and majestic view! It just didn’t make sense. I was relieved when they buckled to an outraged public reaction. After all, someone bent on suicide could step in front of a car or slice open a vein. I see the removal of violence from media not as an overreaction, but as completely ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive. (Imagine outlawing Terminator, Rambo, or a World War documentary).

* I believe that the same is true of pornography. Fortunately, an increasing number of feminists have dropped a tired, outdated argument that pornography debases {name a gender, race or socio-economic class} and subtly alters a consumer’s attitude toward the characters depicted. But I dasn’t mix venues. It is a separate issue.

Ellery Davies clarifies the intersection of Technology, Law and Public
Policy. He is a contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABC News, PCWorld and
The Wall Street Journal. He is also Chief Editor of A Wild Duck.

2 thoughts on “Culture of Violence: Are games & media part of the problem?

  1. It is possible that increased gun control may reduce some of the public types of violence we have seen in recent and past years in the United States. But it certainly won’t eliminate that type of violence, and may not do as much as proponents would ask us to believe.

    Here is one news reporter’s commentary about Liza Long’s OpEd, I am Adam Lanza’s Mother:
    http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/18/us/connecticut-shooting-anarchist-soccer-mom/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

    Similar comments have been echoed from numerous other families and friends about mentally ill people they know. We need to protect our society. We need to take serious measures to prevent mentally ill, sociopathic, and pyschopathic individuals from wreaking mass-murder within our nation. We need to find something to do which goes beyond gun-control alone.

  2. I recently researched for an article that I wrote about video games and violence. Most doctors and analysts agreed that the gaming violence is not a major factor in real life violence. In fact, these video games, as you correctly surmised, offer an outlet through which users channel anger and frustration. The cause of the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook school shootings are complex mental issues that professionals have not yet been able to understand or properly combat. Hopefully, more research will be done so that such tragedies can be completely avoided, however necessary.

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