Denying the Effects of Violent Video Games

As a result of the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act the UK government has recently given the police new powers to monitor e-mails and web sites. The pretext is to fight terrorism, political extremism and Internet paedophilia as sensationalised in the mainstream media, but the real purpose is to crack down on subversion. Tabloids spread rumours about paedophiles prowling 10 year olds in chat rooms. While such an invasion of privacy will not stop child abuse, it will curtail the free speech of all but powerful corporate and state organs.

By contrast the same media outlets not only sport high-profile advertisements for violent video games such as Tomb Raider, Quake III, Half Life, Soldier of Fortune etc. to name but a few, but hail them as cool pastimes, praise the developers as talented export-oriented entrepreneurs and review accompanying movies as works of art. Meanwhile the corporate PR machine via the computer press is busy proving such games not only appeal to young and old alike, but teach co-ordination skills and help to channel our anger in a safe virtual medium.

Genetic vs Environmental Causes

The video games lobby's chief argument is that other factors such as genetic predisposition to aggression play a much greater role than mass media violence in determining violent outcomes to conflicts. Many like to quote Adrian Rain from the University of Southern California, who has undertaken extensive research into genetic markers for violence in psychopaths. However, in a June 2001 TV debate he did not deny that social factors also play a role in determining how neurologically diverse individuals channel their innate aggressiveness. In all but the most extreme cases people are not born killers. The nature versus nurture debate could be widened to consider the other effects of pervasive media. To what extent does advertising, merchandising and corporate sponsorship encourage the masses to squander hard-earned cash on designer clothes and other superfluous consumer goods that will soon be superseded anyway? Would advertisers be wasting billions of dollars, euros or pounds to persuade us to buy more if purely genetic factors determined prodigality too? Violent media may not change our natural propensity to aggression, but they can channel our natural urges for revenge, communicate with our subconscience and justify violence as a means of conflict resolution.

Video Violence Threat is just a Media Scare

A classic tactic employed by lobbyists ever since the American free speech movement of the 1960s is to dismiss a problem as a mere mass media scare. In recent years global warming, the ill-effects of factory farming (e.g. BSE, foot and moth disease, salmonella, E-coli, overuse of antibiotics in animal husbandy weakening our immune system), the big-business-friendly corruption of most world governments, the imminent end of the oil age, the mass extinction of many large wild animal species outside zoos etc. have all been dismissed by various lobbies as media scares. Ironically they have a point. Mass circulation newspapers and popular TV channels in countries with nominal democratic institutions repeatedly launch scare campaigns, which are later revealed as either unfounded or taken out of context e.g. paedophilia is nothing new and its apparent rise may owe more to children's exposure to media and peer pressure that promote sexual promiscuity among young teens as well as early onset puberty. However, only 40 years ago the establishment ritually condemned all sexual practices out of wedlock as buggery. Everyone knows the way in which children discover their sexuality will affect an important part of their adult lives, but any attacks on media's role in teenagers is almost off-limits, so public anger is simply channelled against paedophiles, convenient scapegoats for society's ills. So intent is the government on curtailing personal liberties in the cybernetic age that is now offence to own digital paedophile imagery, as according to the government someone who would pay to view such picture may abuse children. Indeed such an assumption may have some truth in it, but without proof of sexually motivated physical contact with children, conviction under this law would like arresting Playboy subscriber for rape - offering the magazine as the sole piece of evidence. As many owners of e-mail accounts are aware without prudent spam filtering measures, one's hard drive can fill with explicit pornography, including kiddy porn, in no time simply by clicking on an HTML-enabled e-mail. By the same logic someone who pays to engage interactively in a simulation of a mass murder might want to reenact the scenario in real life against perceived enemies. Luckily most know that they would never get away with such wild fantasies, until they find themselves in a new position of power over defenceless individuals, e.g. in a war zone or in counter-insurgency operations. However, the former group don't have a multibillion dollar industry behind them yet.

Let's take a look at another analogy. If global warming is caused by a massive rise in human depredation of the earth's resources over the last century, then major multinationals stand to lose billions as we lower consumption. The best counterclaim the oil lobby can make is dismiss global warming scientists as green fascists intent on denying ordinary working people the right to drive gas guzzlers on multilane highways. Likewise if violent video games do adversely influence kids' behaviour, the entertainment industry will be held responsible for destabilising communities. In the same way as some lobbyists claim ecstasy is a relatively harmless recreational drug, they claim Quake III Arena is just fun. If you read computer magazines you've probably encountered the well-rehearsed line "I play violent video games, but I don't feel like killing someone afterwards".

That's because everyone knows murder is morally reprehensibe, but can be strategically justifed in self-defence or to fight a greater evil. Brainwashed youngsters do not consider themselves potential killers, just liberators or protagonists in an exciting adventure that bears little semblance to real life situations. Be honest! Outside the makebelieve world of Hollywood movies, how many Lara Crofts successfully fight off enemies single-handedly at gunpoint while flaunting their sexual prowess?

Re-enforcing Self-righteous War Propaganda

Video-games come in two varieties: Glorified violence and liberating force. In the first genre à la Tomb Raider, gamers play sexy or muscular role models ready to fight off evil or unwtiting rivals. In the second genre à la Wing Commander, gamers play their heroic role in the battle against murderous enemies, reinforcing mainstream war propaganda. Both forms cheapen life and stress the self-righteous may murder with impunity. Gaming is also a highly addictive lifestyle and is actively promoted by the same corporate machine that brought neoliberal governments such as New Labour to power. European age certificates are meaningless. Theoretically recommended for 15+, Tomb Raider is advertised on kids TV and played by six and seven year olds. Even children's shows on the BBC offer Play Station ® consoles as prizes. Anyone who thinks 8 to 10 year kids will play The Tweenies and Winnie The Pooh on their consoles, or be contented with Colin McCrae's Rally or Driver 2 are seriously mistaken. Besides even many racing games contain elements of violence and promote a high-consumption lifestyle with minimal effort and maximal thrills.

Meanwhile the devious youth press spreads rumours that the government plans to ban such games and thus crush a multibillion-dollar industry. Such logic is perverse. Not surprisingly the same Labour government is quietly deregulating the gambling industry, something else that may appeal to vast swathes of the public. We'll see entertainment complexes with 24-hour casinos and virtual shooting ranges. We need not worry much about the free speech of violent game developers, they can hire the best PR firms and lobbyists in the world, nor will the current government stop anything that not only earns billions but also plays a key role in conditioning millions of future adults.

The current ethos is anything that seems fun and boosts business must be good, unless officialdom deems it politically incorrect. With the right marketing the games industry could effortlessly sell virtual rape games or simulations of Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory with graphic detail of wanton butchery. Indeed such games have already been developed. With the release of Flashpoint Kosovo and Operation Desert Storm, computer games are reinforcing media-fed misconceptions. If killing Serbs is okay, it only takes a small leap of imagination to slaughter minority groups in one's own backyard. A seven-year old Tomb Raider fan could soon be saving the Western world from the yellow peril by nuking Shanghai, petrol-bombing alleged paedophiles or sinking ships carrying desperate Afghan asylum seekers. Freedom is no longer seen as the universal right to nourishment, clean water, shelter, peace, education and gainful employment, it is freedom to protect one's living standard from the marauding masses, whoever they may be.

The intellectuals behind the current neoliberal governments of Western Europe and North America know these self-evident facts only too well. Neoliberalism has a liberal attitude to corporate power and people's freedom to indulge corporate-sponsored activities, but a restrictive attitude to ideas that may challenge corporate hegemony. As a result emotive epithets like fascist or Stalinist are liberally employed to describe opponents of NATO bombing over Kosovo, as such a pacifist stance would have allegedly given Demon Milosevic a green light to execute a systematic genocide. All well-meaning individuals had to back the good guys, in this case NATO, against the forces of evil personified in the late 1990s by the mass media's caricature of Serb nationalists. In the current propaganda offensive against the perpetrators of the horrific terror attacks killing thousands in Manhattan and Washington DC, the new bad guys are Islamic suicide pilots trained on Microsoft Flight Simulator, which featured the World Trade Center.

Opium of The Masses

After a lone gunman entered a Scottish nursery school in Dunblane and shot dead 16 toddlers in April 1997, the UK government proceeded to ban handguns in marked contrast with gun laws in most American states. Handguns are designed to kill, no doubt about that, but may also serve as the ultimate defence against armed intruders, whether burglars, gangsters or police officers raiding the wrong house. However, firearms have not disappeared from British TV screens, computer simulations of gun battles are forever more realistic and criminals have encountered few obstacles in importing weapons. Despite a media frenzy the frequency of armed robberies and street shootings actually continued to rise in the first two years after the handgun ban, as have police the deployment of firearms and the shooting of unarmed citizens.

While making ordinary citizens less able to defend themselves in an increasingly atomised world, the root causes of violence have actually worsened: More violence on more TV channels at any time, more shoot-'em-up video games and a greater social and educational divide.

The last factor is usually overlooked, but Play Stations, X-Boxes Nintendo Gamecubes and Gameboys are clearly aimed at the mass market. Leading kids titles such as Buzz Lightyear, Dexter's Laboratory or Power Puff Girls are often based on cartoons with proven antisocial effects, i.e. they actively encourage teasing, bullying and attacking baddies or weirdoes, whoever they may be. As a result the main role of the police is now to contain the masses adversely effected by the wares distrubuted by the corporate machine, whose interests the police are also required to defend. As big business promotes the scourges of booze, drugs, late night discos and video violence, the forces of law and order sweep up the mess.

Sowing the Seeds Of Hatred

While we should not dismiss the disruptive effects violent video-games have on many vulnerable minds, they play a greater role in re-enforcing existing prejudices and triggering ingrained aggressive responses. They effects may in some respects be likened to addictive and hallucinogenic drugs. The big question is whether violent video-games merely reflect society's warped values or amplify the agressive side of human nature i.e. are they incidental or causal? Their effects are greatest on teenagers and young adults raised on violent media from an early age. It is the combination of passive TV violence, rampant consumerism, neighbourhood and school violence and interactive electronic violence in the absence of dependable role models that is most lethal. By contrast the effects are probably limited on adults deprived of violent electronic media in their formative years.

The gaming lobby maintains that sex and violence have always aroused intense interest. Only the medium has changed. Literary portrayals of gratuitous violence can be both gruesome and educational. Even documentaries and movies may highlight the horrors of war, persecution, slavery or gangland fighting, but may also glorify the aggression of one side or demonise the other side to justify a given political agenda. The same can equally apply to the print media, but the reader's experience is never the same as a passive viewer's or an interactive gamer's. In truth only in recent decades have most people had so much leisure time to devote to such trivial pursuits and 3 to 4 generations ago few had time to read or the means to listen to the radio. For most of human history we learned about violence the hard way in real-life situations. Knowing how and when to fight was a matter of life or death. Today street violence is greatest in unequal societies, where the poor enviously watch the opulence of the consumerist classes. What will happen when the Quake II and Doom generation join the jobless masses in a future recession? Will they seek to rebuild their local communities, stay at home addicted to their aging game consoles or reenact their fantasies on the streets?

Is Censorship the Answer?

Censorship has always benefited the ruling classes. Time and again the surest way to guarantee the cult status of many books, films or video games has been to ban them, assuming a little prior publicity. Corporate lobbies like to talk of regulation, in the full knowledge that big business can always buy its way through hundreds of loopholes. Having popularised violent video-games through multimillion dollar advertising campaigns with Tomb Raider featured on the back of cereal packets, the gaming industry, almost inextricably linked to the movie and TV business, would seek new devious means to distribute its wares if tighter controls were introduced, while the state would be delighted to apply new restrictions to clamp down on dissent e.g. video footage of real violence perpetrated by a superpower or friendly militias could be banned.

Not only is censorship both impractical and counterproductive, it is also only conceivable because our consumerist society plays on people's basest instincts, but as usual we need to attack the root causes. In the short term we may need to campaign to stop schools or libraries distributing such poisonous games, but the emphasis should be on raising awareness of the harmful effects that exposure to violent propaganda has on young kids. However, in the long run we should strive to replace the greed and mindless self-indulgence of today's consumerist society with peaceful, playful and constructive activities in a socially coherent and sharing community. Sport offers a much better outlet for our pent-up frustrations. Parents of shy kids may be better advised to enrol them in karate lessons, teaching practical self-defence and co-ordination skills, than let them undergo premature military brainwashing.

Author: 
Neil Gardner
+