Violence in video games has been a hot-button topic as far back as I can remember.
In the aftermath of 1999’s Columbine High School shooting, I recall quite a few discussions about video games like “Doom” and “Duke Nukem 3D” coming up. The assumption was that these sorts of games were breeding killers. Many who grew up playing video games could regale you with tales of Jack Thompson, a Florida lawyer who led a personal crusade against violent games such as “Grand Theft Auto.”
Thompson’s theory was that violent video games were “murder simulators,” training and brainwashing children into becoming school shooters.
Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the nonprofit organization, Feminist Frequency, put forward a controversial YouTube series called “Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” where her common thesis was that video games reinforced “problematic” ideas in our culture, and thus perpetuate rape culture, sexism, racism, etc.
The theses aren’t difficult for people to follow. For decades, assumption that video games affect one’s perception of what’s real in the world, and thus negatively affect that particular individual, has persisted.
Blogger Matt Walsh conveyed a similar thesis (and admitted as such in his follow-up) on The Daily Wire. According to Mr. Walsh, he was making a philosophical argument in regards to isolating oneself from the rest of the world on top of one’s exposure to digital violence being a negative.
In his own words, such exposure “can’t be good for someone.”
To be frank, I don’t believe any seasoned thinker would have much of an issue with the assertions of Mr. Walsh’s first point. In this day and age, we do have a problem of people isolating themselves within the digital realm.
During my time as a podcaster, and vlogging on YouTube, I’ve noticed quite a few young men who are separating themselves from society and regressing into a state of isolation. They find themselves incredibly cynical about society as a whole and their ability to live a fulfilling life within it, so they retreat from it.
The consequences are rather obvious. However, the problem lies in blaming the medium that some indulge in, rather than the attitude.
Choose Your Escape Plan
Let’s say that a young man who is in this scenario quits violent video games, cold turkey. Are we going to assume that it’s going to instantly make his life better? That the outside world won’t still seem foreign or frightening to him? That the fears that lead him to choosing isolation are going to be gone? I think it’s foolish to make that assumption.
The fact of the matter is that there is a discussion about character that is more necessary than rushing to blame the means of isolating oneself. One can retreat from the world in any manner of medium. It’s hardly something exclusive to video games.
The second piece of Mr. Walsh’s thesis that I object to is the idea that video games, especially those depicting violence, are harmful. My objection to this sort of thing is not on the grounds of defending violence, but rather, it’s about looking at both context of action and reminding oneself of how the human mind interacts with fiction.
As a surface level thought, I can understand where Mr. Walsh is coming from. It’s not an uncommon assumption that exposure to fictional acts of violence “can’t be good.” However, once that thought is taken past the surface, Mr. Walsh’s assumption is just as hollow as Mr. Thompson’s or Ms. Sarkeesian’s before him.
It’s troubling that Mr. Walsh is not willing to compare studies in regards to this subject, but rather wax philosophical. I refuse to do so, because philosophy does not exist within a vacuum. Thought must be influenced by something, and for it to retain value in the realm of thought, it must be regularly checked and challenged.
Should we assume that Thrasymachus’s definition of justice holds the same water as what Socrates concludes in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic? I would think not.
The Blame Game, Continued
After revisiting some articles on the effects of violent video games on the psyche, and reading some studies referred to me by one of my online acquaintances, two ideas resonated with me. Both of these were espoused in a study from Christopher J. Ferguson and John Kilburn from Texas A&M. Their work came in response to another study headed up by Craig Anderson and some of his peers and their studies on violent video games’ effect on the mind.
The first idea is that there is a sincerity to wanting to find a solution to the problems of violence. The second is that violent video games are nothing more than a beloved scapegoat. Like the scientists that Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Kilburn are responding to, Mr. Walsh is distracting from more meaningful causes of aggression, and ignoring how the human mind acts.
One thing that Mr. Walsh fails to do is consider the suspension of disbelief. For the uninitiated, suspension of disbelief is the process in which a human mind can make a distinction between fact and fiction. It’s how human beings are capable of giggling like a schoolgirl when slaying demons in id Software’s Doom, but being horrified by real-life violence and tragedy.
It’s a form of compartmentalization that keeps the mind from cognitive dissonance.
Conventional Wisdom, Upended
Mr. Walsh admits he doesn’t think that games breed serial killers, but what I’m curious about is where he gets the idea that it desensitizes someone to violence. A study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that gauged real-world empathy in those who play violent video games suggested the opposite idea.
When it comes to discussing any studies or any idea of this sort of subject, one has to look at the reaction from the digital medium to the real world. For this medium to have a lasting effect on someone’s mindset in the negative, the disconnect between reality and fiction would have to be less developed.
This is why I’m not against the idea of keeping children from playing violent games—their minds have simply not developed enough. Not to hammer on a point too much, but we need to be honest about ideas like compartmentalization and suspension of disbelief because they are elements of the daily lives of any affected by our words. It’s incredibly irresponsible—if not outright deceitful—to ignore any opposing studies, rather than comparing their findings to find their philosophical meaning.
What I find incredibly disturbing is that people like Mr. Walsh, the aforementioned Ms. Sarkeesian and Mr. Thompson, and even politicians like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, is the idea that the logic of “throw the baby out with the bathwater” is suddenly acceptable—especially among conservative groups.
Similar trains of logic are currently used in the gun control debate, and were used in the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s to target heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and other “occult” entertainment. If I do not accept that train of thought as legitimate with other subjects, why should I, as a gamer, suddenly think that logic is valid when it comes to how I choose to spend my leisure time?
As C.S. Lewis once said, “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.” I fear that Mr. Walsh is falling into the latter with his editorials.
Why Warnings Aren’t Always Good for You
Though he made it very clear that he doesn’t want an outright ban, I cannot ignore that the end goal of the piece was to put consumers in a place where they would reconsider video game purchases if there’s a few more splashes of digitized blood.
I find myself so concerned by words coming from such a popular blogger amongst my fellow Christians and conservatives because our movement prides itself on being centered on facts. If we really are the party of truth, this discussion has to be made honestly. We cannot make an argument to ethos or pathos without logos.
Consistent logic, backed up by facts, are the only things that hold long-term power. If Mr. Walsh had put together an article purely about the downsides of the digital age, I think people would have absolutely defended his ideas. As it stands, what we got were surface thoughts that quickly fall apart when scrutinized.
One thing that I’ll join Mr. Walsh on is suggesting to young people that there is a time and a place for everything. It’s good to get out and get some sun, be productive, and have some semblance of a social life.
If we spend all of our time in front of monitors, not forming relationships or working towards something constructive, there is a form of empathy atrophy that can be observed. That said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with concluding your day by blowing up a fleet of genocidal space aliens.
Micah Curtis is a podcaster and freelance entertainment critic. His work has been featured on Blistered Thumbs, Techraptor, and TruthRevolt. He regularly discusses entertainment on YouTube, and hosts a weekly podcast called Micah and The Hatman.
For further reading: Much Ado about Nothing: The Misestimation and Overinterpretation of Violent Video Game Effects in Eastern and Western Nations: Comment on Anderson et al.
Photo on Foter.com