After Adam Lanza shot twenty young children and six of the teachers and administrators who helped educate them in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, the massacre renewed the long-dormant national debate about gun control, and sparked a complementary—and in some cases diversionary—discussion about mental health funding and treatment. But it’s also revived another old conversation, about whether video games are too violent, and whether they play a role in encouraging, desensitizing, and even preparing mass killers for their rampages.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the outgoing independent from Connecticut who has long crusaded against video game manufacturers, said in his appearance on Fox News Sunday that “The violence in the entertainment culture—particularly, with the extraordinary realism to video games, movies now, et cetera —does cause vulnerable young men to be more violent…Doesn’t make everybody more violent, but it’s a causative factor in some cases.” Obama senior strategist David Axelrod tweeted “”In NFL post-game: an ad for shoot ’em up video game. All for curbing weapons of war. But shouldn’t we also quit marketing murder as a game?”
As Annalee Newitz reminds us in a valuable post at io9, there is no conclusive evidence that consuming violent games, movies, or comics leads to violent behavior in the real world. And at the Washington Post, Max Fischer ran the numbers on video game popularity in countries with much lower rates of gun violence, and found no correlation between game play and real-world violence. And there’s something deeply sophistic, in the absence of that evidence, about pivoting away from questions of effective gun control to proposals for video game regulation or condemnation. At least discussion of the mental health care system is part of a reasonable tapestry of efforts, including gun control, that we ought to be considering, if not a substitute for conversations about magazine capacities and the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban. Blaming video games or any other kind of violent media for causing violence in the real world is a dodge from policy solutions. And it’s a dodge from the conversation we actually need to have about the state of our popular culture, and the profound fears about justice, disempowerment, and the state of civil society that are reflected in it. Video games are easy to target. The things that actually, truly frighten us are much harder.
One of the things I’ve been turning over in my mind in recent weeks is why the renaissance in our television is so specifically concerned with, as NPR’s Linda Holmes put it, “avoiding being violently killed” to the exclusion of other concerns like finding a satisfying place in the adult world, a loving, complimentary partner, doing good, honorable work, or being a good citizen in difficult circumstances. But as much as I feel somewhat burned out by the gouts of violence on my television, it’s true that questions about deploying violence, avoiding it, and its moral and immoral applications, permeate our political culture and lived experience today.
If you’re a woman in the United States, you’re taught from a young age that you have to be careful to avoid having sexual violence visited upon you. I cannot imagine being African-American and considering how to speak to my child about the possibility that his or her interactions with law enforcement may become deadly, or that in some areas of the country, people may feel entitled to shoot them dead on slight, and imagined, provocation. There are people in this country for whom the best way to pay for college is to enlist to be sent to a protracted war that carries with it a considerable risk that they will return maimed or brain injured. We are waging a war from the skies in which our political leadership appears to accept the deaths of children as a reasonable level of collateral damage, and where 17 percent of the pilots who actually have to carry out our drone strikes are considered “clinically distressed” by their work. As many commentators have usefully pointed out, the massacre in Newtown is deeply disturbing in part because the community was not afflicted by a constant blight of gun violence like the one that spread like rot over Chicago this summer. We’ve lived through a political election in which obvious references to the lynching of the first black president were excused away as jokes.
There are narrative reasons for our popular culture to portray violence. But it’s also possible that our popular culture is violent precisely because our larger culture is violent—though it’s important to note certain kinds of crime are decreasing, it’s clear we still feel overpowering levels of anxiety about even the levels that we’ve reached—and we need stories to help us manage our reactions to the prospect of encountering that violence.
When we live in a country where there is a backlog of 400,00 untested rape kits, and where victims of rape and sexual abuse are routinely shamed, exposed, and disbelieved, no wonder fantasies of revenge against rapists who will never be brought to true justice bloom like evil flowers in television shows like Dexter. The shooting deaths of Travyon Martin and Jordan Davis by men who claimed their rights to fire were covered under so-called Stand Your Ground laws are a reminder that racialized violence of the sort depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, about a slave who vows to free his wife from a brutal plantation owner, is not so far away, and that its roots have not been fully excised from the American garden. Even though Osama bin Laden is dead, the damage he and his warped ideology did is irreversible, and popular culture will continue to give us outlets to fantasize about destroying him over and over again, from Abu Nazir’s burial at sea in the season finale of Homeland last night to the procedural exploration of his death in Zero Dark Thirty.
Embedded in both our conversations about real violence and in our pop cultural responses to violence is the idea that escalation is the appropriate response to profound failures of justice and the social compact. Women should defend themselves more effectively against their abusers, or in general claim equality by appropriating violent power previously reserved for men for their own, whether they’re buying blinged-out rifles or transforming themselves into kick-ass action heroines. Men should reclaim their masculinity, threatened by the economy, by feminism, or whichever culprit is popular at the moment by burrowing in, whether by adopting steroid regimens while still teenagers or purchasing the Bushmaster A-15, the gun Adam Lanza used in Connecticut, which the company that manufactures it once advertised with the slogan “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.” This sort of sentiment is perfectly encapsulated by the very clever ads for the Call of Duty lines of video games, which carry the tagline “There’s A Soldier In All Of Us,” emphasizing that the slogan applies everyone from professional women of color to white fast food workers:
Writing about the real-world application of this kind of escalation, the idea that more guns, like the five that Nancy Lanza owned, make us safer at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs issues a powerful reminder of what it really means: “It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against every man’ in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.” Or if you believe yourself to be aggrieved by women, as Seung-Hui Cho seemed to be, or that a Congresswoman from Arizona is part of a conspiracy to manipulate American currency, as Jared Lee Loughner appeared to believe. Guns didn’t save those men from the fevered fantasies of their invention. And video games didn’t move them to action.
The question we should be asking is not whether Call of Duty, or Dexter, or the Saw films are going to turn us into a nation of multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-generational psychopaths, unable to or disinterested in distinguishing reality from the images we see on all kinds of screens. Violent culture has existed for years, and yet, the murderers in the mass shootings that appear to be descending on us at an escalating rate, are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Rather, it’s why so many of us, even those who will never put a rifle stock to our shoulders or wrap our hands around a pistol grip, feel so drawn to violent fantasies in our culture. Pretending that such an attraction came to life somewhere in a massively multiplayer online game is self-deluding. And acting as if shutting down the production of violent images would curb our fears and desires to fight back against them is an attempt to avoid confronting how frightening our society is for so many citizens even on ordinary days.