The Three Conversations We Need To Have About Media Violence

President Obama’s proposal, in his gun control package, that Congress allocate $10 million to study “the relationship between video games, media images, and violence,” is hardly the most damaging policy suggestion to come out of our current debate about gun violence, but it ignores the fact that this is a question that’s been studied before, to no particularly conclusive result. Ralph Nader’s declaration that video games are “electronic child molesters” is vastly more hysterical. Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson’s proposed legislation to require identification for the sale of video games much in the same way as tobacco or alcohol would disrupt both the voluntary ratings system that the gaming industry already has in place, and impose new requirements on brick-and-mortar retailers and online outlets.

What all of these reactions have in common, however, is that they cater to the public’s anxieties about violent media rather than trying to handle them in a rational fashion. And in doing so, they’re conflating three debates that ought to be handled separately: parents’ ability to control the media their children consume, the public policy question of whether media has an impact in the real world, and the creative question of whether violence in media remains narratively and thematically rich. We have an interest in making sure parents can make the right decisions for our families, that we’re evaluating risk factors for gun violence in ways that will make for rigorous and effective policy, and preserving creative freedom for artists to do their best work. Conflating those interests, particularly if we’re doing so to make one seem more serious, runs the risk that we won’t find the solutions that will best serve any of these concerns.

A CBS-New York Times poll released last week found that that 42 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats said that violence in movies and video games contribute to gun violence a lot, and 41 percent of Republicans and 32 percent of Democrats said that media makes at least some contribution to gun violence. Those are strikingly high numbers for a belief that isn’t backed by conclusive evidence.

I can understand certain parental concerns about the ability to control what their children consume, something that ends when their children leave the house either temporarily or permanently. John Landgraf, the president of FX, spoke to some of those worries at the Television Critics Association press tour when he talked about his own approach with his children children, who have grown up without gaming consoles in the house and without access to first-person shooters. “If you ask my 15 year old, who has played a lot of it at other friends’ houses and stuff, he says, ‘Well, it’s kind of disturbing because you’re not hunting. You’re not hunting for food. You’re in a first person context, and you’re killing everything in sight,'” he explained. As someone who hasn’t yet raised children of my own, I can imagine how unsettling it would be to send them out into the world worried that they’d encounter media they haven’t been prepared for or that they might find upsetting.

And even for parents who are vigilant about what their children encounter at home, there are some things it’s difficult to avoid. There are some voluntary standards that might make sense, like aligning advertising for movies, television, and video games, so products that have been rated as appropriate for certain audiences can only be advertised in front of or during other products with comparable ratings. This would present a very significant challenge to sports programming, which is technically considered all-ages, even though it’s a key draw for younger men, who watch less scripted television programming, and therefore is a major platform for advertising products that are aimed particularly at those young men. We can debate whether or not parents who are watching football with young children are exposing their children to a level of media violence that’s comparable to something like Fox’s ultra-violent new drama The Following, but I’m sympathetic to the idea that the juxtaposition between sporting content and some movie, video game, and scripted television programming is jarring and might make parents feel out of control.

But I’d imagine that many of those same people who worry about the impact of the media on mass killers would be disconcerted to see Criminal Minds, which is watched by more than 13 million Americans each week, or The Walking Dead, which pulled in 10.87 million viewers for its premiere this season, disappear from their airwaves. Conflating parents’ legitimate desire for some control over the media their children consume with claims of a larger social impact may help people feel that their worries aren’t just private ones. But mixing up these two very different goals could have unintended consequences, reducing consumers’ and artists’ freedom without giving parents information they need to make decisions or tools to implement them, or without having a meaningful impact on real-world violence.

Over the past month or so, the content industries have reacted with remarkable equanimity to the attempt to scapegoat them for American gun violence. Langraf and other television executives have said that they’re open to seeing the results of new studies about the impact of media. Entertainment executives met with Vice President Joe Biden as part of his efforts to shape recommendations to President Obama. While defending free speech, my sense is that many if not all creators and the companies who distribute their work are willing to consider the question of what impact their work has in the real world, and separately but equally importantly, whether violence in their work is creatively rich and justified.

And I think it’s time for lawmakers to start treating the concerns of their constituents with the same sense of balance. No one needs to prove that Call of Duty lead directly to a school shooting to validate parental desire to pace what kind of content their children are exposed to. But it’s also true that we could prove absolutely and definitively, that violence in media has no impact on violent behavior in the real world, and that media violence could still be creatively bankrupt or increasingly dull as the dominant stakes for characters to face in fiction. It would be much healthier for us to talk about what tools parents need to do that work, how media handles violence from a creative perspective, and the empirical questions of our media’s impact on our behavior and expectations of the world as separate and specific questions that demand their own solutions..