Now that we’re all moved in to our new home (well…almost moved in), I have a moment to breath and write. Plus, I felt inspired by an argument I got in with myself while taking a shower—do violent video games make people violent? It was a topic I skimmed over in philosophy, though I hadn’t given much thought to it due to the reasoning of the argument. It goes a little something like this: studies of the brain show that the same parts of the brain light up when a person is given an object or shown a picture of the object (i.e., whether a person is given a physical book or an image of the book, the same parts of the brain light up). This suggests that the brain is equally affected by reality (physical book) and fiction (image of a book); whether a person sees murder in real life or on tv, the brain is equally affected, and hence the mental stability of the witness; continued exposure to violence in games movies numbs individuals to the acts, making them curious and more prone to conduct the acts themselves. The argument has been used by a lot of parents (myself included) as the reason to keep their children from playing violent video games or watching violent movies, as well as politicians to point blame at extreme acts of violence throughout the nation (specifically mass shootings and gun violence).
First let’s look at the argument itself. Watching violence movies or playing violent video games makes people more prone and numb to violence. I agree that watching a single movie over and over again will make a person numb to the violence in that particular movie, but that’s due to watching the same exact scene over and over again. If watching violence numbed people to violence, then people would have stopped watching action movies a long time ago. Especially the sequels!
“Did you see Empire Strikes Back?”
“Yeah, it sucked. I already saw lightsabers, spaceships, and blaster fights in Star Wars. Plus I’ve already seen the Matrix, so I’m pretty numb to anything punchy and shooty. And before you ask, I’ve already seen The Princess Bride, Sleepless In Seattle, and Notebook.”
If watching violence made people numb to violence, then the MMA would not be one of the most popular sporting events, alongside with American football, boxing, hunting, etc. The fact of the matter is, repeated exposure to the SAME acts of violence (or any act for that matter) numbs a person to that individual act. But even then, if we wait long enough after repeated exposure, our interest in that same act will begin to pique and we will find interest in that act once again. It’s how we’re able to find interest in movies we’ve watched multiple times. It’s also why watching an actual act of violence (e.g., beheading) is far more disturbing than watching Gregor Clegane decapitate a foe.
Another reason to question the supposed correlation between violent movies/games and actual violence comes to play when we examen other nations. Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, etc. all play and watch the same games and movies as Americans, and yet they seem to be far less shooty and mass murdery than in the US. If the correlation is true, then we should see the same levels of violence in all the other nations. But we don’t.
The solution to the dilemma resides in the very organ that’s causing the debate—the brain! Dreams, to be exact. They feel so real when we have them, and even after we awaken the residue of the dream can take a few moments to fade. It doesn’t take long, especially when you try to describe the dream out loud. Dreams feel real, and people can even die from them. It seems to be a strong argument for the violence correlation crowd, and it would be if it wasn’t for the part that comes after the dream.
Dreams feel real because the brain is acting without the conscious mind to determine fact from fiction. Without the conscious mind, that part of your mind that you “hear” when you read or engage active thought. It has no sound and yet it is the essence of your voice and who you are. It’s what tells, without telling, the subconscious brain (the part that can’t distinguish fact from fiction and makes dreams seem so real), “Slow down there, Speed Racer! Your wife was not going to leave you for the random guy at Circle K as they ride off on their unicorn dragon. That was a dream.” It also tells the brain, “Hey, don’t worry, big fella. Godzilla isn’t really dead; he’s not even real. It’s just a movie.”
I know what all you Harry and Henrietta Hyperboles are thinking right now: “Oh, so now we should just let 5 yo’s play Call of Duty and watch Apocalypse Now?”
To which I say: That’s stupid! Of course we shouldn’t let little children play violent games or watch violent movies. New flash! Little kids have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction. You can show them Star Wars and tell them that’s real, and they’ll believe you. When I was three, I’d really thought Mothra had killed Godzilla and I was devastated. Now that I’m almost 43 I have a better grip on what is real, so when I watch Game of Thrones I know that the actors didn’t really die. As our grasp on reality grows and we start to understand that vampires and superpower aren’t real, our ability to distinguish violence on tv from actual violence becomes more acute and the effects they have on our mental faculties are mitigated. This isn’t an argument to convince anyone to let their kids play violent games; it’s an argument meant to assuage the fears many parents have, that their children will become the next mass murderer if they play or watch certain games of movies.
One thing about video games and movies that I have observed is that there seems to be a correlation between irritability and the amount of time spent playing/watching (especially binge-playing/-watching). I’ve observed this in myself as well as others in many age brackets. My son, for example, will become increasingly irritable the longer he spends playing a game (phone, iPad, computer, console). But I attribute that to the idea that productivity begets satisfaction while stagnations begets irritation, not to video games or movies themselves (cabin fever existed long before television). But that’s a subject for another blog.