Since the horrifying shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last month, several debates have raged across the nation. Understandably, people want to address whatever is allowing these mass-shooting sprees to occur, so that they can be prevented in the future. Emotionally jarring incidents like the slaying of innocents often creates an impulse for people to find someone or something to blame.
Three main disputes were kindled by this shooting: the gun-control debate, discussions of school security, and the effects of violent entertainment on violence in society. The first two are appropriate things to consider in the wake of such an event.
While I do not think that gun control will curb violence – it never has done so successfully – it is certainly reasonable to consider addressing the risks of guns (preferably without curbing people’s right to self-defense). Discussing security in schools is also important, as the most defenseless and innocent members of our society ought not to live in fear of harm.
The debate surrounding violent video games, however, is completely illegitimate. Despite the fact that the Newtown shooter would spend hours glued to his screen, playing Call of Duty, it is preposterous to allege that his obsessive playing of first-person-shooter games caused him to shoot real people.
But this allegation is rather common, especially among the older generations (primarily those who were already parents when violent video gaming became popular). The argument against violent video games generally states that the repeated exposure to horrific violence desensitizes gamers, who are then less likely to have an aversion to violence.
This doesn’t hold much water at all; children today are sheltered from violence far more than any prior generation. Earlier generations would be exposed to blood and gore from hunting, and it was common for children to have killed and helped to skin an animal before they were ten years old. Often times, children would witness their own grandparents’ deaths, as hospice care usually consisted of dying in a 3-generation household.
The notion that shooting digital zombies, aliens, and pretend soldiers on a screen could somehow normalize violence and death more than witnessing actual violence and death is not worth taking seriously. The more reasonable advocates against violent video games will accept this, and offer a more relevant counter-argument:
“What about someone who cannot tell the difference between the game and reality?” If such a person exists, he or she is truly insane; such a person would have to be mentally retarded or disturbed. It is important to note, however, that the problem here is not the video game that the disturbed person has confused with reality.
The problem is that there is a disturbed person who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality – it doesn’t matter which fantasy he or she thinks is real. What if, as a perverse example, a crazy person was drugged enough to believe himself the Joker, and then he decided to crash Bane’s first night out by proving himself the bigger villain? Should we ban Batman, in case someone decides to imitate one of his adversaries?
In a broader sense, should we ban art for everyone – viewers and artists alike – because a few insane people may be provoked by it? Certainly not. The style of an evil act can be inspired by art, but art is not the cause of the evil – a murderer who creates elaborate traps for his victims has far more wrong with him than having seen “Saw”.
Abridging the artist’s right to free speech and expression because someone else is too unstable to understand that art is not reality is neither a moral nor practical method for solving violence. When we consider this, along with the tremendous benefits every sane person draws from art, as well as the rarity of people insane enough to be driven to violence by it, censorship becomes too obviously unpalatable. So, even if art could cause violence, it would be absurd to ban it.
But can art even manipulate someone into a violent act? If any type of art is capable of doing so, violent video games – specifically first person shooters – would be the best candidate to examine. After all, a game which allows you to hold a gun and shoot people is a bit more provocative than Romeo and Juliet.
Thoughts are the causes of all human actions. All decisions – actions of the body which are neither autonomic nor reflexive – require a process of either conscious or subconscious thought to accomplish. In other words, a human does not see violence and then automatically act more violently. Such analysis is an embarrassing relic of the behaviorist school of psychology, and ignores the fact that a violent action presupposes a violent thought.
Violent thoughts do not occur in healthy minds; they arise from a person’s subconscious knowledge of his own impotence to deal with reality, and the consequent frustration. The logical next step from such frustration is to seek control second-handedly: A person who feels impotent towards his own life will seek to conquer someone who is competent to deal with reality. One consequence of this is violent behavior (another is power lust).
This is far more complicated than “monkey-see, monkey-do”, and reducing the equation to “person sees violence, person commits violence” ignores the fact that all humans possess a reasoning consciousness. This means that a person cannot be imprinted with a natural tendency to behave a certain way merely by observing it.
A healthy person can engage in behavior that appears violent without any violent thoughts towards other human beings. For example, consider a person who exercises by using a punching bag. Such a person would be well-practiced in an action that can harm others (more than can be said for a gamer), but may never actually punch someone. Similarly, shooting pixels is different than shooting people, and it is common for people to shoot imaginary people regularly without ever hurting a fly in the real world.
It would behoove advocates against violent video games to properly identify the causes of violent behavior, as opposed to their current approach of finding an easy scapegoat. The notion of a person being inspired to murder by Call of Duty is equivalent to the notion of a couple being inspired to commit suicide together by Romeo and Juliet. Both are equally preposterous, and both neglect an obvious statistical likelihood: When we deal with the most popular shooting game, or the most popular Shakespearean tragedy, what are the odds that someone disturbed won’t come across them? Zero.
A lack of rigorous examination and a rush to assign blame have made fools of the advocates against violent video games. While their emotional approach is understandable, it must be condemned. Ultimately, they have diverted attention from the real problems that cause violent behavior, which cannot be solved on a macro-level.
If a person is driven to commit murder, it is because he or she has deep psychological problems – most notably, a lack of self-esteem. Those of us who seek to avert the horrors of mass-shootings need to start small: Make yourself into the best person that you can be. Developing a true value for your life is the only way to respect the value of others. The light you bring into the world will draw others to you, and they will learn from your example.
When we hope for a peaceful, cooperative, and loving society, what we really mean is that we want a collection of individuals with all of those attributes. That is a war that we can only win one battle – one person – at a time.