Thursday, August 4, 2016

Violence in Games and Other Media: Artistic Irresponsibility and the Forbidden Fruit Effect

People tend to show interest in things that are considered "bad".

Do violent games and TV shows spoil our youth? Every time this question pops up it triggers heated discussions. So it was only a matter of time until I felt I had to say something on this topic as well. And so ... Here are my two cents:

I'd like to start the discussion with a few things I believe we all can agree on:
· There are many people regularly enjoying violent media, but only a small percentage among them shows violent behaviour. 
· Countless studies prove that there actually is a link between media violence and violence in society. Whether gamers and fans of other violent media like it or not. However, it can't be said for sure whether violent media causes violence or whether it merely affects a pre-existing potential for violence. 
· Apart from violent media there are countless other factors that can lead to violent behaviour, such as domestic violence or child neglect, poverty, violent neighbourhood and so on. People can be taught to be aggressive and to accept such behaviour as normal. 
· There are people who are more aggressive and people who are more pacifistic just by nature. 
· Researching the effects of media violence is a difficult task, because these effects can't be seen immediately.

In an earlier post I also wrote that art has an educational effect, no matter whether it was intended by the artist or not. This is why artists always have responsibility towards society. And to carry out this responsibility well we need to understand the effects of what we expose our audience to.

Desensitizing Effect of Media Violence


Let's imagine such a situation: An innocent human being watches a violent TV show, learns that violence is good, goes outside and starts shooting people. - Ridiculous, isn't it? A mentally sane human being is perfectly capable of making a distinction between fiction and reality. So it's pretty obvious that the effects of media violence don't work like this. They work much more subtle and this is where fMRI comes in.

Let me spare you the medical details of the study and just introduce you to the abstract:
"The present case-control study investigated the processing of emotional pictures in excessive first-person-shooter-video-players and control persons. All participants of the fMRI experiment were confronted with pictures from four categories including pleasant, unpleasant, neutral content and pictures from the first-person-shooter-video-game 'Counterstrike'. Compared to controls, gamers showed a significantly lower activation of the left lateral medial frontal lobe while processing negative emotions. Another interesting finding of the study represents the higher activation of frontal and temporal brain areas in gamers when processing screen-shots from the first-person-shooter-video-game 'Counterstrike'. Higher brain activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex could represent a protection mechanism against experiencing negative emotions by down-regulating limbic brain activity. Due to a frequent confrontation with violent scenes, the first-person-shooter-video-gamers might have habituated to the effects of unpleasant stimuli resulting in lower brain activation. Individual differences in brain activations of the contrast Counterstrike > neutral pictures potentially resemble the activation of action-scripts related to the video-game."
Montag C., Weber B., Trautner P., Newport B., Markett S., Walter NT, Felten A., Reuter M.: Does excessive play of violent first-person-shooter-video-games dampen brain activity in response to emotional stimuli?, Biological Psychology, 89 (1), pp. 107-11.
In other words: There is reason to believe that regular consumption of media violence has a desensitizing effect. CyberCollege compares it to the Roman Empire where the circuses became more and more violent as their audience got used to them and needed to see more blood to feel excited. Today it isn't any different: We don't watch actual people dying, but the blood-baths on our screens grow more and more "spectacular" every year.

Can anyone of us guarantee that being used to see so much violence doesn't affect our ability for empathy? That it doesn't affect how we react to actual violence? That it doesn't make us underestimate the pain other people suffer before our eyes if we don't know this kind of pain from personal experience?

These questions should be thought about with one more aspect of media violence in mind:

Media Violence and Its Lack of Realism


Another quote from CyberCollege illustrates this issue pretty well:
"The unrealistic element of TV and film violence seems to come as a surprise to some. A young gang member who was admitted to a New York ER after being shot seemed amazed to find that getting shot was not only traumatic but excruciatingly painful. He was blaming the doctors and nurses for his pain, since on TV getting shot didn't seem to be all that big of a deal."
Media creates illusions and if you lack personal experience with something you're very likely to believe what you're told. And there are many issues with how violence is presented in media:
· Sounds are often different than in reality: That the sound of punching someone with a fist is actually the sound of two cabbages being clashed against each other is common knowledge. 
· Characters in media deal unrealistically well with physical damage against all facts about how fragile a human body actually is. 
· We often see rape victims handle their trauma remarkably well, not suffering from any depression, panic attacks, guilt feelings or suicidal thoughts, talking alarmingly readily about their trauma compared to real rape victims who often struggle to talk about it even to the people close to them. 
· Media violence often suffers from double standards: For example, when the "bad guys" kill one of the "good guys" it's bad, but when the "good guys" kill one of the "bad guys" it's good while in reality the labels "good guys" and "bad guys" are usually a matter of perspective. 
· Victims of violence by the "good guys" often aren't portrayed as actual people, they're just disposable guards/orcs/soldiers/whatever without a noteworthy personality, so their lives aren't worth anything and killing them doesn't have any consequences.

Who guarantees that despite knowing it's fiction we don't subconsciously accept these deviations from reality as truth? That we don't run from a terrorist attack when we hear gunfire, simply because we can't identify it? That we accidentally kill someone during a fight, because we believe a human can easily handle such a blow? That we underestimate the emotional pain traumatized people go through and mock them for their weakness? That we don't mind if people portrayed as "bad" by information media and propaganda are killed? That we don't see those who treat us badly as people who may have a reason to behave the way they do?

True, it can't be said for sure whether such behaviour is caused by violent media or whether it comes from a pre-existing potential for violence, ignorance and naivety; but what we know for sure is that such portrayal of violence in media doesn't make us better people and fails the responsibility towards society.

Art has such a great potential to give us new experiences, to make us learn new perspectives and to teach us about the reality we live in that it's a shame how much of this potential is simply wasted.

Pacifistic Humanity and Cheap Attention Grabbing


The issue with media violence affects all art genres, but it's hard not to notice that games are especially prone to criticism in this matter. The reason behind this is that other genres don't rely on violence as heavily as games. Sure there are extremely violent movies out there, but it's only a genre of many and it's really easy to find movies without any violence.

Not so in the world of gaming. Shooters? - Violence. Adventure games? - There can't be a Lara Croft without guns. Role-playing games? - Just look at the skill trees and perks in TES V: Skyrim and you'll see that almost all of them are about combat or improving your combat abilities. Stealth games? - You'll often end up killing guards, so they won't detect you. Sandbox games? - In Minecraft you have to fight off monsters. Puzzle games? - In Portal there are turrets shooting at you on sight. Strategy games? - There are often whole armies clashing against each other.

Even though there are also peaceful games out there the percentage of them is rather low compared to other art genres. Yet the funny thing is ... It isn't violence that makes games fun. It's the need for strategic thinking, for problem solving, reaction speed and the aspect of storytelling. Even though Skyrim is very much about growing stronger and fighting enemies ... Well, sure I feel great when I manage to win a boss fight without getting even a scratch or when I kill a whole bunch of bandits with nothing but a tiny dagger and an invisibility spell, but my personal highlights in the game are my newly built manor (raw material management), curing my lycanthropy (problem solving, since I had a bug there) and walking my dog as I roam around the city, selling my potions and poisons (strategy for money-making).

As for movies and TV shows, I really like Game of Thrones, but not for the violence. As I wrote in an earlier article, I'm actually bored by its overuse. Not to mention the fact how unrealistic it sometimes is, mostly when it comes to consequences. What I love about the show is its plot structure and world building.

This experience can be easily explained with another interesting study:
"Program descriptions for four prime-time television dramas were altered to create violent and nonviolent descriptions for each episode. Then the episodes themselves were edited to create violent and nonviolent versions of each. Participants [...] were more likely to choose violent descriptions to watch, but enjoyed the nonviolent episodes more than the violent episodes. Moreover, the nonviolent episodes were rated as more enjoyable even when the participants had chosen to watch a violent program description." 
"[T]he existing research presents an apparent contradiction: audiences are drawn to media violence, but enjoy violence less than nonviolent alternatives." 
Andrew J. Weaver, Matthew J. Kobach: The Relationship Between Selective Exposureand the Enjoyment of Television Violence, Aggressive Behavior, 38 (2), pp. 175–184.
In the article the authors discuss a so-called forbidden fruit effect, the phenomenon that people tend to show interest in things that are considered "bad". It's just as a character from the Russian movie What Men Talk About puts it:
"What pains about marriage isn't that you don't have other women but that you can't have other women. Maybe I wouldn't even use such a possibility, but I need to have it ... For example, imagine you're forbidden to eat with a fork. [...] At first it seems like it doesn't matter; after all, you can use a spoon, chopsticks, even your hands ... But as soon as they say it's forbidden to use a fork you'll immediately want to use one." 
Translated by Feael Silmarien.
From the earliest childhood we are taught that violence is bad, so it's no wonder people are attracted by it. And yet, the aforementioned study proves that it isn't what we enjoy most. This is why violent excesses don't raise the quality of a game/movie/novel/whatever but merely attract more attention. Violence is simply a rather easy method to engage an audience compared to the effort you have to put in good storytelling.

Is Media Violence a Bad Thing?


Whenever you criticize media violence you'll always get rather aggressive responses from gamers and fans of violent movies. It's as if you've insulted them personally, and I believe they actually feel this way: If something is wrong with media violence, then there's also something wrong with its consumers. Maybe this is why they're often so reluctant to admit that there actually is an issue.

Personally I believe that violence per se isn't the problem. Let's be honest: We can pretend to be whatever we call "civilized" as much as we like, but violence is an ever-present thing in our world. Ignoring this fact in art and media in general would be ludicrous. The problem rather lies in how violence is presented: Using violence for cheap attention-grabbing, glorifying and downplaying violence and its consequences and presenting it to the audience so inflationarily as it happens today is simply irresponsible and a waste of artistic potential.

So what do you think? How much media violence is okay? How should it be portrayed? How does media violence impact our society? How does it affect you? Tell me in the comments!

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