Originally posted 7/11/06 on GGL.com.
I am a pedant. I care about language and words, and how they are used. Use language with exactitude and precision, and one can convey deeper meaning with fewer words. In other words, eschew obfuscation.
What do the following six situations have in common?
1.) You are playing Grand Theft Auto 3. After enjoying the off-screen services of a prostitute, you beat her up and steal her money.
2.) In Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach, your 1st level female Halfling rogue smashes open a wooden crate with her +1 morningstar, and steals a stack of gold coins.
3.) In Halo 2 multiplayer, you frag an opponent from a hidden position with a sniper rifle, putting a round into his head.
4.) Down on Hollywood Boulevard, you avail yourself of the services of a prostitute. Afterward, you beat her up and steal her money.
5.) In Beverly Hills, you smash open a store window with a crowbar, and steal some gold jewelry.
6.) At the urging of your adult male friend, you hide along Interstate 95 with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle, and kill an innocent stranger by shooting her in the head.
Any sane person will recognize that the first three scenarios are markedly different from the second three. Yet in standard American English, each scenario is described as “violent.”
If we can say that “shooting” an enemy in Halo 2 is “violent,” and shooting a real person with a real gun is “violent,” then what exactly does”violent” mean?
We do not have a word that means “depicting, or analogous to, violence.” Violencistic? Violentesque? Because of this, it become very easy to conflate “violent” (“marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”) with “violent” (“representing or describing a situation marked by, acting with, or resulting from great force”).
So imagining or reenacting something that would be a violent act becomes a violent act, at least linguistically.
And as we can see from the media and political hyperbole regarding “violent” video games, many people cannot, or choose not to, discern the linguistic difference.
Let’s consider the difference between scenarios five and six. Is there no difference between violence against property and violence against persons? This question was debated heavily in the news media at the time of the anti-globalization riots in 1999. Many on the anti-globalization Left argued that violence against property was not the same as violence against people, and was therefore permissible as social protest. Many others disagreed.
Those who criticize video game and television violence have recognized this distinction in the past, to a certain extent. Think of all the video games and Saturday morning cartoons in which the “violence” is perpetrated against robots instead of people. Sonic the Hedgehog can smash all of Dr. Robotnik’s robots — that’s not violent, is it? Especially when he’s freeing all those little chicks and bunnies?
Today, however, the distinction between violence against people and against inanimate objects seems to have disappeared, even when talking about fictional or imaginary violence. Shooting a crate and shooting a person become conflated, just as imagining the violence and realizing it are conflated.
I become incensed whenever censorship advocates describe a video game (or movie or book or song) as “violent” or “dangerous.” Perhaps it’s too pedantic or simplistic to insist that a video game can not hurt you. Unless your Xbox 360 power supply electrocutes you or crushes you under its incredible weight, it can’t injure you. Unless it gives you a paper cut, a book can not do you harm. A movie never sent anyone to the hospital, unless the overpriced combination of Coca Cola and Red Vines gave them a stomach ache.
Yet when Senator Hillary Clinton released her guide for parents last month, it was entitled Media Safety. In addition to describing certain media as “age-inappropriate” and “offensive,” she decried some web content, TV shows and video games as “dangerous.”
Yes, parents, you must worry about your child’s “safety” from all these “dangerous” media. Dangerous how?
Can TV shows and video games be age-inappropriate? Absolutely. Obviously, children can be confused, frightened, even emotionally harmed by the adult themes implicit in images of violence, horror, and eroticism. Personally, I’m more concerned when a child views a scene of casual murder, even when the violence occurs off-screen, than I am about a scene of cartoon violence or of sexuality. But honestly, parents should be reasonably able to prevent their children from accessing media with adult themes.
Reasonably able. The effort to “protect” children from adult media absolutely can not prevent adults from producing and consuming media as they see fit. And certain kinds of media — video games, comic books, and animation — cannot be labeled “child-only.” The world is full of adult games and comics. Parents who can not discern the difference are the problem, not the producers of the GTA games or of Japanese tentacle porn.
Censorship advocates insist that exposure to violent images can induce violent behavior. Therefore, the logic goes, the violent image caused the violent behavior. This line of reasoning fails on many levels.
Studies vetted by the American Psychological Association demonstrate that children exhibit an increase in violent behavior for a period of time after exposure to violent images. First of all, we can safely assume that the behavior described by the researchers as violent did not include physical attacks on other children. If it did, the researchers would be guilty of ethics violations. We can assume the affected children were “acting up.”
Second, the APA has yet to compare the reactions of children to images of sporting events, or to actual participation in sporting events. The same people who believe you should not pretend to hurt people on a computer advocate that you should slam the hell out of a quarterback or punch your boxing opponent in the face. These activities are wholesome, healthy and non-violent? No, they are simply traditionally accepted in our society.
Let’s see the reactions of children to video games compared to their reactions to loud music, or a hunting program on TV, or an argument between their parents. Let’s study how various factors in a child’s life impact their behavior. That is a complex undertaking, and thousands of child psychologists and sociologists are hard at work on it right now. But these aren’t the people who put out simplistic reports linking video games with violence.
Third, let us assume that “violent” video games cause a certain amount of “acting up” in a minority of children. Would this justify a ban on sales of certain games to minors? Would this justify censorship of game content, even self-imposed industry censorship?
For a hundred years, shrill conservatives have blamed the mass media for the corruption of our children. First it was the novels of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain; then Frank Sinatra and his Bobby-Soxers; then Elvis, the Beatles, television, movies, rap music and video games. Every one of these pop culture phenomena was described as a “danger” to our children, by opportunistic politicians and religious figures who prey on parents’ ignorance about popular culture.
Parents are bombarded with false “dangers” to their children (terrorism, razors in Halloween candy, stranger abductions, Satanism, school shootings). None of these is a real threat to your child — but what parent wants to be the one who did nothing, and their child is the one who gets hurt?
A video game will never hurt your child. It will not turn them into the Trench Coat Mafia. You have the right to tell your child what they can buy, and what they can play — but you do not have the right to tell me. Even if your child were in danger, you would not have the right to tell me.
But your child is safe. Pay attention to the media they consume, not just the video games. Try to keep on top of what they see and do in school and at their friends’ houses. Teach them what you feel is appropriate, and expect them to respect your wishes.
But see the video game “threat” for what it is — no threat at all.