Home > censorship, social control > Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 4)

Video Games, Violence, and Society (Part 4)

June 30th, 2008


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There is nothing irrational about enjoying the inhabitation of the life of a thief, mass murderer, bully, B-52 bomber pilot, or nuclear missile commander. There is no ethical hazard inherent in enjoying those positions merely as artistic forms or mental playthings. Enjoyment of a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is not indicative of a pathological desire to commit crime and other acts of evil that is only restrained by the physical threat of retaliation from society. Empirical evidence simply lies against it. We are surrounded by every day examples of upstanding people who have read and written books with gruesome violence, watched gory movies, and killed a hooker or two in Grand Theft Auto. Regardless, some would try to have us think otherwise.

The social-moral argument for the prohibition of video games, just like any other means of expression or form of entertainment, is a mess of slippery slopes. Much of it stems from the misguided belief that society is some kind of input-output machine, which gobbles up what it is allowed to have and spits out some result that is supposedly representative of its goodness. Accordingly, this view treats people as such machines, further making the claim implicitly that these individuals belong to society. It is the belief that a person exists only as a means to the ends of society, which has bizarre implications; it logically entails the view, for example, that suicide should be outlawed because when a person kills himself, he is depriving society of the taxes he pays.

The correct way of treating this issue is by looking at individuals as ends in themselves with specific individual rights that cannot be violated. Trying to argue that video games have absolutely no effect whatsoever on anyone’s proclivity for violence is not only false, but it implicitly cedes the moral ground to the prohibitionist by suggesting that if he were empirically right, the prohibition would be justified. This line of thinking shifts the responsibility for violent acts from the individual to society.

If it were a matter of inevitability that violent videogames would “kill your father and rape your mother,” there would exist grounds for their prohibition. Contrarily, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of consumers of violent videogames do not commit acts of violence because of videogames any more than they do because they are treated poorly at work or are heavily intoxicated by alcohol. If the problem lies in discriminating fantasy from reality, which is essentially what it is, why not be concerned with the responsibility of parents for their children’s upbringing?

There is yet another objection to violent video games, tangentially related to the growing “virtual” nature of military technologies, including remote-controlled bombers and guided missiles: desensitization. The argument goes that, because exposure to violent acts is habitual and separated from consequences in one’s immediate proximity, one will become less responsive to violence and more inclined to commit it. As I have written before, making a fuss of the issue of “desensitization” indicates a severe problem with society’s way of thinking in totality. If looked at on an ad hoc basis, exposure to violence is dangerous because it somehow reduces our fear and reverence for it, which allegedly is a good thing for us to have. Yet there is far more to it than that. In a prior essay, I argued,

Despite all these benefits, some object to the violent nature of the vast majority of video games. A common grievance against violence in media, particularly video games, is that it “desensitizes” children- and even adults- to the horrors of violence. This is tantamount to blaming oxygen for fire. It implies that our emotional sensitivity to violence determines our attitudes toward it. This may be the case for many people, but then does the problem lie in what they are exposed to, or in what they use to form their attitudes? [6]

Society is, once again, stuck in this belief of the individual as a stimulus-response machine with no control over what drives him. In this case, it is apparently the instinctive, negative response to a gruesome image that prevents us from doing violence. As I continue to argue, however, that idea is nonsense:

Granted, our natural aversion to violence is perhaps a built-in moral safeguard against wrongdoing, but what would make us different from animals if we relied only on innate predispositions? Simply put, an experience does not have to be emotionally traumatizing for it to bear moral significance. In the absence of moral values, fear, ignorance, and indifference are the only real deterrents against wrongdoing; when something disrupts this contingent balance, it is disingenuous to blame the disruptor and not the conditions that preceded it. [7]

Admittedly, my “oxygen-fire” analogy is stolen from James Madison’s Federalist No. 10, in which Madison discusses the danger of factionalism in politics, and possible ways to prevent it.

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