When Entertainment Isn’t Violent Enough

I watched This Film Is Not Yet Rated a few days ago. Very interesting documentary (if “preachy”, but aren’t they all?) I recommend that you see it. All the issues raised in the film can be applied to the video game industry, and all are worth discussing, but I want to talk about just one, brief part. In the film, one person argues that (and I’m paraphrasing here): “violence with no gore should be reserved for adults, who can intellectually handle the fiction of it. Violence with realistic gore is what should be considered safe for kids.”

I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t have kids. I can’t claim that I have a deep understanding of what does and does not negatively impact child development (beyond the obvious things — lack of affection, lack of education, lack of sustenance, etc — stuff we as a society manage to ignore every day in favor of more sensational news.) All that said, this argument struck a cord with me. Let me explain.

The Milgram and Stanford prison experiments

For years, I’ve felt that we shield our children (and ourselves!) from the very information that could spare us from repeating the worst of history’s mistakes. My favorite example has always been the brilliant Milgram experiments. (If you are not familiar with this, you must click that link!) Milgram’s work, along with the Stanford prison experiment proved (to me) that the vast majority of human beings, even those living in a free, “enlightened” place like the USA, have the capacity for great evil — and it doesn’t take much to expose that capacity.

So what’s my point? Well, the first time I learned of these experiments was during my freshman year of college, when I saw two video documentaries about them. Many people will never see these documentaries or learn of them. I think that’s a crime. Every single high school student should be required to watch and write about this material. (Maybe even junior high school students — after all, that’s the time when school bullying starts to become really nasty. Maybe this would help.) Teaching kids about tradgedies like the Holocaust and the Rawandan genocide is not enough. It’s too easy to learn of those things and think “wow, neither I nor anyone I know could ever be a part of something like that.” We need to teach our children that it isn’t that simple.

(Side note: my wife happens to work for an organization called Facing History which teaches kids to think about these issues. It must be working, because I’m writing this article.)

Truth in advertising (and entertainment)

Now to cut closer to home. In general, I think that we overly shield our children (and ourselves) from the truth about violence. I’m not arguing that every violent game should accurately depict reality… but perhaps a few more should.

I will never forget the first time I saw Saving Private Ryan. Not because it was a great movie, but because it literally turned my stomach. The movie recreates the storming of Normandy; at the time, it was the most honest depiction of brutality and suffering that I had ever seen. I would contend that most people cannot watch this movie and, at least temporarily, remain enthusiastic about war. (Or perhaps, anything less than the most noble and necessary of wars.)

Saving Private Ryan put violence to good use. It absolutely changed me (for the better, I hope). How many games can you say that about… at least in this context?

How many games make you suffer heart-wrenching wails of fear from your victims before you hurt them? How many games make you stomach the broken sobs of the dying? Or for that matter, the agony of their surviving friends and relatives? In other words, how many games make you feel sorry for hurting someone? (I imagine a thousand voices screaming Bioshock at this juncture. It’s a start.)

A different spin on “everything bad is good for you”…

We as an industry and we as a society need to rethink our attitude towards violence in television, movies, and games. This simply isn’t a cut and dry issue, as so many people (on both sides of the isle) like to pretend it is. Violence in media is not obviously bad, and not obviously innocuous. We have a constitutional right to express violence in our art (as well we should), but that does not give us the right to do so without reflection.

Some media really is “too violent” for young people. And some media… some media just isn’t violent enough.

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