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.

12 responses to “When Entertainment Isn’t Violent Enough

  1. Have you seen Hotel Rwanda or even Blood Diamond? Saving Private Ryan is cake in comparison… I could rant for ages on what’s wrong with public education, but I think one statement sums up the core problem: society teaches us to see the world through rose-colored glasses.

  2. Yup, I saw Hotel Rwanda — an excellent movie!!

    I didn’t use it as my example primarily because Saving Private Ryan seemed like a better analogue, in that (I think) it was intended to be more of your typical Hollywood flick, but it still managed to be “honest” in its depiction of the ugliness of war…

  3. I had much the same reaction when I first saw Saving Private Ryan. I think anybody who is enthusiastic about going to war should see it.

    Not that I don\’t understand some wars are necessary, but man that movie was brutal.

  4. I’ll add American History X, Schindler’s List, and Amistad to that list.
    Those are some brutal movies that make you seriously think about race relations
    and hate crimes.

  5. I have several children. I do not sensor violence in movies or on television per se. I feel if it helps show an underlying message, with adult supervision to reinforce that message, it\’s not always a bad thing. The problem is when there is no supervision to support understanding and the importance of the issue, the only thing accomplished is the desensitization of our youth to violence and suffering.

  6. I was also struck by the same point made in This Film Is Not Yet Rated. I strongly believe that we\’ve done a great disservice to our children in America by demonizing sex while simultaneously glorifying violence.

    Ultimately I think the point made in the movie is correct. Violence without consequences is a horrible thing to teach a child. I agree with acmalms that supervision and an attempt to understand and learn from violent material is a large part of what is missing. Ultimately there are too few parents/teachers/guides in this world that will truly help us face these issues on a personal *and* societal level. I\’m glad to hear that your wife is doing such important work.

    And yes, Bioshock is still just a start to the kind of ethical/moral dilemmas we can experience in games.

  7. I didn’t see Saving Private Ryan for exactly that reason. I’m also one of the few people I know who’s made an honest attempt to play a MUD (think textual, small-scale WOW) character who would not kill people (animals, fair game. People, no). For me, the movie that made me seriously re-think violence was The Passion of the Christ—I’d never quite realized how -violent- something like that was, and people used to watch that as -entertainment-?!?

    We still get the violence part, but at least they got the real sights and sounds and smells… and maybe we need those too.

  8. Aren’t violence and sex the two sides of the same coin… ration the first and

    the second starts raising its head?

  9. What about the History of Violence by David Cronenberg?

    I don\’t think its about avoiding the realities of violence. Let me put to you this way – Do you know of any cartoon without violence? Kids have very impressionable and very fragile minds. Its about protecting their development mentally.Anyway its a very interesting point and one open to endless discussion.

  10. I think it is worth pointing out that depictions of sanatized violence have often been used actually as a means to encourage the viewer/recipient of that message to perpatrate or support similar actions (if you dont believe me take a look at piantings of battles on wiki) or generally to glorify violent conduct. i\’m certianly no expert, but it seems to me fairly plausible that the desensitization effect that accrues from playing violent video games or watching violent movies may be due to the fact that the violence is sanatized and does not accurately relfect those actions

  11. NoAnswerIsFinal

    The answer depends on the child. You can feed hundreds of children the
    same content but each one will respond differently.

    – Some children absorb the content and it slowly becomes accepted as a
    societal norm.

    – Some children repel against the content, understanding how horrible it
    really is and realizing the content’s concequences.

    – Some children find the content ridiculous because it is an incident that
    they have never witnessed and don’t believe it will happen to them or
    affect them if it did happen.

    + In all cases, the children think of such behavior as a means to express
    themselves in a utterly negative manner.

  12. I have an idea. Make video games based on some of the most brutally violent Stephen King books. That’ll give gamers something to think about. Whoever’s read any of the graphical books he has written, will most definitely understand.

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