Like recessions, the flu virus and that person you met at that party that you made the mistake of feigning interest in, there are certain things that, will time and again, rear their ugly head and ruin your day. (No matter how much you wish they just would get the message and stop poking you on Facebook.) This time it’s US President Barack Obama firmly detonating the mood-grenade, as once again violent video games are the scapegoat du jour.
Mr Obama has said he wants Congress to fund more research into the effects violent video games have on “young minds”.
Personally, I like Barack Obama, he’s my second favourite US President after Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. (Seriously, if you don’t know much about him look him up, he was the sort of man who could kill a mountain lion by twitching his moustache). But it’s been proved by science that you can’t like everything about a politician, (Teddy Roosevelt did have some horrific views on pretty much anyone who wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt).
Now the well informed among you may well know that fortunately Obama has not said he wants to ban or control violent video games. This is true, but by pushing for research into their effects so soon after a atrocious crime like the Sandy Hook shooting, it does little more than shift the blame in the public’s eyes onto the video games. Even if it’s nothing to do with video games. Although I suppose this is helpful for politicians because it means they don’t have to run the risk of discovering that the reason people go on killing sprees is something entirely more difficult to deal with. So instead of asking: “what makes people kill?” They simply ask what should, at best, be the second half of that question: “is it because of violent video games?”
You’re probably wondering what it’s got to do with me, or why I should care, being a “limey” (or a redcoat according to one charming man I had an argument with the other day). The fact is, with a lot of the entertainment industry in America, what happens there affects everyone else too.
At the heart of this debate there is really one question driving it all. That is does the “hypodermic needle theory” exist or not. Without descending into a media studies lesson, the hypodermic needle theory” posits that it is possible through media to “inject” ideas into peoples heads and severely alter their behaviour. In this context it says that encouraging gamers to engage in violent behaviour in a virtual world will directly cause them to become violent in the physical world.
The theory has been applied to pretty much every media related moral panic of the 20th century. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were cavemen who blamed Ugg the artistic’s cave paintings for Grok the psychotic bastard’s less than social behavior.
Personally, I don’t think it does exist. And many media theory types think the same. Mainly I just find it a deeply patronising insinuation that I can be changed as a person just from playing a video game. I know it can’t be true because I wasted hours as a teenager playing Civilisation 2 and yet never turned into the most feared and bloodthirsty dictator in human history, hell, I wasn’t even on my student council.
I’ll be honest, I like violent video games. There’s something delightfully cathartic about pretending the 15th century merchant in Assassin’s Creed 2 is that useless oaf from the bank and stabbing him in the face. You know it’s not him (for one thing, the merchant probably knows more about computers) and you wouldn’t want it to be him in real life because you’re not actually a sociopath. But it just feels good for there to be a place you can go where you don’t have to put up with the powerless drudgery of everyday life. I can’t bring myself to believe that stabbing said unlucky virtual merchant in the face would make someone suddenly believe it’s fine to go back and shoot up the bank.
There have been a few famous cases where the hypodermic needle theory has been applied to specific media. When John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan his behaviour was blamed by some on the film “Taxi driver”. What wasn’t always mentioned was that Hinkley had watched it 15 times in a row on a loop. Now I’m sorry, it’s a cinematic classic, but that’s a real big confusion of causation vs. correlation. That’s like saying a man who lived for a year on nothing but buttered fish fingers must have died because the fish fingers were poisonous and that it couldn’t be anything to do with bread-crumbs not being one of your 5-a-day. If watching a film 15 times in a row doesn’t show he’s as unhinged as a broken futon already, I don’t know what would.
If anything, the excessive consumption of violent media is good at highlighting serious mental problems. If I knew someone who quit his job to play “Manhunt” in his pants and laugh maniacally all day I’d probably start to think maybe he had a couple of screws loose. The same way someone who’s DVD collection consists of nothing but Japanese Gorenography is probably a little unbalanced (mainly because I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t own at least one Star Wars film, even the terrible one, you know the one I mean).
I just want the insidious idea that violent media makes violent people to crawl back under whatever knee-jerk loving, blame shirking rock it came from. In any case, even if you believe it does cause violence in the impressionable little darlings then there’s always a better question which is why the bloody hell are children being allowed to play video games with a huge 18 on the case?
I’m reminded of a time I was in a video game shop and witnessed a woman in her 50s or 60s asking, (yes ASKING) her 3 year old granddaughter (at least I hope that’s what she was) if she could buy the girl a Sonic game because then she could stop playing Grand Theft Auto 4. I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute. To my shame I didn’t unleash a tirade so packed with rage it would have left her with third degree burns but I was genuinely so blind sighted with incredulity that by the time what she’d said had processed they’d left, the shutters were down and all the staff had gone home for the night.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the GTA games. I’ve owned every one since the first birds eye view iteration. (You know back in the days when the escort mission was only a frustrating blemish on the horizon.) But I will admit, there is NOTHING in those games suitable for toddlers. This is a game that cynically parodies modern society by juxtaposing extreme criminal violence with the utterly corrupt and violent system that pretends to despise it. Somewhere between the prostitute murder and the satire of foreign property development this woman had forgotten that “for ages 3 and up” it aint.
Therein lies another problem, the children who DO play violent video games don’t understand the reason for the violence, whether that it’s satire, catharsis or historical realism. It all goes straight over their head because their parents are too lazy and/or stupid and/or drunk to give a rats ass what their children are doing and teach them anything.
In short, I know it’s a deplorable cliché but the blame does lie with parents. Pay attention to your children and hopefully you’ll never have to see their neighbours on TV talking about what a quiet person who kept to their-self they were.
Phew, that was a long one huh? Well, since I’m firmly seated on my high-horse, I may as well ride off into the sunset. It’s all been a bit heavy today I’ll admit. Don’t worry though, I’ll make my next post about something a little lighter like how annoying it is when the ring pull breaks off your beer can or that bloody Go Compare guy.