A Philosopher's Blog

Video Games, Movies & Violence

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2012
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Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.

While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.

The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.

The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.

First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.

Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.

My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.

While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.

Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.

While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.

Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.

Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.

Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.

As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.

One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor.  As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.

Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.

On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.

Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.

As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.

Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.

Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.

Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.

As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.

As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.

Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.

As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.

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31 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on December 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Part of the problem is that people need to confront ugly reality. School shooters need to be rushed en masse. Kids need to be taught this. Hijackers need to be confronted by passengers. Travelers need to be taught this. Pretending these things can’t (or won’t) happen doesn’t help.

    And — so that Mike can rest comfortably — Dems need to confront budget realities :-)

    • magus71 said, on December 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      “School shooters need to be rushed en masse.”

      A friend of mine who went to a private school said the this is exactly what the faculty taught the kids to do. The students were trained to throw anything at hand at the shooter and then rush him. This is actually a brilliant tactic and would work well. He also brought up the fact that private schools have a lot of incentive to provide good security since the rich parents want their kids to be safe and would simply send them to a safer school if they saw a problem.

      A problem is the weird dichotomy that has occurred in our society. As I say on my blog, on one side we have packs of feral youth running wild and learning violence without ethics, and on the other side, we have a near-pacifist society who’s way of parenting was to leave johnny alone and heap participation trophies on him.. They have no idea on how to handle the monsters they’ve created.

      My grandfather on the other hand, would have shot the Sandy Hook killer into the dust, but he’d never so much as steal someone’s pencil.

      And that’s the way we as a society should be too.

      • magus71 said, on December 26, 2012 at 7:14 pm

        “who’s”

        *whose

        • WTP said, on December 27, 2012 at 11:32 am

          The problem isn’t with the guns or even violence or violence in video games. The problem lies with the moral values presented with the violence and the video games. The moral ambiguity of GTA, a game whose objective is the advancement through a criminal underworld. Movies where you are given the moral perspective of the evil characters, where all the characters society is supposed to view as good are presented as evil and corrupt to the point of being inferior to the criminal protagonist. Again, the movie GTA starring Ron Howard of all people, who was at the time had a squeeky clean image from Mayberry’s Opie Taylor to his role in American Graffiti.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 27, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      Most people naturally run away from threats, so the kids would need to be trained to make an unarmed charge against an armed attacker. I would imagine that suggesting such training would be controversial.

      I would say that attacking an attacker could result in less deaths, assuming the kids were large enough to stand a chance against the attacker. After all, a mass of 6-7 year old kids rushing a well armed adult would probably just result in a pile of dead children. Teenagers or college kids might stand a slight chance, especially if they had been trained to rush an attacker and had the discipline to keep going as their friends and fellow students were being shot down around them.

      • Patrick Sperry said, on December 31, 2012 at 9:44 am

        Actually it did work Michael. In 1968 we had an armed intruder attempt to stage an attack at Oceanside High School. Let’s just say that when the police arrived he had his butt whipped and had three rifles (it was CMP day) aimed squarely at his sorry self by students. Being Jarhead Brats one and all we didn’t think about all the deeper ramifications. If someone, or something was evil and trying to harm you or yours you did what had to be done. Rabid skunks, dogs, and yes people were still shot dead back then.

      • magus71 said, on December 31, 2012 at 8:14 pm

        Contrary to Hollywood, even trained fighters have a very difficult time in fighting off a crowd of people. People in schools should be trained exactly the way that prison guards are: Smash against a wall, isolate the weapon, everyone grab a weapon, handcuff. It’s much simpler than our risk-averse society is making it. When mass-murderer is no longer an easy job, even psychopaths will move on to something else.

        But, we are so worried about danger, that we may actually be making things more dangerous:

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2097978/An-army-elfnsafety-busybody-culture-making-babies-all.html

        • T. J. Babson said, on December 31, 2012 at 8:47 pm

          Great article, Magus. Hard to argue with the conclusion:

          “It suggests a society in moral decline, which aspires to make babes in arms of us all.”

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 1, 2013 at 12:58 pm

          A crowd will eventually wear down or overcome a single person, provided that the crowd is large enough and the individuals are willing to keep attacking.

          I do think kids should get training in self defense- at the very least the exercise would do them good.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Although people are born with a rudimentary conscience the conscience must be properly formed by parent, churches, and the state. When the state, many churches, and many parents celebrate the merciless slaughter of 3,700 unborn children per day in the USA (=50,000,000 since 1973) as a women’s right thus cheapening the value of human life – making it disposable – and this results in a generation of children with malformed consciences. Dump the brutality of Nietzsche and Foucault on them in college, with professors proclaiming them as our society’s intellectual and immoral guiding lights, and you will find this is where we are, as well as how we got here, slowly but ever so surely. Top this off with endless unjust wars and Wall Street bailouts and the “leaders” of our nation-state are telling our children – by their actions – “Cheaters win and violence works” in spite of the fact that their rhetoric communicates the opposite. Rhetoric is cheap, I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day. See: “On KIlling”: http://www.amazon.com/Killing-Psychological-Cost-Learning-Society/dp/0316040932

    • magus71 said, on December 29, 2012 at 2:02 pm

      Most college students could give a few quotes from Nietzsche. Maybe his “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, or perhaps, for the more astute, “God is dead”, but they would assuredly leave out from the latter, “and we killed him!” I agree that we kill Him by the way.

      As for Foucault, only a French speaking libertine could have such success in propagating such nonsense. Students not majoring in philosophy or religion would have very little insight into where their world views come from. They think they’re being hip and cool by espousing atheism but none of them have new ideas, merely parroted one-liners. They don’t think about the can of worms they open–give Nietzsche credit–at least he knew the result of man without God. A world “Beyond Good and Evil.” And how do you get beyond all that “tripe”? Well, by saying there is no good, there is no evil.

      No, these students have no depth of knowledge when it comes to their nihilism. Nietzsche believed that there is no meaning to life without God, except for the ubermensch whom find their own meaning. But most of the young people now are like vacuous zombies, their meaning stolen via post-modern life and education, and without the sophistication to find their own meaning at all. A whole generation of people lacking self-awareness, whom live un-examined lives. We will reap the whirlwind because of it.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm

        Which God, Magus? What about the God of Islam? Better than atheism? Or not? Maybe the point is that Man should be submissive to some deity.

        • WTP said, on December 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm

          My observation is that Man, by his nature, IS submissive to some deity. He has the inalienable right to submit himself to the deity of his choice. The problem rests in the deity he chooses.

        • magus71 said, on December 29, 2012 at 7:46 pm

          I would say that what I consider to be atheist societies in history have done better than Islam. The only thing good about Islam, is that it is so inept it cannot muster a real army. Of the three major religions, it is by far the most destructive to its own people.

          I would rather be around atheists than people whose god commands them to enslave or kill me.

          I do believe atheism.agnosticism has its own affect on society, which is almost like an individual losing his will to live.

          For an in-depth study of this phenomena, read this:

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 29, 2012 at 8:31 pm

            Back in the Middle Ages, Islam had very impressive armies. The Ottoman Empire was also Islamic-it had a pretty good run before it fell, like all empires do.

            Islam does not seem any more inconsistent with martial prowess than Christianity.

            • magus71 said, on December 29, 2012 at 11:05 pm

              Ah yes, the old “but they invented soap!” argument…..

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 30, 2012 at 8:01 pm

              Islamic scholars contributed a great deal to math, science and philosophy. Aquinas and other western thinkers were influenced by such thinkers.

            • WTP said, on December 30, 2012 at 10:51 am

              I doubt they invented soap…judging from a few that I have worked with some of them lost the recipe.

            • T. J. Babson said, on December 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm

              “Islamic scholars contributed a great deal to math, science and philosophy. Aquinas and other western thinkers were influenced by such thinkers.”

              Most of them actually weren’t “Islamic” so much as belonging to peoples conquered by the Muslims.

            • WTP said, on December 30, 2012 at 11:05 pm

              Do you suppose Mike could also enlighten us as to the advancements in medicine, science, and technology that the Nazis made in just over a decade? Not to mention their restricting tobacco use, welfare programs, and concern for animal welfare by banning vivisection? And oh yeah, the Volkswagen. Just think what they could have accomplished if they were given two three centuries of unchallenged domination.

            • magus71 said, on December 31, 2012 at 12:15 am

              Mike goes to significant length in attributing the success of the West, not to Christianity, but to the Greeks, even agreeing that Aristotle was Christ before Christianity. I wonder, what did Alexander learn from his mentor, Aristotle, that was so Christ-like?

              Yet he gives praise to Islam?

              The traditional view is actually that Islamic scientific advances and insights lacked the dynamism of the West.

              Mike is correct that the Ottomans held parity with the West (specifically the Holy Roman Empire) at one point. But, after the Seige of Vienna in 1683, Islam has been left in the dust, apparently never to recover. We have landed on the moon, split the atom, and allow our women to work. The Muslim nations can’t even build a competitive bicycle.

              Islam will continue to be a pain in the collective ass of all civilized people for the next 500 years. How much of a pain in the ass will depend on if America maintains its primacy for any significant amount of time. Since I do not see that happening, I see Islam spreading as it always has, by a sword and vacuum of knowledge, just as occurred in the laughably named Arab Spring. Add to this new “Spring”, lawfare and the massive birthrate advantages Muslims hold in Europe over the Europeans, and before we know it, maybe we’ll all be facing Mecca 5 times a day.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 31, 2012 at 4:16 pm

              Mike goes to significant length in attributing the success of the West, not to Christianity, but to the Greeks, even agreeing that Aristotle was Christ before Christianity.

              The Greeks made significant contributions to the West: science, philosophy, politics and so on. Also, I did not agree that Aristotle was a Christian before Christ-I merely noted that some thinkers believed that. I don’t think that he was a Christian at all. Rather, Christianity (thanks to Aquinas and others) has Aristotelian elements.

              I wonder, what did Alexander learn from his mentor, Aristotle, that was so Christ-like?

              Well, Alexander was a great success. Until he died, of course.

              Yet he gives praise to Islam?

              You are confusing giving earned credit for praise. I wasn’t praising Islam, merely noting that Islamic thinkers had made contributions.

              The traditional view is actually that Islamic scientific advances and insights lacked the dynamism of the West.

              What does that mean, exactly? In general, religion tended to retard advances: look at the dark ages. The enlightenment involved a moving away from religion, especially in its traditional forms. For example, see the rise of deism.

              Mike is correct that the Ottomans held parity with the West (specifically the Holy Roman Empire) at one point. But, after the Seige of Vienna in 1683, Islam has been left in the dust, apparently never to recover. We have landed on the moon, split the atom, and allow our women to work. The Muslim nations can’t even build a competitive bicycle.

              History is full of fallen empires. We should not be cocky here in the West-someday historians will be talking about the rise and fall of Pax Americana.

              Islam will continue to be a pain in the collective ass of all civilized people for the next 500 years. How much of a pain in the ass will depend on if America maintains its primacy for any significant amount of time. Since I do not see that happening, I see Islam spreading as it always has, by a sword and vacuum of knowledge, just as occurred in the laughably named Arab Spring. Add to this new “Spring”, lawfare and the massive birthrate advantages Muslims hold in Europe over the Europeans, and before we know it, maybe we’ll all be facing Mecca 5 times a day.

              No doubt the Roman pagans said similar things about the Christians.

            • WTP said, on December 31, 2012 at 8:58 am

              Mike goes to significant length in attributing the success of the West, not to Christianity, but to the Greeks,

              And yet much of the run that Islam had was built upon the knowledge of the Greeks and the Hindus. Arabic numerals, including the much lauded zero, were a derivation of Indian culture. Much of Islam itself was based on Mohammed’s observation of the success of Jewish and Christian civilizations. See The Columbia History of the World, Garrity & Gay.

          • T. J. Babson said, on December 30, 2012 at 11:33 pm

            Should the French literature produced under German occupation be called “Nazi literature”? This is essentially what people are doing when they credit Islam with literary or mathematical achievements.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 31, 2012 at 5:25 pm

        I just finished reading this book, which all of you should read, because it’s very important:

        See: “Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare”: http://www.amazon.com/Societies-Psychological-Warfare-Michael-Hoffman/dp/0970378416

        Free downloadable PDF of the latest edition: http://downloads.umu.nu/Books/Michael.A.Hoffman.II–Secret.Societies.And.Psychological.Warfare.%5B1992%5D.pdf

  3. magus71 said, on January 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Mike jokes about with the “decadent Democrat” trope.

    But here’s exactly what I’ve been saying. It openly takes a slight change in course to make the same argument about our recent mass murderers. Another one from Max Hastings:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2024284/UK-riots-2011-Liberal-dogma-spawned-generation-brutalised-youths.html

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 1, 2013 at 1:04 pm

      Decadence is always with us. Every generation thinks it is better than the kids today and that people are lazy, weak and stupid compared to when they were kids. When I was a kid, they were saying it about us.

      They were totally right…


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