Note: I submitted this to the San Diego Union Tribune under my real name. Neither is a copy of the other.
I have been seeing a lot of responses to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting of late and a number of them have me worried. As a young person who could be called a “geek” in most common parlance, I am uneasy that one of my own hobbies, video gaming as well as the culture surrounding it, has come under siege by those who believe that they represent an easy target in dire times. So I became resolved to write this piece as an attempt to clarify that, which is being manipulated to the base ends of these aggressors.
The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is perhaps one of the most affecting moments in recent history, certainly the most affecting of the year and the decade so far. A lot of people are going to be asking a lot of questions about the events of December 14, 2012 and the most important questions are arguably going to be “how did this happen,” and “how can we prevent this in the future?”
Both are valid questions with a myriad of answers but one thing is for sure: the answer is not going to come from obfuscating the issue, which is becoming an increasingly recurring thread in the response to this horrors committed in Newtown. And the main method of distraction that lobbyists for the political Right are using seems to be an attack on what has been referred to as a “culture of violence.” This so-called culture is apparently the product of violent movies, music and video games in particular that are apparently corrupting the minds of the susceptible and turning them to commit violence. The most egregious attack on these industries as of the 22nd of December has come from Wayne LePierre of the National Rifle Association. During a speech LePierre referred to the video game industry, one of the fastest growing media outlets in the world as a “shadow industry” dedicated to apparently destroying all the is good and wholesome in our culture. This sentiment is shortsighted and unnecessarily hateful towards the groups that are being targeted.
The fact of the matter is that violence is a common theme in a large portion of the media that we, as a culture consume on a regular basis. It doesn’t take an expert in media studies to understand why either. Violence, as a device in storytelling is almost always the direct result of conflict, whether it is on a large scale like warfare or a more personal conflict and conflict is generally interesting or worth becoming invested in on an emotional level. Violence is often the method by which conflicts are resolved and it would be intellectually dishonest of me to admit to anything other then that it is often the most interesting and engaging method by which conflicts can resolved.
And this isn’t new. Sophocles ended Oedipus Rex by having the titular protagonist gouge his eyes out with a pair of needles as an act of penitence. Shakespeare ended Macbeth with a scene that includes swordplay amongst a pitched battle during which multiple characters die horribly. John Ford, often considered to be one of the first great American filmmakers punctuated his films with violence. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, in particular posits that violence is necessary for the advancement of American society. After all, “nothing is too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence.”
But none of these are video games, none of these are what some groups believe are the cause of a single young man’s broken psyche. Targeting video games and singling them out amongst other forms of media is nothing new. And to be honest, I can understand why, within reason. The interactivity of video games makes them unique amongst other forms of art and their newness makes those who don’t understand them distrustful of what they can do. But a lack of understanding does not mean that these groups are right. Yes, video games are violent (to a degree) but this does not make them unique in their impact upon those who consume them. Nor does the existence of violent video games precipitate a so-called culture of violence. To explain why allow me a slight detour.
A cornerstone of media studies involves the concept of the culture industry, a homogenous entity that creates culture in response to the needs of the society. A key component of the culture industry is the “utopian ideal,” which can basically be summarized as why we watch/read/listen to/play what we do. Frederic Jameson postulated in his paper, The Politics of Utopia that we consume what we do because the media that we, as individuals consume contains one or more utopian ideals that appeal to us. The idea is that the culture industry creates as many utopian ideals as possible to theoretically cover as much ground as possible and eventually appeal to everybody so that nobody is left out. In other words, the culture industry responds to what we, as a society ask of it, not the other way around, as so many seem to think. I mentioned conflict earlier and it isn’t a stretch to say that experiencing conflict and it’s resolution, violent or otherwise, is a popular ideal that we like to explore in our media. Video games, as an interactive media, go one further and let us experience the conflict first hand from a safe vantage point. In this way, violent video games aren’t created to influence the culture, but rather to fill an unstated need. The art that we produce is reflective of the society into which it is produced. So maybe we do have a violent culture but I sincerely doubt that the media we consume is the blame for this. The media is only there because we asked for it, after a fashion.
However, the question that nobody seems to be asking is whether having these violent media outlets is at all beneficial. And I would say that yes, to an extent this type of media provides some benefits to society, especially on a personal level. This is largely due to abnegation. Abnegation, which literally means denial, in media studies is the uses of the media we consume to “deny” the outside world. This denial allows us to separate ourselves from problems, responsibilities or other outside factors and effectively decompress. I would not go so far as to say that abnegation is an ideal in the sense as discussed above because it has to do with why we consume media as a whole rather then on an individual piece-by-piece basis. Either way, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve come home from school or finished a particularly stressful project and I’ve just crashed for the day, usually indulging in some cathartic video game, movie, book or TV show. And quite commonly the most effective pieces of media for this purpose are violent pieces. This doesn’t speak ill of either my or anybody else’s mental health and in no way does it mean that I’m endorsing ultra violent media. This is simply an end result of my own experience and research into the matter.
A lot of people are going to be asking a lot of questions in the coming weeks and I firmly believe that a response is warranted. However, I also believe that the response should be the most appropriate that we as a society can muster. These attempts to target our nation’s culture industry do little to resolve the debate and only succeed at muddying the real issues that need to be discussed. Despite what I’ve said, the American culture industry is far from perfect, but the day that we hinder the First Amendment to protect the Second is the day that the tenants that our country was founded upon have failed. Censorship will solve none of the questions that have been created by the loss of these 26 lives and if we really want to honor their loss then we must act wisely and judiciously. My only hope is that this humble piece of writing will in some way educate those who read it and help them to understand the ideas being thrown around by both sides in an incredibly important debate.