It’s May, 2013 as I write this, and the USA is deep into a national debate regarding the ownership of guns and gun violence which has come about in the wake of some very famous rampages where many innocent people have been killed by one, sometimes two, young men with guns. Some people have brought up violence in video-games, film, and television as a part of the problem, that is to say, as one of the causes of what seems to be a disturbing trend towards violence. I can agree with the first part of that statement, it certainly is part of the problem, but video-violence is not causative.
Both of these phenomena, the high-profile shootings and the amazing popularity of the violent video-games, are effects, and neither is a cause. Both these trends can be viewed as the result of violent fantasies, which fantasies can be played out both ways, virtually and literally. Although I do not wish to weigh in on the American gun control conversation or divert this book towards that debate, I must say that America’s unique view of the gun issue would seem also to suggest the presence of violent fantasies in American society. I would note that America is among the last of the former First World nations to ratify the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child legislation; America is a great supporter of the practice of the punishment of children, and also the American lawmakers will not seem to support any sort of limitation of the sale of guns. Again, this suggests the existence of a strong undercurrent of violent fantasies, as well as the reason for them.
Punishment is a form of violence, certainly physical punishment is, and really, there is no other kind. Punishment is unpleasantness imposed, and imposition means force; forced unpleasantness is a pretty good definition for violence. So, if we can grant that (which, maybe not just yet, but we will, someday), then we can view the video-game theory this way:
There is real violence in our society, crime including some rather random mass killings, and there is real violence practiced upon children in the form of abuse and punishment, both corporal and “non-physical,” all of which has been shown, in study after reputable study to be harmful and to increase crime, violence, and poverty. There is also much virtual violence in the form of movies, TV and video-games. Do we really think that virtual violence is a cause and actual violence is not? The real violence is not a problem, but it is the virtual violence on the videoscreen that causes the shocking mass killings?
It is fantasies of violence that makes a child love the virtual violence he or she finds in videogames, a disposition that must exist beforehand, because simple exposure to a stimulus doesn’t cause a need, it only fills it (or not). It is the actual experience of violence during childhood punishments that produce the need, the experience of helplessness that Alice Miller speaks about that creates fantasies of power and violence, and the fantasies predate the experience of virtual violence. If the need wasn’t there before, there would be a much smaller market for violent video-games and movies. If we were unable to identify punishment as violence before, this reasoning would be enough, the size of the market for anything that plays upon our violent fantasies. The other side, the argument against that conclusion would be the same ones about ‘human nature’ and Original Sin:’ it’s nothing we do, we’re just born evil and full of longing for violence, naturally.’ That is counter to evidence, and counterintuitive, to phrase it in the most dispassionate way I can muster.
I must add that the mental illness issue that arises as an alternative conversation to gun control is very largely due to the culture of punishment also; mental illness is one of abuse and corporal punishment’s well documented negative outcomes. If shooting your parents and a bunch of teachers isn’t some kind of reaction to punishment, I don’t know what would describe it better.