The debate over the cultural impact of violent media is certainly nothing new, and all too familiar to a crowd of those who love video games. The line we here quite often is how films, TV shows, and games have perpetuated the glorification of graphic violence.
It’s my belief that in regards to games, this stems from the old belief that games are primarily a form of entertainment for children and adolescents, seen as impressionable minds vulnerable to corruption. But a wider argument has popped up in recent years sparked by things like Game of Thrones, a show regularly viewed by millions and millions of people that regularly includes scenes of gruesome violence, sexual violence included. So I ask, what is the primary difference between depicting violence and actively glorifying and condoning it? What games/movies in your opinion tackle this issue in a meaningful way? Is violent media too deeply entrenched in our way of life, and are we too far down the road of desensitization for things to change?
There was an interesting thread on Reddit recently where some sociologists were commenting on how some Netflix show that glamorizes suicide and makes healthy solutions seem negligable was actually increasing the rate of suicides. That’s the impression I got from reading through the comments anyway.
I suspect that media presents us with a mental list of responses to scenarios and we depend on what is accessible in that list when we encounter the more rare scenarios.
I think Wolfenstein: The New Order (which I’m currently in the middle of) provides a sort of blueprint for games trying to handle extreme violence, because I’m constantly surprised by a) how cathartic and unwilling to compromise on the ultra-violent aspects of shooters that it is while b) still treating its characters’ trauma and its post-WWII Nazi Germany setting with gravity and respect.
For me the key is that it’s extremely good at making BJ and the resistance seem believably powerless. In particular the early scene on the train with Frau Engel comes to mind, but even beyond that, there’s this constant sense of being a gnat about to go to war with a windshield that follows you throughout every massive gun battle and never quite lets up. The game paces itself and uses contrast really well—those massive gun battles are usually broken up with sequences in the resistance HQ that serve to give the narrative space to grow and characterize all of the game’s characters—and it never lets the player settle into a fast-paced rhythm the way something like say, DOOM does.
And as someone who has studied some trauma theory and in doing so read a fair amount of Holocaust literature (both the realistic and more fantastical varieties), I thought its concentration camp level managed to walk this very fine line between depictions of suffering that made me physically ill and an escape/rescue sequence that borders on wish-fulfillment. Because the game believably characterizes BJ as a traumatized soldier (the “Nightmare” levels in particular seem like innocuous easter eggs but gain some real narrative heft if you start looking through a Freudian lens), the shooting seems like an attempt to escape that trauma, which only entrenches him farther and farther down.
So I guess that’s a long way of saying that, for me, the difference between glorifying violence and condoning it is by putting brakes on the power fantasy (or, on the flip-side, by detaching it entirely from our world the way something like DOOM does; I don’t think killing demons in gruesome ways particularly desensitizes us to real-world violence). If the violence is happening in a world at least recognizable as our own, it needs to have a narrative purpose—to come from somewhere and not just be the standard modern-warfare-shooter construct of “here are bad people, shoot them.”
Fictional events* will always have some issues, in that the fantastical things it describes could make people think it is offering a practical answer to their problems. This is less cause and effect but normalisation of the events depicted. I believe that almost all of the serious academic research in this topic basically confirms this (non-direct) method of action; that it is incorrect to say “violence onscreen causes violence in real life” but rather it is “violence onscreen can normalise the use of violence as a solution to problems and so as an accepted part of how society has agreed we can respond”. Fiction is powerful because it talks to us about what might be possible.
Clearly this is an issue but not that fiction should be overly cautious about what it does and does not depict but that general education needs to have an expansive view of how it produces people (from children) who are capable of working in these highly-complex societies we construct. There is a duty to ensure people are capable of working in dense societies full of complex people who have extremely diverse understanding of the world and limits of what they can cope with. It is only through focused work that we can possibly ensure a society where media is consumed responsibly by adults and young people who can be assured of the educational support of understanding what they have experienced. This appears to be, in the broadest sense, the perfect match and justification for age ratings. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the necessity of quality education for making that entire system work. We need everyone who sees someone solve their problems with a gun to understand that that is not the socially acceptable actual way to deal with problems.
Where this becomes most apparent is in the lack of all-ages, comprehensive and inclusive sex and relationship education (SRE). Which would make it extremely hard to produce erotic fiction that doesn’t have the potential for negative social consequences (via indirect action) because there is a lack of education in this subject. Weirdly, many of the people who campaign for additional restrictions on this category of media are also campaigning to block SRE from schools. It’s almost as if they also realise what is the root of the problem and are working very hard to ensure the real solution is not enacted.
* media that does not claim to be a good and complete recounting of actual life - feel free to argue how often fiction implies it is possibly offering real-world scenarios and what responsibility that adds to create realistic consequences but also note that this has always been an issue right back to early fiction and the regulations that have been created have shown to have significantly harmful consequences due to the way societal bigotry is replicated via those restrictions.
I’ve thought a lot about Wolfenstein: TNO since playing it last year, and I’m thoroughly impressed by how much it gets right. And that’s a really interesting point about how the game intentionally interrupts the flow of violent sections by bringing the player back to the HQ after, which becomes a chance not only to connect to other characters but to decompress and reflect on the player’s actions. It happens just often enough to keep the player from becoming truly numb to the violence.
I also want to point out that you can “glorify” something without “condoning” it. The best film examples are Scarface and The Wolf of Wall Street, both movies that “glorify” those lifestyles in order to demonstrate their seduction. However, the ultimate message (however arguable) is that one should not seek out those lifestyles.
This is where it gets tricky because I don’t believe that violent media causes a person to be violent. However, I believe that violent media could trigger a violent person. This doesn’t mean that we need to worry about the media so much as have larger discussions about how people develop violent personalities in the first place. I always think it’s better to start as a preventative measure rather than a reaction.
I should have been more careful in my use of the word condoning, good point! It’s always fascinating (and troubling) to me how many people can see movies/TV with violent characters like Scarface or Frank Underwood and completely miss that message and ignore their tragic downfalls. We are often willing to forgive violent tendencies and focus on their “cool” character traits: ambition, charisma, self-discipline, etc., to embrace them as heroes despite the suffering they’ve inflicted.
I think Christopher Nolan’s Joker is a great example of that, too. Yeah, he says stuff that makes sense, but his name literally means someone who lies. He lied throughout that entire movie, but he sounded cool, so, whatever.
Researchers also found last year that media coverage of shootings and the glorification of the shooters is a probable cause for the increase in shootings in the U.S.
I think an important distinction is that most people play a game like GTA V or watch GoT and realize what is happening in these is fictional and trying to reenact them is silly. However you take something like “13 Reasons Why” that is more grounded in reality and the viewer is highly emotional and has been contemplating suicide already it might be enough to push them over the edge.
I don’t think anyone’s watching game of thrones and necessarily trying reenact crushing people’s skulls with their bare hands, but it does repeatedly portray violence, in its many forms, as a legitimate and effective problem solver. That said, I don’t think authors and producers need to shy away from depicting cruel, bleak, and violent fantasy worlds, but it’s worth taking a look at how stuff like the Walking dead and GOT has become popular not in spite of its graphic content, but possibly because of it.
On the subject of violence in video games and whether it causes people to be more violent Adam Sessler talked briefly about it in a panel with Jim Sterling some years ago, and he made the point that people didn’t necessarily play violent video games because they are violent, but because it is about them., if that makes sense. playing Max Payne puts you in the shoes of an extremely violent man, but it’s not so much the fact that he is violent that is the allure, but the fact that he is the center of story and the universe presented in the game. You are the hero, you are here to save the world. It’s an argument for video games as escapism, because we don’t get to be that guy in our daily lives, so video games lend themselves to that purpose.
I think that is an interesting point, and one worth taking into consideration when discussing the role of video games and its possible ramifications on us as a society.
I feel like this is a tricky area of criticism. I totally agree that art can end up glorifying something it is trying to condemn or explore, but I sometimes think we can miss the forest for the trees trying to pick out specific details rather than talking about the voice or tone of a work as a whole. I think the best example I can think of this is when people argue that ostensibly anti-war films, games, etc still “look cool” and therefore undermine themselves. While this is partially true, I think it’s important to accept that fiction will always look nice - even intentionally grotesque or terrifying imagery is aesthetically pleasing.
This is something one of my teachers talked about extensively with regards to film in particular - that the camera just kinda inherently adds a bit of gloss and glamour to every image, regardless of intent. It’s a tricky thing to deal with, and it ties into the larger issues with creative intent, because no matter how good you are as a creator, you ultimately have very little control over what people will actually do with your art once it’s out in the world. Lots of stories get co-opted by terrible people and groups, even when creators put messages in their works that actively oppose the ideologies of these people and groups. Also, and I’m sorry for not having the links on this, but people are just kinda really bad at recognizing when a story is trying to portray certain behavior as “bad”. People, and especially children, absorb the behavior of the characters more than the moral message, because that’s just kinda how people work. Like Foxtrot said, some people see the behavior of characters like Frank Underwood or Walter White and don’t quite internalize the tragic downfall part of the story.
… But I’m getting kind of off topic here, whoops. I think the question of violence in video games is interesting, because while it’s one of those issues where both extreme “sides” of the argument are wrong. When games first really game under fire, a lot of it was just people pointing at games as the New Evil Media, the same way they used to point at comic books or TV. But to completely argue that games have no effect on people is to kinda sell them short as a medium? Because at that point you’re making the argument that games are basically empty experiences with no power to affect the viewer in any meaningful way, be it positive or negative (though I guess lots of people still try to make the “it’s just fiction” argument about a lot of things so they don’t have to think critically about the stuff they enjoy)
Escapism and the desire for a power trip sometimes go hand in hand I think. And when we play as a character like Max Payne or Kratos or Nathan Drake, we play as someone whose main skill is killing and maiming people for personal gain. I think you can try and just say we like strong characters who are the center of a story, but it’s just not easy to remove the fact that their reckless, murderous tendencies are a large part of who they are, and how we grow attached to them all the same.
I would probably agree, but at the same time I’m not sure what the exact implications are, and more specifically how does it actually affect us as players. I seem to remember a german study that showed violent video games to be no more effective than violent movies in terms of the effect it has on the consumer on from a neurological standpoint, which is to say; there is indeed something that happens in our brain when consuming violent video games, but it doesn’t deviate meaningfully from what happens when we watch an action movie.
In terms of those 3 specific characters I would probably agree with you about Kratos and Max Payne. They are very good at killing stuff, and the fact they are good at killing stuff is deeply ingrained in their characters. With Nathan Drake, though, pretty much no part of the actual narrative and character work seems to ever acknowledge that Drake has accumulated a body count that would make a Cambodian death squad blush. It seems completely an utterly seperated from anything else the character does in those games. Even from a game design perspective they go even enforce this, but removing any type kinetic and visceral (there’s that buzzword) feedback. Pulling the trigger feels like pushing a button and not the other way around, if that makes sense. It makes you question whether the combat was even necessary in the game at all, when it seems so completely inconsequential from a narrative perspective.
In addition to the distinction between glorifying and condoning, I want to submit the idea of exploration. I often enjoy media that explores or examines violence without necessarily condoning it. I’m thinking of filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Nicolas Refn, or Stanley Kubrick. These filmmakers not only depict, but sometimes indulge in violence. But there is always a sense of ambiguity to their work that allows the viewer to judge the actions of characters according to their own moral compasses.
And then I’m also thinking of games that absolutely glorify violence, but do it in a context far removed from reality. Do action games like Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising really influence the violent impulses of players in the same way that a more grounded game like The Last of Us or Battlefield does? Is the difference between melee combat vs. shooting relevant to the question of gun violence?
Hoo Boy I hope no ones moral compass lines up with the guy from Drive’s
In all seriousness you bring up another interesting question: is ridiculous, over the top, heavily stylized violence really different? My gut answer is not really, Regardless how much of a disconnect there is. I think the argument could even be made that by making brutality seem outlandish and unbelievable, we’re taking a step towards downplaying how prevalent and destructive it is in its real world forms
Personally, i think it comes down to framing. This is a bigger debate in fan circles (particularly for writers of fanficiton), and in my opinion, the nature of any violence and whether or not people identify with it is completely down to the author/ makers and how they frame it.
By framing I mean, how that concept is depicted in the context of the story. How those concepts are made to read to an audience. You have a choice as a creator to frame things as either desirable or undesirable. Romantic or unromatic.
I also think it’s kind of a misnomer to say that everything is given a glitz when filmed. Alien is a great example of how violence can be depicted as horrific and terrible and traumatizing. And I think that comes down to depicting scenes from the perspective of the victims.
Therefore I guess the line between depiction and glorification for me is “how is the victim depicted?” Who is the violence perpetuated on and how do those people react? Do they react realistically? Is the act immediately justified? Also: “is violence used to solve problems?” And are people framed as some of those problems?
(Someone addressed 13 Reasons Why and one of the big problems with that show was that it depicted suicide as a method of “getting back” at the people who hurt you. It depicted suicide as a solution to a problem, and an often fantasized problem for suicidal people at that, and as heroic. Two things that are against most common guidelines for reporting suicide)