There’s a recurring conversation in this country about the relationship between violent imagery in our entertainment and violent behavior in our society. This conversation is mostly a lot of closed-minded, back-and-forth about the causal link between violent media (previously focused on Comic Books or The Beatles, but most recently focusing on video games) and violent behavior. For the most part, media defenders dismiss the notion as over-simplification and the latest demonization of scary youth culture. On the other side, media critics dismiss the notion they’re going after an easy target instead of taking a more nuanced view of how a host of factors created an increasingly desensitized, narcissistic, and violent society.
I’m not going to weigh in on one side or the other because I think there’s merit to both views. Rather, what I want to put out is an idea about what we can do as producers of entertainment to contribute positively to the situation. Is it a complete solution? No. But I believe we all have an obligation to contribute where we can, so I’m focusing on my part of the equation.
I play video games in which my characters have racked up ridiculously high body counts. I watch movies where people are beat up, hurt, maimed, and killed. Part of the reason we have increasingly violent imagery in our media is because people like me are consuming it. I’m part of the problem.
That said, I do have limits and I do think we as content creators could treat the violence in our media with more deference.
Violence is a part of our world. But unlike many video games, movies or television shows, real world violence has real world consequences. Unfortunately, in the entertainment world, those consequences are usually limited to: killing good guys makes you a bad guy, and killing bad guys makes you a good guy.
It’s not that simple. The good guys in real life (Military, Law Enforcement, etc) suffer internal and external consequences because of the violence they employed on our behalf. They may be haunted by what they had to do and suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They might be unable to readjust to regular society just like a convict who is accustomed to the daily violence of life in prison. Violence is a cage for those who choose to or are compelled to employ it.
An example of violence handled with a degree of deference is Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich. The plot follows a group of Israeli Mossad agents tracking down and assassinating members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September following the Munich Massacre in 1972. The story follows the degeneration of Mossad agent Avner (wonderfully played by Eric Bana) as he carries out revenge murder after revenge murder on behalf of his government. There is no glorification of what he’s doing. The violence is shown as brutal and horrible however justified it may be. At the beginning of the movie, Avner is idealistic and willing to do what’s necessary to avenge his people. By the end of the movie, he’s a hollow shell of a man. The price he paid for being an instrument of revenge is written all over his face.
In video games, consequences can be worked into the game mechanics. In the Fallout series of post-apocalyptic games, a Karma System measures your behavior and either opens or closes certain avenues of gameplay based on your choices. For example, if you play as a crusading white knight wandering the wasteland saving people, certain more nefarious characters will refuse to join your group. The opposite also holds true and, in fact, if you play as too evil of a character, large portions of the game become utterly unavailable as townspeople won’t even talk to you.
Binary Domain attempted to add another level of realism with their Consequences System. Your team, controlled by the game’s AI, develops a level of trust in your leadership and the skill of your play. Based on this trust, they answer your requests differently, work more or less cooperatively with you, and, if trust is too low, refuse to go on missions with you.
This brings up a more realistic possibility. In games, the easiest path is often to address any situation with guns blazing. But in real-life, if violence is your one-size-fits-all solution to any obstacle, chances are nobody will want to work with you. And if nobody wants to work with you, accomplishing your goals is going to be a lot harder.
The Artists’ Contribution
As a content creator, it’s really easy to go for cheap excitement: violence for its own sake or for simple shock value. But I think we can be more thoughtful and, in doing so, reduce our contribution to desensitizing society. In fact, I believe media violence depicting its real physical, emotional, and social costs can benefit society by making audiences more sensitive if done correctly.
So, I’m not suggesting we remove violence from our media and entertainment. What I’m suggesting is the violence become more realistic. Not realistic in terms of accurately depicting a severed limb or gunshot wound, but realistic in terms of consequences. Violence isn’t fun or easy or without cost, and we could do a better job of portraying it that way.