Camassia had a great post about pacifists, fantasy, and war games last week. Writing about everything from competitive board games to violent movies, she warns against the "catharsis theory":
Back when I was in grad school I took a course on the media and children, and this is what they called the “catharsis” theory: if kids enjoy violent entertainment they’ll get it out of their system and be able to go on peacefully the rest of the time. It is, not surprisingly, a popular idea with makers and supporters of violent entertainment. Trouble is, there’s really no evidence to support it. In fact, the various studies we looked at it that course offered a consistent connection between violent entertainment and aggressive behavior.
Camassia and her commenters then enter a very helpful and interesting discussion about fantasy, reality, and what it means to be a pacifist in a world of violent entertainment. I do recommend a visit.
I did not grow up playing video games. They've never had much hold on me. When I was in high school, I played Pac-Man with my friends at the arcades, but was quickly bored. Frankly, I've tried playing more recent video games with my younger cousins (who all have X-Boxes and Playstations and what-have-yous) and been utterly unamused. But I do know the power that one kind of arcade game has over me: shooting games.
It was June 1999. A friend of mine and I were at dinner in Eagle Rock, and he suggested we go play some games in the huge arcade nearby after dinner. I was reluctant, but he insisted, so off we went. He immersed himself in something, and I wandered around until I came to a huge machine with a great big screen and two very realistic looking handguns attached to the front of it. Essentially, as I remember, the player is an undercover police officer shooting it out with bad guys. The screen was big and vivid and colorful; having not played a video game since the mid-1980s, I was stunned at the quality of the new technology. I put in my quarters, picked up the gun, and started to "play."
For the next HOUR, I was hooked. When my friend stopped by to see what I was doing, I pressed a $20 bill in his hand and made him run to get me more quarters. I loved the shooting. I shot everything at first (including my fellow undercover operatives and innocent children), and then gradually got more judicious. But I loved what happened to people, good and bad, when I shot them! Blood would pour from heads and chests, and they would fly up in the air and collapse in a satisfying heap.
I have never fired a handgun. When I was a child, I fired a .22 rifle with my cousins at the ranch, and missed the can of Olympia at which I was supposed to be aiming. I never had much interest in guns after that. But on that June night six years ago, I was sweating with excitement, my heart racing, shooting and shooting until I had gone through almost $25.00 and my friend was demanding to leave. He was a bit stunned at my obsession with the game: "Dude, you were WAAAY to into that", he said. He was right. I felt excited, stimulated, and edgy. I had trouble sleeping that night.
And several times over the course of that summer, I went back to the arcade to play that one game. I eventually gave it up, as I began to realize that my fixation on the shooting was deeply disturbing to me. Frankly, it seemed a lot like porn. Playing my shooting game, I was using fantasy images of other people's bodies for my pleasure. When one uses porn, one fantasizes penetrating and possessing another's body; when one plays a shooting game, one's imaginary bullets penetrate and destroy the flesh of imaginary enemies. To me, then and now, using porn and playing violent video games essentially involve an identical sin: the sin of using others for selfish pleasure. Of course, much of porn involves "real" actresses, and the images on my screen at the arcade were computer-generated. But modern technology has seen the proliferation of computer-generated images in porn, and of real-life actors in video games. The line between the two has become increasingly blurred. And it goes without saying that the obsessiveness with which I played my shooting game was similar to an obsessiveness with porn; it was the sort of activity where one loses all track of time and all sense of accountability to others.
My anti-porn convictions are clear; I've written about them many times. (Here, here, here). But my own (admittedly limited) experience with violent, realistic video games has left me convinced that they are in a very real sense as problematic as pornography. Porn offers the viewer the fantasy of consequence-free sex; the games offer the player consequence-free violence. Players and viewers feel more powerful; porn and video games flatter the agency of their users. When an insecure teenage boy masturbates to porn, he fantasizes that beautiful women can't wait to have sex with him. When that same boy plays his violent video games, he fantasizes that all the big muscle-bound bad guys end up dead as a result of his deft manipulation of his joystick or ersatz gun. In both instance, he's trying to overcome his insecurities and make himself feel big and powerful -- invariably at the expense of others. In porn the women all "want it" and in violent video games, the people you kill "deserve it." And if there's a significant moral difference between the two activities, I'm missing it! (Yes, I am well aware that there are teenage girls and adult women who like porn and violent video games too -- but I suspect that they are dwarfed in number by their male counterparts.)
When I have teenagers, I will be no more inclined to permit them to play violent video games in the home than I will be to allow them to visit hardcore pornographic websites. Fantasy is not without its redemptive purposes, but when it is about sexual conquest or violent destruction, it is, I think, at odds with what it means to live an authentically Christian life.