Why hasn’t violent media turned us into a nation of killers?

by on November 20, 2007 · 28 comments

One of the things I find most interesting about calls to regulate “excessively violent” content on television, in movies, or in video games is the way critics make massive leaps of logic and draw outrageous conclusions based on myopic, anecdotal reasoning. I was reminded of that again today when reading through an interview with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), one of the most vociferous critics of all sorts of media content and a long-time proponent of regulation to censor such violent content in particular (however it is defined). (I have written about his past regulatory proposals here and here).

Here’s what he recently told the editorial board of The Register-Herald of West Virginia:

Violent content has a way of desensitizing impressionable minds, he said, alluding more than once in the interview to school shootings, especially the horrific massacre at Virginia Tech. To buttress his point, the senator told of an 80-year-old World War II veteran who visited him at home and described his wartime experiences, how he helped blow up German troop trains.

“He said that he just got numb, that he lost any feeling,” he said. “One thing was that he couldn’t see them. And that’s also true with troops on the ground. It gives them post-traumatic stress disorder.” Then the senator borrowed a line from Gen. George Patton’s obscenity-laced rallying speech to troops, about making the other man die for his country — except Rockefeller omitted the salty-tongue warrior’s allusion to the enemy’s paternity.

“That is the point — you get immune to it,” he said.

Except that you don’t–at least not entirely, and Sen. Rockefeller’s examples prove that point. How is it, after all, that these brave soldiers witnessed and endured unspeakable acts of violence during those years and yet came home and became known as “The Greatest Generation”? They rebuilt post-war America and turned us into the greatest economic powerhouse on Planet Earth. But if we are to believe Sen. Rockefeller’s logic, they should have instead come home and turned America into a nation of murders, thieves, and thugs. After all, it’s “monkey see, monkey do,” right? If you witness violence, you will later perpetrate violence, or so the theory goes.

But, again, they didn’t. Why is that? It’s a really interesting question and it is one that many folks continue to ask with regards to exposure to violent media content in movies, TV shows or video games. After all, many people find something intuitively appealing about “monkey see, monkey do” explanations. Namely, it provides one possible and simplistic explanation for why some people do engage in violent behavior.

In reality, however, most humans possess a sort of moral compass or moral check on their behavior. They can witness something extremely violent–whether it is real or just a dramatization–and process that information in a rational way. Millions of soldiers throughout history have witnessed (and many have been forced to engage in) horrific acts of violence on a battlefield, and yet they would never think of carrying out those same acts on a public sidewalk. Similarly, millions of average folk have watched countless acts of violence in plays, movies, TV shows and games, and yet would never consider carrying out those same acts in public. Simply stated, most people can separate fantasy from reality–even children as they come to understand social norms about acceptable behavior.

I hate to use anecdotal reasoning here but I’m going to since I think my case is not unique. I grew up watching plenty of movies and TV shows jammed packed with senseless violence. In fact–and some people with think this is sick–my Dad and I used to have a fairly impressive horror movie collection on VHS tapes and would often discuss which “slasher movie” was better or had more blood. A little sadistic? Perhaps, but we found it all quite funny. The important point is that neither of us ever picked up a machete or a chainsaw and decided to take a stroll down to a summer camp to chop up teenagers! Same goes for the millions of other people who grew up enjoying those movies.

And where do I even begin to summarize how much violent video game content I have seen through the years? From my Atari 2600 in the late 70s to my current Xbox 360 and Sony PS3, I have probably played just about ever type of violent video game imaginable. The “Resident Evil” series was a favorite and I have played every one of them start to finish, but I enjoyed most of the popular “first-person shooter” games as well. Again, there are millions of others like me out there and somehow the vast majority of us grew up, got good jobs, created the Internet, so on and so forth. We didn’t take to the streets and start murdering each other just because we played a lot of Duke Nukem or Doom.

So, while the world isn’t perfect, it isn’t the hell-hole that the “monkey see, monkey do” media critics say it is either. Matter of fact, the world seems to be getting better in many important ways–and ways that it should not be if we are to believe all those “world-is-going-to-hell” critics. Just look at the facts about leading social indicators. A new article in Commentary magazine by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin entitled “Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News” points out that just about all the important social indicators (murder, rape, robbery, etc) have witnessed steady decreases. (I provide all the supporting statistics in this paper, starting on page 20). They point out that:

In attitudes toward education, drugs, abortion, religion, marriage, and divorce, the current generation of teenagers and young adults appears in many respects to be more culturally conservative than its immediate predecessors. To any who may have written off American society as incorrigibly corrupt and adrift, these young people offer a powerful reminder of the boundless inner resources still at our disposal, and of our constantly surprising national resilience.

Again, how can this be happening if violent media spawns violent minds and violent acts?! After all, there’s just as much violent media content out there today as there was in the past; some critics claim much more exists now than in the past. So how is it that the kids are alright? Why are things getting so much better when the “monkey see, monkey do” theorists tell us they should be getting so much worse?

The critics, like Sen. Rockefeller, have no answer. They just continue to arrogantly ride around on their moral high horses and tell us that were are all just ignorant sheep who are being programmed to be killers by the media that we enjoy.

In the real world, of course, the rest of of us just yawn, turn off the TV or video game, go to bed happy, and wake up the next day to live a normal, productive lives. Sen. Rockefeller and his fellow media critics should try doing the same thing and leave the rest of us alone.

  • sccarper

    Well, maybe it has. We have the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation and we have a huge violent crime rate. I think you picked a faulty premise for your headline, i.e. that we are not more of a nation of killers than comparable nations.

    That being said I think the evidence for the effect of movies and video games on behavior is less than overwhelming.

  • sccarper

    Well, maybe it has. We have the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation and we have a huge violent crime rate. I think you picked a faulty premise for your headline, i.e. that we are not more of a nation of killers than comparable nations.

    That being said I think the evidence for the effect of movies and video games on behavior is less than overwhelming.

  • eric

    Context is everything, and it is ill-advised to compare the experience of WWII vets to the effects of video violence. Those soldiers saw the real, lasting effects of violence: their buddies killed, their friends’ bodies and minds permanently scarred. In a movie, you see people you don’t know experiencing a momentary “special effect.” The long term effects are hardly going to be the same.

    I wonder if 40 million abortions have done more than anything to desensitize the nation, but there are many possible factors. Excessive video violence doesn’t look like a major culprit. Still, I don’t believe it can be a net good. Surely government regulation is premature, given our ignorance of the magnitude of the threat. But Rockefeller is a politican, and it is a politician’s job to promise things he can’t deliver.

  • eric

    Context is everything, and it is ill-advised to compare the experience of WWII vets to the effects of video violence. Those soldiers saw the real, lasting effects of violence: their buddies killed, their friends’ bodies and minds permanently scarred. In a movie, you see people you don’t know experiencing a momentary “special effect.” The long term effects are hardly going to be the same.

    I wonder if 40 million abortions have done more than anything to desensitize the nation, but there are many possible factors. Excessive video violence doesn’t look like a major culprit. Still, I don’t believe it can be a net good. Surely government regulation is premature, given our ignorance of the magnitude of the threat. But Rockefeller is a politican, and it is a politician’s job to promise things he can’t deliver.

  • sccarper

    I wonder if 40 million abortions have done more than anything to desensitize the nation,

    No, but they seem to have adversely affected your cognitive abilities.

  • sccarper

    I wonder if 40 million abortions have done more than anything to desensitize the nation,

    No, but they seem to have adversely affected your cognitive abilities.

  • jack thompson, attorney

    Love your Soveit motif here. How appropriate. Sorry to burst your little liberation bubble, but the American Psychological Association formally found in its blockbuster 2005 Report that violent video game play leads to increased aggression in adolescents and teens.

    The heads of six major health care organizations testified jointly to Congress in 2001 as to the causal link between entertainment violence and teen violence.

    All you have to counter the mountain of scientific, medical, and law enforcement evidence that there is a causal link between entertainment violence and real-world violence is your bias-based angst that truth is an inconvenient obstacle to nihilism.

    The video game industry ITSELF admits the danger by placement of age ratings on games. If there is no harm, no danger, no effect, then why are those labels on the games, Adam?

    Further, if media had no effect on anyone, then why do the video game developers take out ads in gamer magazines and on television, hoping and knowing that ads actually influence buying behavior.

    You\’re full of nonsense, but most Soviet-ophiles are.

    Comrade Jack Thompson

  • jack thompson, attorney

    Love your Soveit motif here. How appropriate. Sorry to burst your little liberation bubble, but the American Psychological Association formally found in its blockbuster 2005 Report that violent video game play leads to increased aggression in adolescents and teens.

    The heads of six major health care organizations testified jointly to Congress in 2001 as to the causal link between entertainment violence and teen violence.

    All you have to counter the mountain of scientific, medical, and law enforcement evidence that there is a causal link between entertainment violence and real-world violence is your bias-based angst that truth is an inconvenient obstacle to nihilism.

    The video game industry ITSELF admits the danger by placement of age ratings on games. If there is no harm, no danger, no effect, then why are those labels on the games, Adam?

    Further, if media had no effect on anyone, then why do the video game developers take out ads in gamer magazines and on television, hoping and knowing that ads actually influence buying behavior.

    You’re full of nonsense, but most Soviet-ophiles are.

    Comrade Jack Thompson

  • jack thompson, attorney

    Love your Soveit motif here. How appropriate. Sorry to burst your little liberation bubble, but the American Psychological Association formally found in its blockbuster 2005 Report that violent video game play leads to increased aggression in adolescents and teens.

    The heads of six major health care organizations testified jointly to Congress in 2001 as to the causal link between entertainment violence and teen violence.

    All you have to counter the mountain of scientific, medical, and law enforcement evidence that there is a causal link between entertainment violence and real-world violence is your bias-based angst that truth is an inconvenient obstacle to nihilism.

    The video game industry ITSELF admits the danger by placement of age ratings on games. If there is no harm, no danger, no effect, then why are those labels on the games, Adam?

    Further, if media had no effect on anyone, then why do the video game developers take out ads in gamer magazines and on television, hoping and knowing that ads actually influence buying behavior.

    You\\\’re full of nonsense, but most Soviet-ophiles are.

    Comrade Jack Thompson

  • jack thompson, attorney

    Love your Soveit motif here. How appropriate. Sorry to burst your little liberation bubble, but the American Psychological Association formally found in its blockbuster 2005 Report that violent video game play leads to increased aggression in adolescents and teens.

    The heads of six major health care organizations testified jointly to Congress in 2001 as to the causal link between entertainment violence and teen violence.

    All you have to counter the mountain of scientific, medical, and law enforcement evidence that there is a causal link between entertainment violence and real-world violence is your bias-based angst that truth is an inconvenient obstacle to nihilism.

    The video game industry ITSELF admits the danger by placement of age ratings on games. If there is no harm, no danger, no effect, then why are those labels on the games, Adam?

    Further, if media had no effect on anyone, then why do the video game developers take out ads in gamer magazines and on television, hoping and knowing that ads actually influence buying behavior.

    You\’re full of nonsense, but most Soviet-ophiles are.

    Comrade Jack Thompson

  • jack thompson, attorney

    Oh, and the latest FBI crime stats indicate that violence among teens is way up, not down. Nice try.

  • jack thompson, attorney

    Oh, and the latest FBI crime stats indicate that violence among teens is way up, not down. Nice try.

  • JustChris

    “Sorry to burst your little liberation bubble, but the American Psychological Association formally found in its blockbuster 2005 Report that violent video game play leads to increased aggression in adolescents and teens.”

    Playing competitive sports gives you more aggression as well. However, as factual as this report may be, we should not make any legislations based on the extrapolations of facts. I hate to see a far-reaching law being put into place just to whittle down a few more game-related crimes (and don’t really do anything for the millions of more non-game-related crimes). Pretty inefficient, don’t you think? Too much overhead for too little marginal returns. (no I’m not talking economics here, this can also be applied to the way societies are run)

    Video game companies are not responsible for fragile-minded bipolar children that end up killing people. That is the parents’ responsibility. Of course you make it seem otherwise, since it’s easier to carry out legal action on companies and draining their assets. You’re another example of a carpenter with a hammer, who sees every problem like a nail.

  • JustChris

    “Sorry to burst your little liberation bubble, but the American Psychological Association formally found in its blockbuster 2005 Report that violent video game play leads to increased aggression in adolescents and teens.”

    Playing competitive sports gives you more aggression as well. However, as factual as this report may be, we should not make any legislations based on the extrapolations of facts. I hate to see a far-reaching law being put into place just to whittle down a few more game-related crimes (and don’t really do anything for the millions of more non-game-related crimes). Pretty inefficient, don’t you think? Too much overhead for too little marginal returns. (no I’m not talking economics here, this can also be applied to the way societies are run)

    Video game companies are not responsible for fragile-minded bipolar children that end up killing people. That is the parents’ responsibility. Of course you make it seem otherwise, since it’s easier to carry out legal action on companies and draining their assets. You’re another example of a carpenter with a hammer, who sees every problem like a nail.

  • nathan

    Jack Thompson hasn’t noticed that this is primarily a libertarian/free market type blog. And he’s the one who opposes free speech…

  • nathan

    Jack Thompson hasn’t noticed that this is primarily a libertarian/free market type blog. And he’s the one who opposes free speech…

  • Mad_Scientist

    Heh, good old Jack Thompson. Still posting nonsense as usual. Misquoting and misinterperting studies and stats.

    @sccarper

    Regarding your first comment, well, video games and violent entertainment aren’t just big in the US. They are common in just about any industrialized nation, to various degrees. Of course, there are so many different factors in different nations that trying to compare crime rates and use that as an argument is pointless, really.

    Regarding you second comment, please refrain from insults just because someone has a different view on abortion than you.

  • Mad_Scientist

    Heh, good old Jack Thompson. Still posting nonsense as usual. Misquoting and misinterperting studies and stats.

    @sccarper

    Regarding your first comment, well, video games and violent entertainment aren’t just big in the US. They are common in just about any industrialized nation, to various degrees. Of course, there are so many different factors in different nations that trying to compare crime rates and use that as an argument is pointless, really.

    Regarding you second comment, please refrain from insults just because someone has a different view on abortion than you.

  • SA-Rat

    It’s times like these that I have no choice but to sit and laugh…

    I was born and still live in South Africa – in fact I’ve never been out of the country so I wouldn’t be able to speculate on situations in places like the USA for instance…

    But you know what, there has NEVER, and I mean NEVER been any recorded case of any “school massacres” or people who played video games or listened to metal music who went out and killed a bunch of people here.

    And just because we’re being considered as 3rd world doesn’t mean we don’t have the same issues any other country might have, in fact, and I don’t have any proof of this (too lazy to look it up, hehe) but I believe our crime rate here is even higher than most modern countries.

    Is it becaus of video games? No.
    Is it because of gun-lookalike toys? No.
    Is it because of violent-seeming music? No.

    I actually believe that we have a lot more problems here.
    While struggling to exceed an an already oversaturated and controlled world order, we have to struggle with additional factors like a 40% unemployment ratio for a nation, insane crime rates, famine, drought and a very corrupt government.

    And even with all of this, we do not have any teens going out on murderous rampages.
    Why? Because I honestly believe that we are a society not having the time, effort, or socio-economic constraints that people actually think they need to go out and kill someone.
    Even though we have the same amount of violent media being broadcasted here, if not more.

    ALL of these so-called studies are being carried out in America and Europe…
    They don’t even have any kind of influence here, ’cause the situation is different.

    Once again, I have no real proof for any of this, but I think it’s worth a thought.

    I’ve also played every violent game and wathed every violent movie imaginable, but I’m still able to differentiate between right and wrong.

    That’s just my little rant on all this…

  • SA-Rat

    It’s times like these that I have no choice but to sit and laugh…

    I was born and still live in South Africa – in fact I’ve never been out of the country so I wouldn’t be able to speculate on situations in places like the USA for instance…

    But you know what, there has NEVER, and I mean NEVER been any recorded case of any “school massacres” or people who played video games or listened to metal music who went out and killed a bunch of people here.

    And just because we’re being considered as 3rd world doesn’t mean we don’t have the same issues any other country might have, in fact, and I don’t have any proof of this (too lazy to look it up, hehe) but I believe our crime rate here is even higher than most modern countries.

    Is it becaus of video games? No.
    Is it because of gun-lookalike toys? No.
    Is it because of violent-seeming music? No.

    I actually believe that we have a lot more problems here.
    While struggling to exceed an an already oversaturated and controlled world order, we have to struggle with additional factors like a 40% unemployment ratio for a nation, insane crime rates, famine, drought and a very corrupt government.

    And even with all of this, we do not have any teens going out on murderous rampages.
    Why? Because I honestly believe that we are a society not having the time, effort, or socio-economic constraints that people actually think they need to go out and kill someone.
    Even though we have the same amount of violent media being broadcasted here, if not more.

    ALL of these so-called studies are being carried out in America and Europe…
    They don’t even have any kind of influence here, ’cause the situation is different.

    Once again, I have no real proof for any of this, but I think it’s worth a thought.

    I’ve also played every violent game and wathed every violent movie imaginable, but I’m still able to differentiate between right and wrong.

    That’s just my little rant on all this…

  • Junior

    Just in case you haven’t been paying attention over the last 20 years, everything our government tells us is pure, unfiltered bullsh*t. The United States is run by large corporations that control our TV and newspapers, problem is, sales are down….. Almost no one even looks at the newspapers, and ratings are down because no one is paying attention to the TV networks. What are we doing? we’re sitting at home minding our own business playing video games and listening to music…… So because our corporate masters hate competition they use their spokes people (that would be the dumbasses that make up our government) to make up some crazy shit to scare the “dumb” folk (thats us) because we’ve all been “schooled” into believing the crap we’re fed by our government. As far as psychologists go….. you’ve got to be kidding me. Those people couldn’t find water if they fell out of a boat. I have a hard time believing that if your parents didn’t hug you enough that you will grow up to be a serial killer….. psychologists are around to give reason to some of the weird stuff humans are capable of. Oh you’re depressed because your mommy didn’t love you enough….. No moron you’re depressed because your too lazy to get off your ass and do something about the pathetic existance you’ve created for your self….

  • Junior

    Just in case you haven’t been paying attention over the last 20 years, everything our government tells us is pure, unfiltered bullsh*t. The United States is run by large corporations that control our TV and newspapers, problem is, sales are down….. Almost no one even looks at the newspapers, and ratings are down because no one is paying attention to the TV networks. What are we doing? we’re sitting at home minding our own business playing video games and listening to music…… So because our corporate masters hate competition they use their spokes people (that would be the dumbasses that make up our government) to make up some crazy shit to scare the “dumb” folk (thats us) because we’ve all been “schooled” into believing the crap we’re fed by our government. As far as psychologists go….. you’ve got to be kidding me. Those people couldn’t find water if they fell out of a boat. I have a hard time believing that if your parents didn’t hug you enough that you will grow up to be a serial killer….. psychologists are around to give reason to some of the weird stuff humans are capable of. Oh you’re depressed because your mommy didn’t love you enough….. No moron you’re depressed because your too lazy to get off your ass and do something about the pathetic existance you’ve created for your self….

  • Thinking Too Much

    I don’t find it hard to believe that parents have a huge effect over a child’s future social mindset. I do find it weird that your logic holds that people are just born social the minute they come out of the womb and don’t need any tending to.

    I wouldn’t necessarily narrow it down to a few “hugs” though, but I guess if you’re “too lazy to get off you’re ass and do something about [it]” then you’d have to be posting angrily on an online blog instead of contributing something insightful.

    @sccarper

    There is something to be said about stating national crime statistics. I do like how on the first page that comes up when you search “national crime rate” on Google, the first point shown are as follows:

    According to the BJS National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)–

    * Since 1994, violent crime rates have declined, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2005.

    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/cvict.htm

    In my opinion that’s quite concrete.

  • Thinking Too Much

    I don’t find it hard to believe that parents have a huge effect over a child’s future social mindset. I do find it weird that your logic holds that people are just born social the minute they come out of the womb and don’t need any tending to.

    I wouldn’t necessarily narrow it down to a few “hugs” though, but I guess if you’re “too lazy to get off you’re ass and do something about [it]” then you’d have to be posting angrily on an online blog instead of contributing something insightful.

    @sccarper

    There is something to be said about stating national crime statistics. I do like how on the first page that comes up when you search “national crime rate” on Google, the first point shown are as follows:

    According to the BJS National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)–

    * Since 1994, violent crime rates have declined, reaching the lowest level ever recorded in 2005.

    http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/cvict.htm

    In my opinion that’s quite concrete.

  • LCP

    -From a fellow Violent Gamer

    Great piece of work Adam, as anyone who plays and is told that he will act aggressive should feel insulted because right there they are calling you a brainless, unthinking person.

    i have played doom I and II since when I was 5 :-)

    BTW: jack Thomson, all your arguments are invalid.

  • Dan

    HAHAH you sir, are correct.

    i agree with you entirely, im doing a report on this for my A level media studies course at college so i stumbled upon this page whilst researching the subject and i must say this man is right in every way. ive played games since i was 4… 4 years old.
    im now 18 and ive never even thought about shooting my class-mates.
    and the games i play are as violent as they get, i started on doom for god sake!

    blaming violent media for violent crime is just a blatant use of scapegoating.

    The fact is the media want people to belive that violent media leads to violent crime because they make more money that way.
    its a moral panic.

  • Dan

    HAHAH you sir, are correct.

    i agree with you entirely, im doing a report on this for my A level media studies course at college so i stumbled upon this page whilst researching the subject and i must say this man is right in every way. ive played games since i was 4… 4 years old.
    im now 18 and ive never even thought about shooting my class-mates.
    and the games i play are as violent as they get, i started on doom for god sake!

    blaming violent media for violent crime is just a blatant use of scapegoating.

    The fact is the media want people to belive that violent media leads to violent crime because they make more money that way.
    its a moral panic.

  • Dan

    HAHAH you sir, are correct.

    i agree with you entirely, im doing a report on this for my A level media studies course at college so i stumbled upon this page whilst researching the subject and i must say this man is right in every way. ive played games since i was 4… 4 years old.
    im now 18 and ive never even thought about shooting my class-mates.
    and the games i play are as violent as they get, i started on doom for god sake!

    blaming violent media for violent crime is just a blatant use of scapegoating.

    The fact is the media want people to belive that violent media leads to violent crime because they make more money that way.
    its a moral panic.

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