And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. Matthew 24:6
A few weeks ago I mentioned a common form of non-physical violence which I will expand upon here – that of aggressive media. Violent video games may be the most obvious source of violent media, but we kid ourselves if we do not also include aggressive social media posts, violent television shows and movies, many sporting events, sensationalized newscasts, and other virtual forms of non-physical connection, entertainment, and communication. All are seductive, influential, and addictive. The question of whether one’s engagement with aggressive media leads to physically violent expressions outside of the media experience is a hot topic. Certainly, an interest in or obsession with violent gaming is present with some perpetrators of mass violence, but one cannot conclude that everyone who participates in violent gaming becomes a murderer. Everyone who consumes (and thus supports) any form of aggressive media, however, does contribute to the overall culture of violence.
There’s an old saying in the news business: “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning violence in media sells more of the advertising that supports the media outlet. Violent or extreme stories are more popular to consumers than non-violent or feel-good stories. In that sense, the physical violence in our culture is but the tip of an enormous and volatile iceberg. The problem lies in our hunger to consume such media. One of the underlying needs in our attraction to aggressive media is that of control. There seems to be an increasing sense of loss or lack of control over one’s life and circumstances, and watching violence occur to “bad people” in media is one way to assure ourselves that those abusing their power get what they deserve. Which raises the question: Why do we feel so powerless? Similarly, watching stories of tragic events happening to others is equally enticing, perhaps because the suffering of others makes us feel better about our lot in life. In addition, news outlets are forever looking for ways to claim some occurrence as the worst in history or the most extreme this or the bleakest outlook for that. Granted, many events today are sensational, but the media knows how we clamor for evidence that we are living in the most dramatic, desperate, and difficult times ever. Not only is it not true, it is pathetically silly. We seem to have developed an insatiable need for extremes.
Given all of this, is it any wonder that people seek opportunities to participate in and consume horrific acts of virtual violence in life-like, vivid color and surround sound? If we cannot gain a sense of control over our lives and life-circumstances, why would we not want to experience that control virtually if given the opportunity? I remember enjoying the early video game, Pac Man, in which a circle-with-a-mouth consumed dots along the paths of a maze, trying to eat as many dots as possible before getting consumed by a monster-in-a-colored-sheet. The technology was primitive by today’s standards, but the concept was the same: consume as many others as possible before being consumed yourself. Today, instead of a grainy circle-with-a-mouth eating dots, we have very life-like figures with realistic-looking weapons committing horrendous atrocities against other life-like figures. I don’t recall anyone claiming that playing Pac Man led to physical violence against others. The primary difference is in the realism of the media expression, even though the underlying aggression and sense of power and control is arguably similar.
There are not nearly as many variables to control in a virtual environment where we are not dealing with actual, free-will exercising, power-hungry human beings. As children we are under the thumbs of our parents. In school, our freedom is restricted by teachers and school requirements. In adulthood we have bosses, the government, and financial realities holding us back. It seems like someone outside of ourself always has control over us. Video-gaming appeals to, among others, those who feel powerless, unacknowledged, unknown, and unappreciated by the world around them. It provides an environment where they can be known and do “good,” in whatever way they define good. Participants assume a God-like status – powerful and in control. Does aggressive video-gaming plant ideas in malleable minds, encouraging attempts to replicate their virtual experience in real life? That appears to sometimes be the case. Does it allow others to express their aggressions in safe ways so they are better able to successfully engage with an often-difficult and unjust world? I suspect that, too, is the case. Is it possible to consume aggressive media strictly for entertainment purposes? For me, that is an open question. Regardless, the foundational desire or need for placating our aggressive energies is rampant and apparently growing.
This is the 14th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and are not intended to imply the agreement or support of other individuals or organizations. If you wish to engage with my thoughts, or if you would like to explore contemplative spiritual direction, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.