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Media Violence

Since the early 1990s the debate in the American media over the effect of violent video games has increasingly divided the way we think about what is appropriate entertainment for children and teens. With the advent of games like Doom and other first-person-shooters (games that place the player as a gunman tasked with killing adversaries), parents, psychologists and teachers have shown concern over the possibility this type of entertainment has in adversely affecting socialization among young people. The Columbine High School massacre only fueled this controversial fire.

However, the studies that have sought to investigate the nature of contemporary violence and its corresponding role to video games and other popular forms of media have been indeterminate. As the controversy has raged, game designers have continued to push the envelope for content, leading to anti-social games like Grand Theft Auto, a game that Devin Moore, an 18-year-old Alabama man, claimed led to his murder of three men (Bradley 1). With issues of freedom of speech and public safety continually at odds, careful ethical and moral considerations have been integral in negotiating the demands of creative license and a stable society.

Moore insisted that he would not have been able to execute the murders he committed if he had not had the benefit of living out the scenario time and time again in a video game practice run. An older, but not unrelated argument revolves around the role cartoon violence has on affecting children’s developing social skills. Going as far back as Tom and Jerry and The Flinestones and continue up to the present day to The Simpsons and South Park, entertainment designed ostensibly for children has embodied many adult-themed issues.

This mixing of genre and content has upset many parents and called into question the moral responsibility television programmers have in determining child-appropriate shows. At the same time, the outcry has also stirred backlash among many who believe that it is a parent’s responsibility, not a television producer’s, to determine what is appropriate for a child to view. This latter faction asserts that parents have the ability and obligation to assume ownership over their child’s media intake.

The position that video game violence has been largely supported by the American Psychological Association, which has publicized a number of studies over the last several years that comes down negatively on the proliferation of violent images, particularly in first-person-shooters and role-playing-games (RPGs). Iowa State psychologist Brad Bushman has repeatedly reported negative effects to the press, citing that as a result of 85 separate studies of video game violence that there is “no question that exposure to violent video [games] simulates aggressive behavior.

It’s incredibly troubling” (37). Bushman’s claim is drawn from previous research conducted under the auspices of the APA and merely reflects the standard line the organization has taken since the earliest development of video game violence controversy. Three years prior to Bushman’s statement, the APA sent out a press release stating that, “violent video games may be more harmful than violent television and movies because they are interactive, very engrossing and require the player to identify with the aggressor” (1).

Another study provided by the Indiana University implies that a person’s ability to resist violent impulses is actually weakened after playing a violent video game. According to Dr. Vincent Matthew, a professor of radiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, “After playing a violent video game, these adolescents had an increased activity in the amygdale, which is involved in emotional arousal…[a]t the same time, they had decreases in activity in parts of the brain which are involved in self-control” (Forbes 1).

However, despite a number of studies suggesting the link, there are a myriad of anecdotal cases to the contrary. While the APA would have us believe that America is eroding as a result of a few automated monsters and creepy zombies, many gamers are publishing their own experiences with violent video games and why it hasn’t negatively affected their socialization. One spur some gamers have felt is politicians’ willingness to exploit the controversy for gaining votes.

Gamer Patrick Masell remarks, “According to people such as presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman I should be a ball of boiling hatred that will explode at the drop of a hat. However, to this date I have not committed and abominable act of violence, and certainly none that reflects anything in video games” (1). Massell, a current high school student, points out the absurd logic that the video game violence argument operates from, arguing that critics of game content base their evaluation of the average person’s response to the games on a “few rotten eggs” (1).

However, teens aren’t the only people crying out in defense of the gaming industry. Clive Thompson of Wired magazine speaks from a slightly different perspective: gamers who are in their early twenties, making them young enough to have grown up playing violent video games and yet old enough to have small children of their own. This neutral ground causes Thompson to give serious consideration to what is appropriate entertainment for him as an adult and what isn’t for his ten month old son.

While Thompson confesses a bit of parental bewilderment of how to control his child’s image consumption, he firmly comes down on the side that parents have the right to determine what is appropriate gaming activity for their children, and like Massell, points out the invasive role politicians have adopted in the controversy. Thompson’s attitude reflects a more general trend among many parents and health professionals, even if they themselves are not gamers, that video games might actually be a positive influence. According to kidsource. com “some adults believe that video games offer benefits over the passive medium of television.

Among mental health professionals , there are those who maintain that in playing video games, certain children can develop a sense of proficiency which they might not otherwise achieve” (2). This attitude is embodied by the commonly held perception that video game play can help enhance hand to eye coordination. Additionally, while video game oppositionists have published a number of studies “proving” the deleterious effects of violent video game play, a study conducted in 2005 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign completely contradicts previous findings.

After 56 hours of game play over the course of a month, researchers found, “no strong effects associated with aggression caused by this violent game” (Physorg. com 1). With the question so stubbornly indeterminate, this controversy is destined to rage and game designers are destined to continue pushing the limits of good (or at least acceptable) taste. The attacks of September 11th and the resulting war on terror have only complicated this question further. Many first-person shooters are set in a military environment that requires the player to identify with an American perspective against Middle Easterners.

This has ethical implications because what is essentially being promoted as entertainment might also be viewed as combat simulators. This is a direct link between training people to kill and providing them with entertainment. Still, the research data is inconclusive. However, the video game violence controversy suggests another related but much older controversy: the effects of violent cartoons. Cartoon violence is particularly upsetting to many parents because it occurs within a genre they often assume to be family friendly.

With memories of Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig, many parents are shocked when they are confronted with Homer’s predictable strangling of Bart in The Simpsons or Kenny’s regular repeated death in virtually every episode of South Park. One reason for this confusion is because the cartoon format has changed in content as it has gained increasing attention as a satirical format. With this added complexity, cartoons have catered to a more adult and media savvy audience, one capable of keying into a certain cultural knowledge base satire requires in order to function successfully. South Park has proven to be a particularly controversial example.

While satirizing subjects as diverse as Scientology to Rosie O’Donnel, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have tipped several sacred cows along the way. Even their own network has censored what is and isn’t appropriate for public consummation, as when last fall Comedy Central refused to air an episode depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammed. (Sheffield) These kinds of antics have incurred many parents’ censure. Not only violence, but deviant behavior, like pedophilia, is featured and made into punch lines. The ethical question of using this type of format for such controversial subject matter has certainly troubled viewers across the spectrum.

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