Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.
While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.
The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.
The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.
First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.
Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.
My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.
While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.
Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.
While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.
Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.
Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.
Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.
As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.
One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor. As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.
Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.
On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.
Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.
As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.
Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.
Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.
Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.
As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.
As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.
Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.
As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.