Rethinking Media Violence

This semester, my TA duties include running a discussion section once a week for an introductory class on media effects research. It’s interesting to see what a group of would-be communication students think about media effects. I hear that at the end of the semester, their final papers will almost entirely be about how magazine ads cause eating disorders and video games and action movies don’t cause violence. (Can you guess the gender breakdown on that one?)

Our introductory discussion section topic was a little misleading. Just to get a sense of what people thought, we asked our students whether they thought media had limited effects, powerful effects, or no effects. The reason the question is misleading is because it’s so ridiculously oversimplified – the answer, of course, is “it depends.” Sometimes, with some people, in some contexts, some media have very powerful effects. Media effects researchers have ways of calculating the degree to which a media stimulus in an experiment (as opposed to other factors) affects particular behavior or attitude. Oftentimes, the variance is only very slight, but it’s there. That’s enough for media researchers to say that they’re finding something, and I think that’s fine. Some media researchers, however, also think that’s enough to influence policy that regulates media content, and I think that is not fine.

The question isn’t just one of magnitude: We have to look at the big picture here. Let me draw an analogy for just a moment, considering that many people refer to media use as “consumption.” I was recently talking to a couple friends about how different foods are bad for you in different, subtle ways. And while I can’t remember the specifics of the conversation, know that I’m not just talking about Twinkies and alcohol; I think milk was an example. “Everything you eat,” one friend said, “is slowly poisoning you.” The other friend agreed.

I’m not sure whether they were looking at the topic with a certain degree of irony or the kind of sad fanaticism adopted by people on diets. While it’s true that every food is potentially good in some ways and less so in others, the idea that food poisons us is patently ludicrous. We need food for nutrition. The important thing is to keep a balanced diet.

Here’s where my analogy differs from most media researchers’ analogies about the “media diet.” I think it’s wrong to cast “violence” as the “sweets” of media content, characterizing many movies and video games as the Twinkies and DingDongs of cultural output. The media effects studies seeking to isolate media violence as a cause of real aggression are roughly analogous to trying to extract sugar from a food product to prove that it causes tooth decay: They cut out all the fiber, all the protein, anything else nutritious, just so they can exclaim, “Aha! So this food is bad for you!”

In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson argues that the format of modern media give a cognitive workout (a positive effect) that is much more important than the feared negative effects of the content. Some media researchers have suggested that violent content itself might have a cathartic effect, disinclining people from real-world aggression (but this is not a well-supported theory). Let me go a step further and suggest that violent content might be good for the vast majority of people who choose to consume it, in ways that have nothing to do with real-world violence.

Media violence research, as I said above, is concerned with one thing: Teasing out how violence relates to real-world “aggression.” I’ll largely leave aside for the moment the fact that lab experiments are totally unlike real-world media use (e.g., forcing a kid to play a video game s/he did not choose for a set period of time, alone, in an unfamiliar setting). I’ll largely leave aside the way that “media violence” is so poorly operationalized in the majority of media violence experiments (e.g., the nonviolent program has long, unbroken shots of sporting events, while the “violent” program has lots of fast cuts, which we know from other research increases short-term arousal, which in turn can lead to increased “aggression”). My focus, instead, will be on “aggression,” and why I put it in quotes three times this paragraph.

Measurements of aggression (typically taken during or shortly after exposure to media violence) have included such tests as having kids play a fill-in-the-blanks game (with more aggressive effects attributed to those that fill in the blanks with words coded as aggressive), or having kids administer annoying noise blasts (like with an air horn) to real or imagined opponents (with aggressive effects attributed to longer blasts). I don’t dispute that researchers have found statistically significant results with these methods; that is, there’s less than a 5% chance that the very slight difference in word choice or noise-blasting between the violent and nonviolent groups arose due to random luck. What I dispute is the idea that this measure of aggression relates in any way whatsoever to real-world aggression that should concern us as a society – and, moreover, I’d suggest that the type of aggression typically measured in media violence research may be entirely healthy.

I am a big proponent of the “turn the other cheek” philosophy. Realistically speaking, I also know that sometimes you need to stand up for yourself in the face of aggressors, which may take some aggression on your own part. In the judge’s ruling overturning an Illinois law restricting the sale of violent games, the judge pointed out that sheltering children from representations of violence gives them an unrealistic portrayal of the world, doing them no real favors. Considering the large portion of the gaming population made up by nerds who get picked on regularly, I sure hope that games are teaching kids some aggression–not “violence is the answer,” but a little bit of bravery, more like when Irish hospitals use video games to help road accident victims overcome driving fears.

Recent ethnographic studies of school kids pretty clearly show that kids labeled “nerds” are in the minority at schools, with “popular kids” the majority. Popular athletes are particularly likely to pick on other kids, sometimes violently. The nerdy boys who don’t stand up for themselves get picked on the worst for being unwilling to display typically masculine aggressive behavior. Moreover, the Kobe Bryant scandal and the alleged date rapes that made the school paper back on my college campus could be interpreted to implicate athletes in sexual abuse later in life. No one is arguing, however, that we should ban school sports because of the actions of these athletes, and I won’t make that argument either. It’s ridiculous to take a few isolated incidents as any indication of a broader problem.

In short, then, I just want to suggest that what media researchers call “aggression” may deserve a more accurate label. My interpretation – “aggression” as actually a measurement of “backbone,” to use a crude term – is only one way of interpreting the results of this research. After all, social science is known as a “soft science” for a reason, and the broad interpretability of such results gives a clue as to why. I’d be interested in hearing other suggested interpretations of media violence research and measurements of aggression, and I am considering expanding this argument into a full paper, so I welcome your comments below or by email (jason [at]

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Footnote: I only referred to catharsis research offhand, and it kind of deserves more attention. This is the theory that media violence helps people to get real violence “out of their system.” There is some evidence of this, but it’s comparatively infrequent and just as (if not more) weakly conceptualized as the research that says media violence does cause “aggression.”

One field experiment in particular, however, bears particular mention, though I can’t recall all the details offhand. The long and the short of it is that some group of boys who might be more prone to violence due to other factors (at a camp for delinquent kids or a wayward boys’ house or something) was split into two groups: One group was disallowed from watching violent TV, and the other group was allowed to watch whatever they wanted. The latter group was less violent, and the researcher interpreted this as evidence for the cathartic function of violence.

The problems with this conclusion are that we don’t know how much actual violence the kids chose to watch, and we don’t know whether the effect was “violent TV lessened violent action” or “not getting to choose TV programming increased violent action.”

While the latter explanation definitely calls the catharsis theory into question, it kind of also calls all experimental research into question, as subjects don’t get to pick what they watch. Despite all the theorizing going on in other areas of communication research about viewers’ potential ability to “decode” media and the “uses and gratifications” of various media, one thing missing from almost all experimental research in the social sciences is the element of viewer choice. Rather than move on to new kinds of research, however—perhaps studying how greater freedom of choice affects media consumption habits, which might have implications not only for effects research but also media industry regulation policy—communication researchers have remained pretty insistent on looking for the problems they have long expected to find.

I must say I take issue with one comment on the second article you linked. Grossman claims the FPSs trained the kid to take one shot at each target, use both hands on the gun, and stand still while taking the shot. Maybe I’m wrong but I thought FPSs train you to pick the rocket launcher and be careful it doesn’t bounce, how many hands you use is irrelevant since you just hit Y to change weapons, and you really want to strafe while firing so you don’t get fragged in return by your target.

But yes, you are definitely right that there is a disconnect between what the researchers call aggression and real-world violence. What needs to be studied is the incidence of violent crimes in the general population as compared to that of video-game players. Unfortunately, that is not an easy statistic to get ahold of. Perhaps one could instead compare violence now to violence in the past, controlling for factors such as economy, gun control, race, education…

I know that citing a comedian is crappy, but the guys a genius so I’ll continue. Lewis Black, in Nothing’s Sacred, makes a good point. In the 50’s, kids ran around playing cowboys and indians, or pretending to kill communists, playing with toy guns, and yet the number of teenagers that pulled a Columbine-like stunt was zero, if not really close to it. Today, kids play with video games that have guns, but much less the toy variety, but the difference is not the technology, its this: The parents are too fucking stupid to notice the arsenal of real weapons and bomb making material sitting in their garage. Maybe, if they sat down with their kids to a meal, and said “hey, gothic kid, how was your day?” and they said “well mom, i wouldn’t light a match near the garage, because it might create a crater the size of Kentucky,” then they might have a clue. The problem is not guns. The problem is parents have to be parents and stop being cool. Ours weren’t trying to be our buddies, and we didn’t blow shit up or shoot anyone (I don’t think). Video games are just the easiest excuse. Its like fat people suing McDonalds for making them fat.

Also, there is the consideration that sitting at home alone playing counterstrike (not the social atmosphere like the tap floor) allows kids to become dissociated from the peers they want to blow up. Whether or not your an outcast, finding some group to socialize with, or at least being NEAR people makes it less easy to kill them.

Actually, in my experience, being near people makes it much easier to kill them. I mean, otherwise you have to get in your car, or on a plane, and really, it’s a lot of effort. Not to mention, nothing puts me in a killing frenzy like being killed repeatedly at FPSs by the smarmy gits down the hall. Maybe that’s just me though…

I think you just made my point for me :)

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