A Primer on the Psychology of Violent Entertainment
by Izzy Kalman (September 2006)
On August 1st, my wife and I were invited by Rockstar Games to a private screening of something very few people have laid their eyes on: the soon-to-be-released video game, “Bully.” What was my gut reaction? I would love to be the first person to buy it! And I don’t play video games. I hope “Bully” becomes the most popular video game in history, for it has the potential of undoing the epidemic of bullyphobia that has ensnared the western world since the Columbine massacre.
I have little personal experience with video games because I am too old to have grown up with them. They emerged when I was in my twenties. I played a little with the simplistic ping-pong Atari games and Pac Man. Yes; they were fun, but not enough to make playing a habit. Later in my life I played some Super Mario Brothers and some martial arts games with my kids. These games were certainly more complex and visually rich, as well as good enhancers of eye-hand coordination, but still not my idea of fun.
The latest breed of video games is a world apart. They are not only about overcoming obstacles and demolishing enemies; they have life-like characters with personalities, clever dialogue, and complex story lines. These incredible games are made possible by the exponential growth in computing power and the millions of dollars the game companies invest in developing them. They involve more brain functions than previous games, and enhance not only coordination and planning but social skills as well.
In case you are not aware of it, “Bully” is the most controversial video game in history. Many child welfare advocates, based on mere rumors, are waging war against “Bully,” desperately trying to prevent its release and distribution. They are convinced that violent entertainment causes violence in real life, and terrified that this game in particular will turn our schools into Columbines.
I know that my review of “Bully” will earn me the condemnation of many of my fellow professionals. However, this will not be the first time I have come under attack for my views relating to bullying. I must, nevertheless, express what I believe is the truth.
Can Social Scientists be Biased?
There is a monolithic orthodoxy in the world of social science that believes beyond the shadow of a doubt that violent entertainment increases violence in real life, and that video games do so even more powerfully than simple viewing. Hundreds of scientific studies have supposedly “proven” this “fact”. Meanwhile, government statistics indicate a steady decrease in violence in society, including among children, over the same period that violence in entertainment – including video games — has been increasing! If violent entertainment causes violence in real life, shouldn’t the violence statistics be going up rather than down?
The “experts” of course have answers for such questions. They will tell you that other social forces have been simultaneously reducing violence; that government statistics are misleading; that better medical care has been reducing deaths from violence so they don’t become part of the statistics.
Though we often hear about the “epidemic of violence in society,” there is no such epidemic. Our society has become remarkably free of real life violence. Is it reasonable to be terrified that our own children’s schools will become Columbines? There are about 60,000 intermediate and high schools (the locations of all school shootings thus far) in the United States. Assuming two random school shootings per year, a child has to go to school an average of 30,000 years just to be present in a school during a random school shooting, not to mention actually being hit by a bullet!
No, there is no epidemic of violence in our country or our schools. What we do have is an epidemic of violence in the news. Every school shooting gets repeatedly plastered on every newspaper and every TV set in every home, so it seems like the violence is all over the place. Humanity has been horribly violent throughout history, with the most horrific violence having occurred before television and video games existed. It would make much more sense to do scientific research to explain how violent entertainment reduces violence in real life, for that would be more in accordance with observed reality.
Still, is it possible that all the experts are wrong? Can an entire scientific discipline be biased?
I’ll answer this question with a question. Do you know how much psychologists learn about the psychology of entertainment — about the function that entertainment plays in human life? The answer: “Nothing!” Absolutely nothing! Even though the average person spends, or would love to spend, hours a day being entertained, and entertainment has been part of the life of our ancestors from the beginning of the species, the experts in human behavior learn nothing about it. Entertainment is considered one of those minor parts of human life not deserving of serious study. The one and only thing the experts are likely to have learned about entertainment is that violent entertainment causes violence in real life. This is one thing you can be absolutely certain they were taught.
Do our experts in human behavior avoid entertainment? Of course not. They, like the rest of us, would certainly be miserable if entertainment were to disappear from life. Well, what do you think they watch — people being nice to each other? That’s boring! There actually is one kind of entertainment in which everyone is making each other feel good. The problem is, it’s X-rated! Virtually all entertainment is full of violence. Sports, news, history, emergency room, crime investigation, police action, courtroom, adventure, science fiction, war – most of it is replete with violence. Comedy, too, is violent, either verbally or physically, though few people seem to realize it. One of the most violent TV shows is America’s Funniest Home Videos. Pay attention. In many of these video clips people are really getting hurt – and we laugh! Most of us like stories with happy endings. But only the endings are happy. The rest is misery! If our experts would like us to get rid of violent entertainment, let them be the first to throw out their TVs!
Scientists are supposed to be objective about their subject matter. Is it scientific to take a universal human activity and decide, “This is bad; let’s get rid of it”? The way Mother Nature works is that when we do something biologically good for us, we experience pleasure. When we do something biologically bad for us we have pain or displeasure. Yes, there may be negative effects of violent entertainment, but if it gives most people pleasure, it must have benefits, too. Have you heard of any research about the benefits of violent entertainment? I haven’t. Would any government agency fund such research? Would any serious journal publish it? The only thing the researchers set out to prove is how it harms people, so that’s the only result they can possibly find.
In the last week of July, I attended an international conference on research on aggression. There was a series of presentations by researchers who tried to prove that violent entertainment causes violence in real life. Not one researcher took an alternative view. Whenever results of an experiment failed to support the researcher’s hypothesis, or negated the hypothesis, they were simply dismissed as failing to prove the hypothesis that violent entertainment causes violence in real life. The hypothesis remained unshaken.
One experimenter had college students play two video games, one violent, the other nonviolent. The violent one was “House of the Dead 2,” which involves killing grotesque zombies. The other game was a downhill skiing game (skiing is a very safe activity, you know). The researcher said he was perplexed that the college students found the zombie game funnier than the skiing game. Really! Doesn’t skiing just give us belly laughs? Isn’t skiing more humorous than zombies? The researcher’s puzzlement came from the fact that humor is another subject about which psychologists learn nothing. They believe that humor is positive and uplifting. They don’t realize that humor is negative and down-putting!
Another experimenter had kids view entertainment depicting “relational aggression.” She mentioned as an aside that “the entertainment had ten times more relational aggression than kids experience in real life.” She did not interpret this or give it any meaning. Didn’t anyone realize that this means children are only one tenth as relationally aggressive in real life as they are portrayed in entertainment? My wife, who attended the conference with me, caught this. But, then again, she never had any academic training in psychology.
The simple truth is that social scientists with no understanding of the psychology of entertainment have made it their business to regulate our entertainment.
Our child welfare experts are afraid that a game called “Bully” is going to have a powerful, real-life impact on kids. Don’t they realize that the words of real-life authority figures influence people’s behavior infinitely more than the characters in fictional entertainment? Mental health professionals have for years been proselytizing children with “anti-bully” lessons that demonize kids as “bullies” and promote intolerance of anyone who makes them feel bad. They aren’t worried that their anti-bully lessons are going to encourage kids to do to their bullies what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebald did to theirs, but they are worried about the effects of a fictional game called “Bully”?
Having made so little progress in reducing the true challenges to child welfare, such as divorce and failing schools, our child welfare advocates have nothing better to do than to wage a crusade against the entertainment industry as though it were the number one danger to our children.
A Brief Evolutionary-Psychological History of Violent Entertainment
Let’s look at entertainment scientifically. Then we’ll be in a better position to understand violent video games.
Human beings posses an ability we believe is far more developed than in any other species: imagination. We are not content just observing reality. Imagination frees us up to endless possibilities. Imagination helps us solve problems, understand others and escape from the momentary misery of real life. It also helps us learn from the painful experiences of others without putting ourselves in real danger. Since entertainment provides us with a strong positive biological advantage, it gives us great pleasure.
Before I continue, let me ask you two questions. Would you rather live a safe life or a dangerous one? Chances are you would choose “safe.” Question number two: Would you rather live a boring life or an exciting one? You probably answered, “exciting.” Guess what? They’re incompatible. Safety is not exciting. Danger is!
Long ago, before we lived in the safety of Civilization, we lived out in Nature just like all the other creatures. Life was a daily adventure. And it was the most dangerous life in the history of our species. To eat, we had to hunt wild animals that didn’t want to be hunted. We had to fight off animals that wanted to eat us for dinner. We had to fight off enemy tribes. We often faced thirst and hunger. Our women could easily die in childbirth. There were no hospitals to treat the sick and wounded. Our parents could go out to search for food and never come back, and we would never know what happened to them. We constantly faced life and death challenges, and when we won, it felt fantastic.
Most mammals, including humans, engage in play. Play helps children learn the skills they need to succeed in life; in fact, playing is “school” in nature. Most mammal children, including humans, engage in playfighting. They do it because they have to develop the strength, agility, speed, coordination, and fighting skills necessary for hunting and fighting off enemies. Since it is essential for survival, Mother Nature rewards it with great pleasure. In many species, such as humans, males have a stronger genetic programming for playfighting than females because the adult male of the species played a greater role in hunting and warring than did females. Playfighting is the single most enjoyable activity children can engage in. When they playfight, they are not trying to hurt each other. In fact, they are trying to avoid hurting each other. Playfighting solidifies relationships between children because of the pleasure and physical contact they have with one another. It could be said that playfighting is as fun for children as sex is for adults.
Humans are more intelligent than other species, and because of their abstract thinking and imagination, our ancestors were able to create a more sophisticated repertoire of games than simple playfighting. They developed various martial arts like wrestling, karate and boxing that involve direct fighting but have much stricter rules than playfighting. Despite the rules, these activities are painful and dangerous, and can lead to injury and death. When we lived out in Nature, these were common activities. As we left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became civilized, life became safer. It was no longer necessary to be constant hunters and warriors, so most of us traded the pain of engaging in fighting sports with the safer activity of voyeurism. It’s much healthier to pay professionals to clobber each other for our viewing pleasure than to do it ourselves. Watching skilled fighters duke it out has always been one of the most exciting activities for humans, especially males.
Our ancestors created games with a higher level of abstraction. Team sports like football, soccer, basketball, and hockey have people combating each other, but over control of a ball or a puck. Though such games are safer than direct physical fighting games, they are still a lot more dangerous than sitting in front of a TV.
Games of an even higher level of abstraction did away with strenuous physical activity altogether and replaced it with purely intellectual activity. You conduct warfare and “kill off” representations of people in games like chess and checkers, but no one gets physically injured. Player’s egos may get hurt, but not their bodies. To make the games more exciting, money wagers can be added so that there are real stakes in winning and losing.
The technological advances of the 20th century have brought an explosion in entertainment. With radio, movie theaters, and TV, and it has become very easy to gain access to simulated violence. Furthermore, entertainment technology is constantly increasing its ability to simulate violence realistically. We can spend all our time enjoying the most incredibly exciting violence, and the wonderful thing is that no one is getting hurt!
The highest level of simulated violence has come with the invention of computerized video games. You are no longer a voyeur but part of the action. You can now experience the adrenaline rush of extreme violence, danger, and competition without the risk of harming anyone! This is the highest level of entertainment mankind has ever known.
Humans have a strong genetic programming for dangerous and violent entertainment and play activities, but we also want safety and we lobby for laws protecting us from harm. Unfortunately, safety is not fun. Safety is boring, and the safer life becomes, the more boring it becomes. Fortunately, violent entertainment and video games replace the excitement of which our safe society deprives us.
Columbine: the Major Turning Point
On April 20, 1999, something happened that made society panic. Two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebald, both victims of teasing and bullying by their peers, committed the most horrific act ever perpetrated by students on school grounds. There had been a couple of horrible incidents in U.S. schools every year for a number of years, but with Columbine, we had had enough. Such incidents needed to be prevented at all costs. Our social scientists determined that two primary culprits were to blame for Columbine and the (imaginary) epidemic of violence in schools: 1) bullies, and 2) violent video games. Unfortunately, our social scientists were wrong on both counts. It is not bullies, but people who feel like victims, that commit the most violent acts in the world. Though violent video games may be a factor for some kids who commit school shootings, these games are never the reason a kid shoots up his school.
Society reacted with panic to Columbine, and when people panic, logic can disappear. Our experts believe that to prevent future Columbines, we have to get rid of all semblances of violence. If our children don’t see or participate in violent entertainment, the experts believe, then children are less likely to engage in violence in real life.
A consequence is that we are depriving our children of the fun they are biologically programmed to crave. When I was a boy, my friends and I regularly engaged in playfighting. It was great fun. Playfighting was also a common activity during recess in school, and I don’t remember any school staff becoming overly concerned about it. In those days, real life violence was also much more prevalent than today, despite the experts who rail about the escalating violence in society. My friends and I would sometimes get into fights with neighborhood toughs, and a few times I got beat up quite severely because I was identifiably Jewish. However, these incidents added to the excitement of life. I discovered that life is not always pleasant, but bruises heal. My friends and I did not acquire Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we all grew up being responsible, non-violent adults.
Today, though, it is rare to see children playfighting in “civilized society.” Parents who let their children playfight risk being accused of child abuse. Shortly after the Columbine shooting, my local teacher’s newspaper printed a letter by a teacher who was horrified by two kids playfighting in school, warning that this could lead to another Columbine. Good old hysteria at work!
Fortunately, children today can experience the pleasure of violence through entertainment and video games that don’t cause direct harm to anyone. Unfortunately, because of the Columbine hysteria, we want to deprive our children of these pleasures, too! No violence at all, not even simulated! Sorry kids – you can only have “nice” entertainment, so we can have a maximally safe life. A maximally boring life as well.
It is as easy to get rid of the drive for aggression as it is to get rid of the drive for sex. You can’t just make it go away. It will rear its head in other, less controllable ways. Our experts wonder why there is an epidemic of piercing, self-cutting, tattoos, and various types of self-mutilation among our youth today. Well, what do you expect? In our drive to create a completely safe society for our children, we have made it illegal for them to “bully” each other, which means engaging in any activity that can upset anyone in any manner. They are only allowed to be “nice” to each other or we punish them. Thus, we are trying to deprive our children of the excitement and drama of life. They aren’t allowed to experience the aggression that can toughen them up, make the adrenalin rush, and prepare them for the real challenges of life, like being bullied by spouses, children, bosses and coworkers. They are becoming bored to death. So instead they get their dose of excitement by hurting themselves. It’s as though they are declaring, “You can stop me from hurting others, but you are not my boss. You can’t stop me from hurting myself. It is in my control. I am tough. I am courageous. I can cut myself and pierce myself. And you know what? I can feel the pain of life, and I can handle it!”
What is the Game “Bully” About?
Now, getting back to the video game, “Bully.” Many child welfare advocates, without ever having seen the game, believe it is the most violent video game ever. This is nonsense. There is no shooting or blood in this game. No one gets killed or permanently injured.
One of the nice things about “Bully” is that it takes place in a world that children experience and can relate to: school. But of course that’s where the similarity ends. The school in the game, “Bullworth Academy,” is the toughest school in the country. It accepts kids no other schools are willing to handle. But the truth is that no school in the country, no matter how bad, is anywhere nearly as bad as Bullworth. It is merely a caricature.
Bullworth Academy, though, does resemble something. It looks like the world of school as depicted in books written by our hysteria-mongering “bullying experts,” such as Prof. Dan Olweus, Barbara Coloroso, Frank Peretti, and Jodee Blanco, who each try to outdo each other in passionate literary descriptions of the horrors of being victimized by these demons called “bullies” that have attacked 77% (a commonly bandied-about figure) of school students. Yes, Bullworth looks like the hysterical world portrayed by our anti-bully crusaders, but the likely response of any child playing this game is, “Thank God my school isn’t like that!”
Our anti-bully crusaders have conditioned us to respond with fear and loathing to the very sight and sound of the word “bully.” Hopefully, this game, by associating “bully” with a fun game, will take away some of the terror and hatred conjured up by this word.
When you play, you are controlling the hero, a boy named Jimmy. He is of average size and looks like white trash. He is deposited in Bullworth Academy by his narcissistic mother and stepfather. But you know who Jimmy really is? Lucas “Luke” Jackson, of Cool Hand Luke (the great 1967 movie starring Paul Newman) – as an adolescent!
Luke is really a Jesus figure, a misunderstood virtuous man who gets blamed for something he didn’t do and dies for our naiveté. Jimmy, like Luke, doesn’t look like Jesus, but Jesus probably didn’t, either.
Jimmy is street smart, he is moral if a bit smart-alecky, he is non-judgmental, and he is, above all, brave. You may not have thought of it, but courage is the single most admired human character trait. Courage is what turns a person into a hero. Like Luke, Jimmy takes on bigger opponents without fear. And perhaps even more importantly, without anger and hatred. Jimmy is not a mature man yet; he still has a lot to learn about life, and Bullworth Academy, the school of real hard knocks, is an excellent teacher. You get rewarded for helping people and punished by having to mow the lawn, for example, for hurting them (with the exception of bullies). The clever dialogue, embedded in the characters by the game’s first-rate writers, help Jimmy learn social realities. And, of course, there is the simple fun of fighting and chasing as Jimmy tries to accomplish his missions.
Best of all, “Bully” is funny! Even my wife, who is not a great fan of violent entertainment (she was crying and screaming from pain when watching The Passion of the Christ), was laughing her head off during our screening of “Bully.” The characters and dialogue are truly funny and sometimes downright hilarious. Parents will enjoy playing this game at least as much as the children. Kids can also have the illicit fun of beating up teachers in the game, though they get penalized for doing so.
“Bully” is not designed for teaching kids how to deal with real life bullying (I would love to be able to design a video game that teaches my rules), as it is simply meant as entertainment. I am also not thrilled that it promotes the stereotypes about bullies. This, however, is not their fault. The game, though, may have some benefits for kids beyond developing their visual motor coordination and planning skills. At the least, kids who feel victimized in real life can have the fun of defeating bullies in fantasy. The game should help free up kids’ sense of humor, as they laugh both at themselves and their bullies and learn not to take life so seriously. By “being” Jimmy, the player may over time internalize the traits of courage, resilience and benevolence, and pick up some of the characters’ clever and cool verbal responses. (Of course, kids may also want to try out some real-life aggression, God forbid. If you’re worried about this, then don’t let your kids play sports. My surveys show that your child is thirty times more likely to be hospitalized because of a sports injury than from a fight with another kid in school).
And, most certainly of all, “Bully” is a wonderful antidote to the bullyphobia instilled in the public by well-intentioned teachers, principals, and counselors, and the news media, which just love to broadcast the most sensational acts of bullying they can find.
So, do your kids, yourselves, your families, and society a favor. Put “Bully” at the top of your shopping list for Christmas, Chanukah, Qanzaa, Valentine’s Day, Birth Day, or Any Day. And no, this is not a paid advertisement. And no, I don’t own stock in Rockstar Video (yet).