Katie Couric and the Problem of Violence
Katie Couric recently aired a special about the problems of video game violence. I won’t link it here, but you can find it online if you look. In it, she called for gamers to defend violent video games. I won’t take part in that strategy here, but I do have some thoughts that I think are generally missing from these types of discussions.
In striving to link violent behavior and violent video games, the news media itself is guilty of failing to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Yes, I will freely admit that games are part of the culture of violence in America. I will even admit that games can have a negative impact on impressionable minds. What I can’t accept is that games are a primary cause of violence in our society or a direct cause of violent action. Games, like all cultural expressions, reflect the society that creates them, and Couric seems too sure in assigning the roles of cause and effect in this equation in black and white terms.
The very title of the piece, “Are Video Games Ruining Your Life?” might mislead you to that point. Rather than being an exploration of whether or not games are responsible for our problems, the show seems to focus instead on the “proven” evil of games. The funny thing is, most of the root causes of dysfunction – things like mental depression, addictive personality, poor parenting, etc. – are all present in the piece, yet video games always seem to be a convenient common cause. To me, it seems more likely that games are an outlet in which those other flaws are made more manifest. (It’s like the oversimplification that couples fight most about money, when what they’re really fighting about is control and priorities; money’s just the most convenient and direct expression of that tension.)
Given that many people play video games, there’s an inevitable and natural intersection of gamers and the horrible things that people do to each other. But that’s no more scientific than saying most murderers listen to music or watch television. Even looking at the story on Couric’s website, she mentions that many of the villains in this story are “said to be obsessive video game users.” Note the language there. First, there’s the “said to.” Given society’s apparent stakes in this debate, journalists like Couric should close the gap on that “said to.” Furthermore, the idea of gamers as “users” seems inherently slanted to create a biased impression. At one point in the show, an expert makes this explicit by equating games with alcohol and cigarettes.
If the criteria for declaring games are evil are merely that they increase arousal and expose us to violence, then there are numerous sports that we can also easily blame. If the criteria also include being designed to encourage the addictive behavior mentioned by Couric’s guests, we can easily throw in the processed food industry as well. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing that games don’t increase arousal or expose us to violence or that they’re not designed to reward addictive behavior. I’m just not persuaded that those factors alone prove they are a direct cause of violent behavior.
As a parent, I sympathize with those who are worried about the safety and mental well-being of their children. We shouldn’t assume that when a child becomes depressed or starts performing poorly in school that games are a cause, at least, not without first asking if there are other, more fundamental problems. My older child is only seven and I can already tell you that mood swings are par for the course, even among my friends who don’t let their children play games.
This debate is, as I’ve said before, part of the great culture war. Not the one FOX News seems intent on promoting, but the ongoing war between generations striving to understand one another. First we blamed ragtime, then we blamed novels, then we blamed movies, then we blamed comic books, then we blamed rock and roll, then we blamed television, then we blamed… well, you get the idea. Video games are just the latest in a long line of maligned cultural expressions, which are tied to the emergence of a new technology and often aimed at a youthful generation coming of age. History repeats itself as the New Thing so alienates the older generation that it instantly becomes the assumed cause of all of the younger generation’s crimes.
Of course that conversation is not nearly as compelling as replaying 911 calls and zooming in on the scarred faces of the victims of one of mankind’s first and oldest sins.
One final note for Katie Couric and the other members of the media striving towards a responsible reaction to the violence in our society: Stop mentioning the names of the people who commit these atrocities. Every time you say the name or show the face of these deranged murderers, every time you make them part of a branded graphics package that runs hour after hour on the national news, every time you strive to explore and expose every detail of their inner lives, you’re creating a pattern of publicity that draws in the next perpetrator and contributes to their ultimate payoff.
Stop saying their names. Let them fade into nothingness, which is all they deserve.
Steve Butts is the Editor-in-Chief of IGN. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveButts and on IGN at stevebutts.
By Steve Butts