The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Media Violence, Grand Theft Auto IV, and the Fate of A Nation

Is Grand Theft Auto IV foretelling the end of culture?

 

homer with gun

I was watching the "small," delightful Oscar-winning, movie, Juno, last night. Screenwriter, Diablo Cody, has a marvelous ear for how many of us would like our young, often mistake-prone people to talk and think: Snarky but smart, sometimes even wise, when the circumstances call for it; informed, reflective and tender when it's safe to be non-defensive.

But one scene stuck out with me in my chosen career as a media psychologist (few people with whom I spoke even remember the scene). It's where the 16 year old Juno, (played by the addictive Ellen Page) is watching a gore-fest, slasher video with Mark, the potential adoptive male parent of Juno's unborn child. Mark, a thirty-something successful commercial music composer, played by Justin Bateman, enjoys the effects conjured up by creative teams in these violence-saturated movies as much as Juno. They're of different generations but of many of the same appetites.

Most interesting is that there is nothing even remotely taken serious by Juno and Mark about the violence in these films. To the contrary, they are unabashed gore aficionados who take gleeful, near-aesthetic joy in watching the technical artistry arrayed in destroying bodies, rending flesh and conjuring blood flows, all the while comparing onscreen effects with what they have seen before in movies. Can sane, non-violent people really enjoy this screen carnage?

As a viewer, one can recoil at the couple's insensitivity and the presumptive insensitivity of the writer, the director and "effects" designer of the film; and, of course, Fox Searchlight Films for releasing this movie.

Or, one can acknowledge the fact that the movie portrays a sentiment that is pervasive today and perhaps since our ancestors became bipedal: Violence can be entertainment, violence can be fun and human suffering can be a source for amusement. Were it not so, clearly this form of entertainment would have died a horrible death of neglect. But from the time of Sophocles and Shakespeare to Toby Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, from Mesopotamian mythology's Gilgamesh to Kill Bill's martial arts master, The Bride, violence, both evil and heroic, sells like toy guillotines at an 18th century Paris execution.

Which brings me to the videogame superstar, Grand Theft Auto IV. I've been putting off a blog on it because, to be perfectly frank, I'm tired of it. I'm tired oftalking about its fantasy society of violence, its world of Id and, more generally, the evergreen controversy of media portrayed violence and its putative impact on violence in real society.

But here I am. I've read reviews of the game in publications as diversely respectable as the New York Times and Daily Variety. Curiously, the focus of commentary was praise of GTA IV's technology, narrative breadth and complexity, graphic wizardry and the likely gazillion-dollar profit for its publisher. But nary a word about its culture of violence. Nary a word.

In a parallel universe, but just as curious, I've never heard a psychologist or serious-minded media critics discuss the game without launching a spittle-rich rant on the obscenity of the game and its cousins, all promoting murder, rape, torture, cop killing, etc., etc., etc.

Why the disconnect between universes? Much, I think, has to do with issue framing. Psychologists are socialized to focus on the problems of society. Game developers focus on profit, young people focus on pleasure and arousal, and both focus on the spectacular explosion of graphic designs that knock your sox off and approximate the look of reality, whether in criminal videogames or NBA sport dream team contests. Reviewers generally take these games on these terms, not the terms framing the psychologist's purview.

Both perspectives can use a little tempering and sensitization.

I delivered an invited address at the American Psychological Association (APA) some years back regarding our profession's exaggerated warnings about media portrayed violence. Subsequently, in one of the rousing media effects debates we often have on the forum site of Division 46, the Media Psychology division of APA, I argued that, especially with regard to normally non-violent, non-personality disordered viewers and players, there is still no convincing evidence that watching TV, film, or videogame violence causes the aggressiveness or physiological and psychological alternations in brain and behavior that APA and its media violence true believers assert there is.

The (yes, self-serving, as so much is in the public arena) belief that people can play these games without becoming serial murderers is what, I suppose, let's filmmakers, videogame producers, reviewer and players offer these sources of entertainment that are so appealing to the youth of the world. I've read comments on many script writer forums over the years and it is surprising how savvy these writers are about the research on media's contribution to real world violence and, effectively, how dismissive they are of the research and (their words, not mine) it's "overdrawn," "overblown" conclusions.

A number of psychologists agree with these reservations about media effects. One of the discussants on our forum is psychologist Lawrence Kutner. He and public health researcher, Cheryl Olson, both from Harvard, co-authored a recent book discussing their research on violent video games and their impact on players. One of their main conclusions is that policy recommendations by APA, the AMA, clergy, politicians and other professional groups regarding alleged violence-inducing media effects go well beyond the data and often rely on questionable research. In other words, the glove doesn't fit so, for the moment, we must acquit the media as a major player in causing major or minor violence in society.

(For a cheeky but illuminating and panoramic review of the subject of media and violence, I recommend the book, Media Violence and Aggression: Science and Ideology. A review of it can be found in the Journal of Media Psychology.)

Extreme arguments about how easy and predictable media violence causes viewer violence has lessened over the years, as seen in the work of scholars like Douglas Gentile and his colleagues. Unfortunately, other respected psychologists such as Rowell Huesmann offer reckless fantasy metrics when they argue before congress that "Just as every cigarette increases the chance that someday you will get lung cancer, every exposure to [media] violence increases the chances that someday someone will behave more violently than they otherwise would." Overwrought pronouncements such as these ring like proclamations from pulpits of ideological or faith based science.

Here's the crux of the issue for me: If academics cannot do the research that properly addresses the issue of real life violence with research designs that display some scintilla of external validity (i.e., results truly apply to the real world and not just to the world of experiments and lab simulations), then the advocates of the media-causes-violence-and-that's-the-truth position should cease and desist from stating that the evidence is in and the case is closed? It isn't, not by a long shot. To continue to do otherwise, however well intended, seems uncomfortably similar to Dick Cheney telling us the evidence is beyond dispute regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, let me disclose that I am personally offended by the movies enjoyed by Juno and Mark and by the popularity of GTA IV, with its mesmerizing, high tech appeal grafted to messages that it's really cool to kill, maim, and rape. For me it's not a question of political correctness, it's a question of human correctness. I'm offended for myself and for my culture. However, my sensibilities are one thing (and I find many things about our culture offensive, including its materialism and self-justifying abuse of the planet), advocating censorship of art and entertainment based on questionable science or using such science as a cover for what is moral or religious sensibilities, is quite another.

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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