We’re going to talk about what 50 Shades of Grey and Batman: Arkham Whatever have in common, but first let me tell you something about myself that I’m not very proud of: When I see a news story about some guy who shot a store clerk and made off with fifty stupid dollars, or a teacher who molested students, or a cop that used his power to abuse someone and then cover up his crime, I always think, “Man, I’d like to have a baseball bat and ten minutes alone with that asshole!”
I’ll bet right now you’re reacting one of two ways. “Oh Shamus, how barbaric! I thought you were a nice guy!” and “Of course you do, everyone feels like that when they hear these stories.” The thing is, I fully recognize this is a brutish and borderline atavistic response to criminality. It’s not even rational. It would be barbaric (and unjust) to beat up unconvicted criminals. More importantly, I’m a middle-aged asthmatic and if I did end up in a room with a criminal, I’m probably going to be on the receiving end of the beating, not the other way around.
So this desire to punch criminals in the face is silly, irrational, and useless. And I know this. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling that little surge of anger when I hear about cruelty and injustice. This is why I love Batman so much. It really does soothe this agitation for me. I can’t do anything to stop the criminals of the world, but I can take out my frustrations on these virtual thugs and make myself feel better so I can put my mind back on useful tasks.
I’m sure the Jack Thompsons of the world would say something like, “This game promotes vigilantism, pugilism, and bad cosplay. It sends a dangerous message to people that they should take the law into their own hands.” I really hate these “this sends a dangerous message” arguments, because they’re based on the worst sort of sanctimonious arrogance: I can see this game for what it is, but those dumb peasants out there will probably mistake it for advice from their Life Coach and mindlessly enact whatever they see on screen. The moral scold making this argument seems to think that the rest of the world is too stupid to be entrusted with complex messages, moral ambiguity, or things designed to offer cathartic release. It’s also the reason these arguments are always so heated, even if the critic isn’t calling for banning something. The kernel of the argument is condescending by nature, which is why you see the “Lighten up, it’s just a game!” defense so often.
Yes, I know this argument is old and tired to anyone who has spent more than ten minutes as part of gaming culture, but I wanted to point out this isn’t the only place it happens. Which brings us to 50 Shades.
Disclosure: I haven’t read the books or watched the movie, and I’m never going to. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than salacious content aimed at other people. But based on its critics I get the basic idea: A reader-insert blank-slate character enters into a BDSM relationship with a handsome billionaire. He’s possessive, powerful, and he doesn’t stop when she says stop. That’s not how BDSM is supposed to work, and from a real-world perspective their relationship would probably be called abusive, controlling, unhealthy, or degrading.
Critics say the book “promotes unhealthy relationships”, which sounds a lot like people claiming a game will teach players to murder people. Portraying something is not the same as promoting something. More importantly, this argument presumes the audience is just a bunch of dumb cattle.
The thing is, I’m willing to bet that most of the women who are into 50 Shades know full well that it would be foolish and dangerous to be in a relationship like this in the real world. The thing is, they kind of get off on the idea anyway. Maybe she likes the idea of actually losing control. Maybe she likes the idea of having a powerful man obsess over her, or maybe she’s attracted to the danger itself. Whatever. She wants something that’s bad for her. I want to dislocate the shoulders of street thugs, even though that’s a really bad for me. We don’t consume this media because we think it’s showing us how to act, we consume it because we know this isn’t a good way to act, but we want to anyway.
We’re super-smart humans living in a technological wonderland of abundant food, little disease and (historically) little violence. But we’re also primates who have spent millions of years killing and screwing to stave off extinction, and you don’t negate those primitive drives just because you own an iPhone and an espresso machine.
It’s the old cultural tug-of-war: On one hand the puritans are telling you to deny your base desires, and that simply having those desires makes you a Bad Person. Repress them, hide them, deny them, and apologize for thinking about them. On the other extreme are the hedonists, telling you to do whatever you like, as if we lived in a world without consequences. But videogames (and books, and movies, and probably all art) give us a balance between these two extremes. It’s a way to keep that inner primate entertained so you can avoid both frustration and destructive behaviors. It’s a lightning rod for our vices.
I’ll go so far as to say that consuming cathartic media isn’t just healthy, in some cases it can be an enlightened thing to do. It’s recognition of our desires and an effort to sate them in non-harmful ways.
This is not to say that all media is bad for you, or that there’s no such thing as bad art. Or that we shouldn’t criticize the message of art. But we could probably stand to be less judgemental of the audience and allow for the fact that we all have our own hangups and our own ways of coping with them.