One has to start from the position that people are generally good. Good to themselves and good to others.

And yet, there are times when otherwise respectable individuals feel the urge to do something terrible. How many of us have felt the urge to beat the hell out of our boss at work? How many of us have gotten into a heated argument with a friend and just wanted to strangle him? Thankfully, aside from some unfortunate incidents, we don’t. We try to live with the acerbic supervisor and make up with our friends.

Yet, our need for violence in our lives is undeniable. Though perhaps not embodied physically, violence in popular entertainment has been with us since time immemorial. Cave paintings depict men on the hunt for buffalo and other animals, spears in hand. Grecian urns show acts both sexual and violent. Shakespeare’s plays were almost always filled with depraved human beings, betrayal, suicide and murder.

Why do these themes haunt us, and how does this impact our current culture?

The Man with the Briefcase
Jack Thompson, a practicing attorney in Miami, has become the most polemic figure in gaming, second to none in terms of his influence and reach, not to mention his mouth. Famous today for his work in trying to wipe out violent gaming and link it to every kind of act of depravity and desperation, no matter how tenuously, his original claim to fame was handing former Attorney General Janet Reno a note asking if she was homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual.

Thompson has argued, both in court and through the media, that violence in gaming leads directly to violence in the real world. In other words, gaming is bad. And, as we all know, anything that’s bad can be spun by politicians to their advantage, almost always in service of protecting the children. The politicking of gaming has become so divisive that a website devoted entirely to the topic, gamepolitics.com, has exploded in popularity since it started in 2005.

The Terror Connection
In mid-September, the Global Islamic Media Front, which describes itself as a “jihadist mouthpiece,” released a game entitled Night of Bush Capturing. The game, which is a first-person shooter, has six levels of combat, each one displaying firefights with American troops on a U.S. encampment. Jihadist songs loop in the background as the player fires his way through each level. The game’s concluding battle is with a character representing President Bush. The site proclaims the game is distributed for “terrorist children.”

Suffice to say, this was not a good time for such a game to debut. Games, especially first-person shooters, are under more scrutiny now than ever before. This would almost seem to prove the point that violent games are used to train and influence young people. In a converse game, the army’s official FPS, America’s Army, ranks players on their marksmanship, with levels going from “Unqualified” and “Marksman” to “Sharpshooters” and “Experts.”

Reaction to the former game has been mixed, with some giving it a pass as being typical terrorist promotional BS, and others having stronger, more visceral responses. On the popular conservative blog The Jawa Report, commenter “Leatherneck” wrote: “I have a little game I play called, How Many Moon God Worshippers Will Die During Ramadingdong.”

Media violence and its effect raise many troubling issues. For those of us that enjoy violent games, we are stuck with transferred guilt. Does our consumption cause murder and mayhem? And, if it does, would it be, as the film Equilibrium posited, “a price [we’d] gladly pay?”

Maybe violent media, while not affecting all, affects some. If this is true, we should be seeing a great increase in youth-related violence and crime.

Not so. MIT Professor Henry Jenkins compiled data relating to videogames and violent crime and found that, “According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low.” And, while school shooters are often gamers, youth in general play videogames at a high rate, with about 90 percent of boys (the vast majority of shooters) partaking. Similarly, studies proclaiming an impact on aggressiveness from videogame playing can be criticized for a multitude of reasons, from methodology to the conclusions themselves. For instance, most find a correlation, rather than a cause-effect relationship, which could mean “aggressive people like aggressive entertainment.”

Furthermore, studies suggest that, even in primates, a distinction is evident between play fighting and actual violence. Similar to the way past generations enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians but were aware of the difference between that and real shootouts. Life and death are not so easily affected, and children, though they are impressionable, still understand that one is play and one is real.

Adults are similar in their ability to disconnect reality and fantasy. It has been estimated that 51 percent of women have had rape fantasies. Conversely, 44 percent of men have had fantasies about dominating a partner. But would any of these people actually enjoy being raped or raping in real life? Assuredly a very small percentage do, but most are just using their fantasy life to arouse themselves. Such fantasies, while common, don’t mean that they impact reality in any real way (other than having an uncomfortable conversation with a lover about how you want to spend that evening).

But why do we crave violent media? It’s ingrained in not only our current culture, but past literature and entertainment. One need only flip through Shakespeare to appreciate that violence and death were par for the course in theater productions and books. Even with this, we appear to be living in one of the least violent times in world history. The murder rate in medieval Europe was eight times higher than that of today.

This, however, doesn’t stop the crusade to purge our society of such entertainment, sometimes forcefully.

We Don’t Need No Thought Control
The Center for Media Literacy has produced several articles on media violence. One, by Temple University Telecommunications professor George Gerbner, proffers that the alternative to our current system is “elected or appointed representation in either advisory or policy-making capacity over the programming policy of TV systems.” In other words, Congressional veto power over what people get to see.

Curiously, the article also says that Congress should use anti-trust and civil rights powers to crack down on the systems that “impose violence on creative people and foist it on the children of the world.” The funny thing is, there is already regulation in place blocking obscene content from all free-to-view-and-listen networks: The FCC, as a regulatory body, can impose heftier fines on network TV and radio than ever.

In a bit of irony from earlier this year, network news programs had to censor President Bush when he said to Tony Blair, “See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over,” speaking of his frustration with the U.N. There wasn’t much of a public outcry in reaction to the fuax pas.

Yet, under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, which he had recently signed, the networks had to bleep the President in order to avoid record-setting fines, while cable news networks and the internet showed it unsullied, making it one of the most popular clips on CNN.com and video-sharing sites.

Yet, in spite of the attention focused on “decency” in broadcasting, nothing could have prepared the public for the ruckus surrounding Hot Coffee. The Grand Theft Auto series of games, already under fire for their graphic and apathetic portrayal of violence against random bystanders, police and the public at large in a consequence-free zone, suddenly received pressure from both the violent and the sexual angle when a hacker discovered a mini-game depicting a sexual act in a hidden portion of GTA: San Andreas.

Several Congressmen, scenting blood in the water, took action and had the FTC investigate. As a result, Take 2 Interactive and Rockstar Games, the companies that publish and produce the games, agreed to have the rating change from M (Mature) to AO (Adults Only), costing them $24.5 million in returns of the title.

Yet still, that didn’t seem to be enough in the quest to Protect the Children. Legislation all over the country has attempted to block sales of videogames to minors, all of which have been unsuccessful, due to the unconstitutionality of the laws passed.

But despite the best efforts of Congress and renegade lawyers, we still love our violence. And maybe we can learn from that. Who doesn’t enjoy that feeling of gleefully running over a pedestrian? Of course, that’s only in the game world. Very, very few of us would look to imitate that in real life, and those that do were likely disturbed before they ever got their hands on violent games.

I began by saying that I start from the position that people are generally good. Yet those times when terrible things happen test that stance, as they test us all. However, in our quest for answers, we should not forget that our second greatest freedom, after being able to say whatever we want, is the ability to choose what we want to listen to.

The people who want to censor and condemn should remember one very important part about television, the internet and media in general: The power button also turns things off.

Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] Gmail [dot] com.

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