Recharging with Violence
As we all grieve the Newtown school shooting, people are contemplating and discussing pieces of the complexity that leads to these tragedies, some of which we may never understand. I find myself focused on how we interact with violence in our culture, specifically in entertainment and video games, and wondering what studies might show about correlation or causation between violent media and violent reality.
Here’s why I’m so focused on this. An essential part of my work hinges on the fact that there is a part of your brain—the sense of self, which generates every moment of your life—that doesn’t know the difference between imagining something and experiencing it in the physical world. If you imagine sitting on a beach with the sand between your toes, hearing the waves crash, feeling the salty breeze on your face, this generative part of your brain was actually there. This part of the brain is only concerned with how you feel about being human, so it can’t process things rationally and say, “That was just your imagination,” or, “That was just a game.”
Unless you live in a cave, you can’t escape violence completely these days. It’s a real part of our world. But, as a society, we’ve also been complicit in (or at least accepting of) making violence a large part of our “fun.” Video games especially concern me, because of their repetitive nature. Games are a way for the brain to practice problem solving, whether it’s fitting little colored blocks together, getting your frog across rush hour traffic, or destroying asteroids. Or, by killing someone else with a high-powered weapon. As we go through that repetitive exercise, part of our experience of it is emotional, so that feeling part of our brain that I mentioned above is recording it for later use.
Then, whatever we feel during the day, the brain uses as the energy it recharges our sense of self with while we sleep. Did you ever have Tetris or Frogger dreams, like I did? Whether you remembered dreams or not, if you were involved emotionally at all in the games you played, your brain used that practiced feeling to recharge your sense of self during sleep. I’ve never played a violent role playing video game, but I can only imagine how intense my sense of self’s recharging process would be if I had, given how vivid my dreams were just from playing puzzle and skill-oriented games.
That’s why violent games concern me. Stable people will be fine—when confronted with an intense problem, their rational brains will kick in to say, “Violence isn’t the way to solve this. Let’s find a different strategy.” But, more vulnerable minds can take that practiced feeling, recharged over and over again, and use that as the basis for problem solving.
I’m not asserting that violent games or other media had a direct impact on this shooting or any other mass shooting, and I acknowledge that there are many factors that go into each violent event. But I do think that we have to take a look at what feelings we’re allowing ourselves to practice (in games, movies or TV), no matter our age, and decide if they will lead to the world we want to live in.
Perhaps some brilliant minds can come up with a new kind of game—one in which, when presented with a problem or threat, the characters find a way to work together and create something like a dance or a piece of art. Figuring out how that could be made cool enough to sway gamers away from their violent games is not my gift, but I think we need to start finding these possibilities and solutions. As Nelson Mandela said, “We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”