Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Guest Slapper of the Month VII

My August Guest is Jemima von Schindelberg – isn't that a wonderful name? Her blog, Imitation of Life, is full of quirky poetry and insights. She's supposed to be a teacher (those kids are so lucky) but she's a writer, really. As you can see below, she feels strongly about things and doesn't pull any punches.

A Violent Pornography

I need to open with an emphasis on what I’m not. I am not an easily shocked, shy retiring spinster type of prude. I am not a self-important, do-gooding, fascist type who wishes to control the minds of those I deem ignorant. I’m not living in a bubble cut-off from the realities of what life has become in the 21st century’s developed world. Generally I dismiss complaints against extreme art with a shake of my head and a quick “they’re missing the point”; I am, however, speaking to you today in the guise of Concerned of Birmingham, outraged by some violent ‘art’.

I rate A Clockwork Orange*, Goodfellas**, and City of God*** among my favourite movies, all unflinchingly violent but, as with the obscenity distinction between pornography and art, they offer something else. I have delved into the darker parts of my personality playing violent video games (such as The Simpsons Hit and Run) where I see that violence and competitiveness provide the entertainment. Entertainment becomes dangerous when a me me me greedy culture is the immoral substructure of an explicitly violent, and outstandingly realistic entertainment package.

So I am grasping this opportunity to slap, or slapportunity if you will, to drown the makers of Grand Theft Auto, the many sequels and the many imitators with oceans of shame. These are the games of speeding in shiny cars, of theft, violence and all manner of anti-social behaviour presented in such a slick and stylish way that one cannot help but be seduced by the glamour. Entertainment aimed, allegedly at an adult market that know better, glorifying a self-centred, materialistic and utterly selfish mode of living. Not only do these games miss the intended audience influencing small minds, they also normalise violence, bringing the act of killing into people’s homes, influencing grown minds.

The blurb says:

Five years ago Carl Johnson escaped from the pressures of life in Los Santos, San Andreas... a city tearing itself apart with gang trouble, drugs and corruption. Where film stars and millionaires do their best to avoid the dealers and gang bangers.

Now, it's the early 90s. Carl's got to go home. His mother has been murdered, his family has fallen apart and his childhood friends are all heading towards disaster.
On his return to the neighborhood, a couple of corrupt cops frame him for homicide. CJ is forced on a journey that takes him across the entire state of San Andreas, to save his family and to take control of the streets.

Liberty City. Vice City. Now San Andreas, a new chapter in the legendary series.
I have always been a little troubled by the ultra violent, but believe in free speech, the right to choose, individual responsibility, yadda yadda. During a Circle Time session when we were discussing activities we enjoy (in an effort to help the children see their shared humanity, their similarities and thus to make friends more readily) I became concerned. It turns out almost all the boys have played the GTA San Andreas game, adore it, and would defend it passionately. Interesting that I’ve had a lot of problems with violence and fighting from this group also. So many of them seem to have unlimited access to play unsupervised. So many struggle to draw any distinction between reality and the fantasy painted in the 18 films and games. They are unsupported, having no guidance to consider the moral implications of visiting prostitutes and carrying weapons.

The violent cinema causes violence argument is an old and not especially convincing. Clearly many people see violence and do not react violently, The Crusaders, Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper didn’t rely on cinema to get their passion for violence flowing. It is not as simple as that. I have to draw a distinction between passively viewing violence and taking an active role, even as far as holding a replica gun, and pulling a replica trigger in some games. The added level of involvement has to go some way to normalise violent acts and make them seem an every day occurrence. How much easier it would be to pull the trigger when faced with a violent situation, when you’ve simulated it a thousand times and become acclimatised to the consequences of a gun shot. Don’t forget Grand Theft Auto’s verisimilitude resulted in a shortlist in
The Culture Show’s Design Quest.

The websites I visited made a show of their adults only policy. These games are Rated m for Mature, but this is no protection. Options of “Click here if you are British and under 18”, “click here if you’re from the rest of the world and really mature”, enter your date of birth. Why do they even bother with this? If I’m a bloodthirsty ten year old with no one watching my online activities, my conscience isn’t going to stop me entering the site I’ve been warned is unsuitable. At a Parents’ Evening one mother reported how she resorted to breaking the PlayStation in order to get her sons (and husband) away from the violent DVDs and games they shared. Dad liked to share. Mom was powerless. This horrified me, and is probably a whole other gender-culture related slap.

The children, my dearly loved students, have no concerns for their own safety. They believe in Grand Theft Auto, see truths and validation that are lost on me. Ok, so they’re happy to inhabit this world, happy for our world to become more like it, thrilled by the Ray-Ban glamour, high-speed excitement, the fashion and passion. But, ah-hah, “What if someone wanted to hurt you?” asks the naïve teacher. Haven’t I warned them a thousand times of the cycle of violence and suffering that result from an act of anger? “I’d kill them first,” comes the instinctive reply. The wrongness of killing is absent. The likelihood of being caught off guard, overpowered or punished is less real than their sense of potency and the safeguard that a raft of extra lives confers. There is no danger and no conscience. I feebly quote The Qur’an, The Bible, The Torah to impress on these children who spend maybe ten hours a week in religious instruction, that every religion is certain on the question of the sanctity of life, but it is way too late. They have lived the GTA life, the thrills much more alive than tales of angels and damnation meant to scare them into submission.

I am not going to slap those who find violence and crime exciting or alluring. We are usually not responsible for our passions and interests, an attraction to that which is forbidden or dangerous is common and understandable. I am slapping parents and other carers who are so irresponsible they allow unlimited access to age inappropriate material, to the media machine that looks at success in terms of sales and not the effects on society and to a company that throws all its expertise into making their interactive violence as realistic and alluring as is technically possible. These games are not art, offering nothing more than pleasure taken in the pain of (simulated) others, they are the trigger on a time bomb that will inflict needless suffering on an already pain-weary populace.

Thanks to System of a Down for lending me the title, although I didn’t actually ask permission, so technically it’s theft: see what happens to my moral fibre when I start researching these games. All quotations and images from:

*A Clockwork Orange has young people dancing with violence as a symptom of a decaying society. It is a warning, a futureshock, with exquisite photography, soundtrack and utterly thought provoking. Youthful attraction to ultraviolence is shown as a phase we can outgrow.

**Goodfellas explores the attraction to crime and violence of the poor and impressionable. The consequences are shown. And it is also exquisite in visual and audio terms.

***Again a decaying society, of haves and have nots, a dog eat dog world that anyone with a brain and some luck would seek to extricate themselves from. A wake up call to those who close their eyes to the favelas and see the poor as subhuman and far away. It too has high standards for the sights and sounds.

****Cartoon violence. A yellow, non-realistic, humorous, humanistic icon is in no way similar to any aspect of the world I know. Probably quite a bad influence on the youth, but at least they know it’s not real. Then again, my youngest believed visiting Disneyland would result in her being transported into an actual cartoon where everything and everyone would look like they do in the animations, so can I really assert non-realistic violence is safe?


  1. You made your point very well. I still have a question though. At the risk of getting Slapped ;-)- Have there Ever been any studies that you know of showing that children could get anger OUT of their systems through any of these games? Sublimination and all that....

    I'd prefer active, heavy duty Sports Anyday of the week to this for getting anger Out of children's minds and systems.This is truly gross.

    I just sincerely wonder if Any of these games could be used to get Anger OUT (Not just make the creators a hefty profit)....or if such a game Could BE created that would actually help children with their anger.

  2. Proud of you Mimey :-)

  3. you've got it all wrong!

    actually, I know it's all a matter of subjective assessment but I would have thought there was a correlation between violence being exploited on film and condoned/tolerated in the everyday. that's not to say it's all bad - we all have some sort of conscience and it needs to be tested. like, i believe violence is wrong because i've experienced it and tried it.

    I was disappointed with Clockwork Orange - I'd read the novel years ago and was looking forward to it.

    Is Goodfellas a Tarantino? I don't know, he strikes me as the MacDonalds of directors. Consistent yet unappealing.

    (is that okay? I give it my best shot)

  4. I don't think the fault is with games developers; they've exploited a niche in the market, and judging by the amount of copies these things sell, a lot of people want these games. The fault is with parents who really don't exercise any restraint in what they let their children watch. I remember similar arguments when home video first hit British shores. Maybe Sony could put a child lock feature on PlayStations, and parents could keep the password. I think the point Ian made about these games helping children get rid of anger in a harmless way is a valid one, but having sex with a prostitute and then killing her in a video game isn't the most wholesome way.

    Oh, and GoodFellas was Scorsese.

  5. watching city of god the one thing that struck me was the age of the gangsters was becoming younger and younger thus with less experience of life and the consequences of killing and violence they were becoming evermore ruthless

  6. tinkerbell: no slap back, that wouldn't be polite. The only studies I'm aware of (ooh I'm out of my depth here) noted how the players felt more irritable and violent as they played. Don't ask for references ;-) A colleague of mine reports it's very soothing, but he also collects swords and axes.

    BB: merci.

    Ian: condoned, yes, normalised, yes. I was disappointed with the novel of ACO, actually.

  7. "The violent cinema causes violence argument is an old and not especially convincing. Clearly many people see violence and do not react violently, The Crusaders, Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper didn’t rely on cinema to get their passion for violence flowing."

    True. But since 66% of smokers don't die of tobacco-related causes, does that mean smoking doesn't kill?

    The questions you've raised aren't issues of opinion; they're empirical questions that can and have been addressed with rigorous research, more rigorous even than that used for smoking and cancer research, because it's considered ethical to do randomized trials with media violence, whereas assigning some people to be smokers would be out of the question.

    Long story short: I agree with you, and I have the research to prove it. (Okay, since the research is based on probability statistics, there's nothing PROVEN -- but you get my point.) Not only is there a wealth of research linking exposure to media violence in children to aggressive behavior afterward (and the effect size, at about .38 in experimental studies, is larger than the smoking-cancer link), but there is emerging research, some by my former students*, suggesting that, as you suspected, active participation in violence via gunlike joysticks and suchlike during video game play seems to enhance the effects of exposure on aggressive behavior.

    Even if it didn't, at the very least the games normalize a world where masculinity is defined as violence and characters get points for harming women.

    And like you, I am a defender of the arts and even the "arts" -- but as a researcher I have to report the research findings as they emerge, whether or not they conflict with my personal politics.

    *Dmitri Williams, see this article in the Economist:


  8. I couldn't agree more. The fact that that game exists and kids play it scares me! I'm also very liberal and not easily shocked, but that game is gross.

  9. Big fan of Mimey here!

  10. I am at a disadvantage when we talk about children and what they are owed by adults.

    I am childless ... and always overimpressed by the parental or authority role. It is such an apparent position of power ... with so much at stake.

    But I may be of the generation over which parental authority had its last hurrah.

    There seems to have been a sea change in the 70s, a move toward letting the child develop "organically" ... without significant amounts of external, specifically parental, direction.

    The idea of keeping a child from absorbing the barrage of environmental negatives s/he faces seems to land more of an authoritarian role on the parent.

    And the majority of parents I observe (read about/watch on the street/see on television, the web) don't seem to be equipped to handle, or aren't choosing to handle, that position of authority, as they default to television, and now computers, as child diversion ... childcare alternatives in a lot of cases.

    I think this is just wordy agreement with your very thought-provoking post, JVS.

    When the parent or other caregiver lets the world inside a child's environment, the child is going to absorb whatever found its way in.

    And if that world applauds the acceptability -- even celebrity -- of violence, of pimps, whores and semiautomatics, without any parental-provided counterpoint ... well, that explains so much of the culture we're in the middle of right now, doesn't it?


  11. Very interesting post! I know nothing about video games at all, and I agree that this sounds disturbing.

    Is it only the boys who are attracted to this? And I wonder, are these same boys showing a lack of respect for authority, and particularly women?

    Good post:)

  12. Mick: but the parents, the bad ones, lazy ones, ignorant ones, conceited liberal think they know better ones, wouldn't bother configuring passwords. Those at most risk would still be at risk. they'd find ways as long as the games are made and marketed.

    Fenton: quite. This is my concern with my students (aged 7-8!). They feel at home with a violent response to any issue and the consequences are irrelevant.

    Winterwheat: I appreciate that dilemma of evidence vs instinct. Thank you so much for adding a scientific grounding for my entirely subjective opinionated ranting. Teaching boys masculinity is emerging as a concern of mine. I don't know what to do, but I'm thinking about it.

    Bug: Precisely. What else is it offering apart from the offensive?

    Missy: And you're right to be ;-)

    Mireille: Hmm. Interesting avenue. I believe giving children space and respect as distinct individuals is an important way to develop independence and identity. But there have to be guidelines and boundaries. Maybe they can make the choices, but they can't be safe choices unless they've been led to consider the consequences. It is so apparent in my work how much the lower achieving children who overlap often with the behaviour issues children yearn for some consistency in the enforcement of rules and boundaries. Where am I going with this? A whole other slap on lax parenting. Is judging others any of my business? Well...

    I'm loving the image of these worlds sliding in to our children. It is the counterpoint that is so crucial, correct.

    Actonbell, in my very limited experience, and draw your own conclusions from all of this, it is mainly boys who have the behaviour issues, achieve less well academically and idolise these games. Quite a large overlap. The special needs sets I've tended to call home are overwhelmingly male (and challenging behaviour wise) although I'm thinking of one particular troublesome girl who was able to join the playstation adoration-fest. I'm not saying it's all connected, I'm just saying...

    As a girl who loves computers and doesn't really get popular video games (and is a pain in the ass feminist nit-picker) the woman in video games is generally objectified, acted upon, denied agency, over-sexualised, damsel in distress awaiting male rescue, victim, unrealistically proportioned, stereotyped and boring, and I could go on. You know, not terribly exciting or helpful. So I guess it's harder for someone female identified to become as involved.

    Take a breath and relax!

  13. I think children are naturally quite Hobbesian and the role of responsible parenting is to help them grow out of that. I can't see how these dreadful videogames help.

    It would be interesting to know if the demise of the briefly lived new man coincided with the rise of videogaming.

    Personally I can't understand anyone who thinks violence and killing is fun, be it cinematic, in games or indeed hunting.

  14. Don't get me started on hunting.

    Especially not the way children are dragged into thinking that's acceptable and even fun by certain people who are heir to the throne of England.

    Gaarhh! Don't get me started on the monarchy...

  15. 8/3/06: I am deeply disturbed by these types of games and the truth is that there is no way that they could not have a negative impact, perhaps not in the longrun, but even in the moment or hour that they are played. Adults who choose to do so don't even deserve a slap, they just deserve themselves. But parents who not only allow their children to partake in these games, but actually provide them as "gifts" well, SMACK!

    Speaking personally as a woman and a parent, I find them offensive and objectionable. It takes a great deal of strength and fortitude to do a decent job at parenting. Many parents get worn down and feel that letting their child follow the pack in obtaining the "latest and greatest" will have little harm in the long run. But with these sort of games, in particular, you've exposed them to terrible violence at the very worst and robbed them of developing their own individuality at the very least.

    Excellent post and responses - so very well put.

  16. g, I can't add anything more than what you've said, but will thank you for reading, agreeing and commenting.

    We've got a good ball of righteous indignation going here, eh?

  17. I would hate to be either a parent, with its many dilemmas or a child/teen, with its many peer pressures, nowadays. And what about the health dimension as well as the social behavioural one? I, too, don't 'get' videogames, but I know that when I play harmless old Brick or Parachute on my iPod (bouncing a wee ball at various speeds to knock down rows of bricks, or trying to shoot little planes while parachuted men drop from them to land beside me and shoot me) I get dizzy and shaky from the adrenaline after 15 minutes. So I can't imagine what that does to children's unformed bodies medically. How many early heart attacks and strokes are they in for, to go with their diseased livers from binge drinking at 13 and brain tumours from being glued to their mobile phones.

  18. Lulu, good points, I was only seeing the games as inducing a threat to other people's wellbeing. What effect is the constant artificial adrenaline stimulation going to have should the young person find themselves in a genuine fight or flight situation? Too much or too little?

    Didn't a child suffer from deep vein thrombosis because the hyper realistic, ultra exciting gameplay kept him (or was it a her, hmm, no I really think it was a him) cross legged and stationary for days at a time. I wonder what the effect on one's bladder is. You're hardly going to schedule regular bathroom breaks in a life and death situation.

  19. Ha...girl or not, not to mention adult, Vice City is a personal favorite of mine. I played it night after night back in college, and as far as I can tell, it had no lasting effect...though sometimes while driving, I'll turn on the 80's tunes and speed till my little heart's content. :)

    Sad Andreas though...I haven't actually played that one myself...I've watched it played, and it does look a bit more violent. Something too realistic about it.

    Vice City was candy colored, more cartoonish? Miami Vice-ish. No different than TV, I guess.

    But San Andreas...it's like watching the gang war coverage on the late night news.

    I love video games, and I don't consider hardly any of 'em to be art. Same with most blogs. And TV. Modern Movies. Not much of anything seems worthy of the A word anymore. It's all merely entertainment.

    I think parents should be much more careful of what they provide their children. It's their fault, really.

    And that's about it; my thoughts on your slap, dear Jemima.

    Great job. :)

  20. Oops, late again. I don’t know why I think I can’t comment on my Guests’ Slaps (I think it’s because I don’t want to be the first one to do so and then I kind of nod at the comments I agree with and believe I’ve said what I wanted to say, LOL!).

    I agree, of course, with JvS and everyone else, really. I’ve never played a video game in my life. I used to be addicted to Solitaire, but it didn’t stress me. Just took up too much of my time. LOL!

    The fact that the stress kids experience when playing those games has nowhere to go, as it were, has an absolutely terrible effect on the body. I should know: I suffer from IBS (caused by years of being very stressed sitting at my desk with no time to go out and get it out of my system). The excess adrenaline absolutely needs to disperse and get ‘cancelled’ by the other ‘good’ chemicals released in the course of the activity, otherwise it undermines the body, very stealthily – by the time you get the first symptoms it’s too late, and most of them can’t be reversed. Once upon a time kids would spend most of their time taking part in physical activity that might be just as competitive as video games but at least the adrenaline didn’t affect their health.

    ian russell, I’m sorry you were disappointed by A Clockwork Orange: it’s an extraordinary film, which has possibly lost some of its impact now. I saw it the moment it was released and I can’t tell you the impression it made on young people at the time (on everyone, actually). Nothing like that had ever been seen before – or for a long time afterwards. The main objection to and fear about it was that it was making violence look so stylish.

  21. Ashley, I'm delighted someone actually has some first hand experience of playing these games. It's a bit bad for me to go round telling everyone else they're behaving badly, when I've only limited experience of it myself. Bad journalist. I'm glad you survived the experience intact! And as you say, they're not meant to be art, but I guess I think art is important enough to be imposed on everything.

    Bela, I wondered if you'd ever say something ;-) It's truly odd to take ownership of someone else's comments, and then comment to them, like I own the place, but I'll give it a go.

    You make an important point about the physical consequences of stress and tension. I couldn't accept that the stomach pains that stopped me sleeping were anything to do with my mind, and then I finished my degree and they finished too. The body is indeed closely connected to the path the mind chooses.

    I hope there won't be a flood of adrenaline induced conditions because of these games. Gives my fire more fuel though. Sport will be fashionable soon, in fact my daughters have a PS game that involves exercise. Using a camera they appear on TV fighting villains, washing windows, avoiding swarms of bees, arms flailing and hearts racing; and there was the dancemat craze recently. Maybe a more responsible game maker will dwell on this sort of excitement that uses the adrenaline game. It would still make them money, and I'd have less to complain about: surely that's all that matters.

  22. Hey, that reminds me... did you see that programme with Robert Winston that said that thinking about exercising and kind of doing the moves in one's mind was just as good as actually doing them physically? Maybe sport video games will make kids get rid of that extra adrenaline and keep them fit as well. :-)


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