Q: My 21-year-old daughter and her 26-year-old boyfriend are making wooden replica guns and other weapon accessories for a cos-play convention based on the action video game, “Fallout 4”. I expressed my concerns about these games and how they can affect young peoples’ behavior and views on violence. My daughter’s response – of course – was that her participation in cosplay and playing violent video games did not increase her likelihood of committing violence. Her boyfriend responded similarly, saying that research indicates that young males who play these games are less likely to commit violence, as they have an “outlet” for their innate violent tendencies. What does the research show and what advice can you give about how to talk to them about this sensitive subject?
~ Falling 4 It, Australia
A: Your daughter and her boyfriend are not alone – the belief in a catharsis effect from viewing or playing virtual violence continues to be widely held. The notion of catharsis, that engaging with violent media releases humans’ natural violent tendencies, was so widely believed (and promoted by media producers seeking to avoid censorship) that psychological researchers tested the catharsis hypothesis in the 1960s and 1970s. Seeking to understand how catharsis is achieved and the strength of its effects, scientists found instead that catharsis does not occur, but that people who use violent media gradually become desensitized to violence. The more violence they see, the less they are bothered by it.
People often see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe without questioning. This is a natural human tendency – trying to make sense of and give order to our seemingly chaotic, unpredictable existence. And it is not inherently bad. There are kinds of human experience where one cannot seek an empirical truth and one must have faith to make meaningful – religion and spirituality being prime examples. However, in human behavior and health, there is scientific evidence available. Consuming violent media does not release our innate violence, it raises our threshold for what we accept.
While this tendency to cling to our preconceptions instead of investigating whether they are true is not new, we are now in a time where what we already believe is reinforced, even amplified, by social media. Social media are an extremely effective marketing tool, automatically profiling each of our interests and concerns and targeting us with information and products that machine algorithms have determined we want. This is great for consumerism, but not a healthy environment for seeking out facts and locating the bedrock of truth, whether it be about politics, health, guns, or media effects. Social media concentrates our preconceptions, creating an echo chamber where we are fed information with which we already agree and in which opposing views are diminished or not represented. Exposed only to that which we already believe reinforces the belief that we’re unquestionably “right”.
My advice to you is not to forbid your daughter and her boyfriend from making their cosplay costumes, guns, and accessories (they won’t listen anyway), nor should you blame or shame them for insensitivity to gun violence (they won’t believe or accept that). Instead, ask them to help you understand why they are drawn to Fallout 4. Be careful to control your immediate visceral reactions (the descriptor for the game is “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Use of Drugs”) because if they feel judged, they will shut down. Talk honestly about how it makes you feel afraid and vulnerable (as it does me – weapons have little excitement for me after time in the Emergency Department trying to repair the damage bullets do to young, healthy bodies). Share with your daughter and her boyfriend that humans have an instinct for survival that usually overcomes our theoretical (and arguable) inborn violent nature. Show them that you respect their intelligence and have faith in their ability to empathize.
By offering research rather than arguing opinions, you can shift the discourse from opposing values to shared facts. Explain your concerns through credible science-based sources. Help them see that we all use media to be changed – to laugh, to cry, to expand our knowledge and our experience. The media we consume and engage with do change how we think, act, and see the world. This is why we use media. Equip your daughter and her boyfriend with factual knowledge that will allow them to make informed decisions about the media and activities they choose, knowing that they are changed and choosing the change they want for themselves and those for whom they care.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
~ The Mediatrician