The computer game Grand Theft Auto IV was released today to the standard irrational hype surrounding these game introductions, with buyers lining up around the store for their chance to be the first ones to own the game. Drive-by-shootings, acts of prostitution, and car thefts make up just some of the activities players participate in during the game. I have not played the game, but I understand that players receive the sexual services of prostitutes, and then beat them up to get their money back. Advancing means continually committing criminal acts while trying to stay alive.
One of the issues that constantly arises with the release of one of these violent games is the outcry against the reality that many of these games end up in the hands of children and young adolescents. So let’s start with that.
What happens physically and emotionally when children and adolescents spend a great deal of time exposed to these activities?
Children are concrete thinkers, and generally aren’t yet capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. In real life, children have shot other children without realizing that the act results in actual death. Games such as Grand Theft Auto IV reinforce this mode of concrete thinking by means of a series of behaviors that have no consequences. It’s the prescription for creating a moral monster.
There is also a very real, and very damaging impact on adolescents. Psychologists use the term “vicarious traumatization” to describe the measurable physical reactions a person can have after simply viewing a traumatic event on television or on a video game. What researches have documented is that habitual exposure to vicarious violent events can cause a person to experience the identical physical effects – such as heightened blood pressure, racing heart beat, etc. – as if that person were actually experiencing the event in real life.
Craig A. Anderson, the author of the book, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents, detailed in a peer-reviewed article written for the American Psychological Association the effects of violent games on children. He noted that repeated exposure to media violence generates and legitimizes more aggressive behavior even as it “decreases the normal negative emotional reactions to conflict, aggression, and violence.”
The younger one is, the more intense the effect. When children play these games for hour after hour, it seriously distorts their worldviews.
I think that any responsible adult will acknowledge these facts, and act accordingly by limiting children’s exposure to such games. The problem is there are way too many irresponsible adults who either don’t know or simply don’t care about the psychological damage that is being inflicted by children under their care or supervision.
I do not propose a solution for this growing problem. Banning the games is decried as an act of censorship, and regulating or restricting the games is decried in almost the same tones as a form of censorship. Frankly, by the time a culture is determined to bring this kind of junk into their lives, it is probably too late to do anything about it. And at this point in the life of American culture, we are determined to have all kinds of crap in our society and in our homes.
My real objective in writing about games such as Grand Theft Auto IV is to address the effects of these games on adults, because there IS an effect on adults.
The typical response of the above reasoning with an adult “gamer” is, “I’ve played these games for years, and I’ve never killed anybody.”
Most of the time, that’s true, of course. Adults experience many of the same symptoms that children and adolescents experience playing games over time; however, their superior impulse control, sense of identity, and grasp on reality enables them to resist effects that can tear younger minds apart.
while I would argue that playing violent video games is the psychological equivalent to using drugs or alcohol (i.e. it messes up the mind, but most adults can handle the effects unless they really go overboard), I want to focus on a whole other impact of these video games.
I want to address a pattern of thinking that very often comes to characterize the minds of adults who spend a significant period of time “gaming.” It is also increasingly consuming postmodern culture. It boils down to three key characteristics: Cynicism, Skepticism, and a Dislike for reality.
Cynicism is the intelligent but lazy mind’s shortcut to genuine philosophy. When the world seems to make no sense, the simplest thing to do is to say the world makes no sense, and to give up on searching for sense, purpose, or meaning in the world. For an increasing number of people, this cynicism seems superior to the “simple” belief that the world does make sense, when one cannot explain why it does. Frankly, it is easier to stand on the sidelines and ridicule what is going on around you than it is to get in the trenches and work toward a better reality. Cynicism sneers at such hope.
Skepticism is – in modern secular society – a replacement for faith. But skepticism cannot serve for long as a replacement for faith, because if you teach people to believe in a thing, you have to adopt a specific position. And in a secular and pluralistic society, we can’t adopt a position (as that would disfavor other competing positions!). So we present a smorgasborg of worldview positions. This is not a Socratic education, but rather Socrates gone insane. Skepticism is a useful epistemological tool but it cannot be foundational. Why? Because if turned on itself it collapses by its own standards: what if we become skeptical about skepticism? Do we then have to become skeptical about being skeptical about skepticism? Frankly, the world would have been a much better place had Descartes realized this and abandoned his project.
Ultimately skepticism and cynicism are self-consuming. They can’t produce even a vacuous culture; they can simply mock and parody it. So ultimately, culture runs out of ideas, and from that point on, it simply relies on marketing to sell. Take the fact that we are talking about Grand Theft Auto IV as a case in point.
A Dislike of reality, or a rejection of reality for virtual reality. In video games you are a hero, the savior of the world, desired by women and loved or feared by everyone. People are relying on virtual reality to give them a feeling of joy. We are frankly seeing too many young people who are too intelligent to fall for the trap of incoherence, and yet our incredibly incoherent education system has made them immune to normal apologetics against their worldview. Having grown up with no genuine or coherent worldview, there is simply no worldview to attack or correct.
But they also unconsciously recognize the real effects of the fall and sin in the real world. In the real world, people get hurt, people suffer, people have meaningless dead-end lives. And then they die. They recognize instinctively at the very core there is something that should be in the world but is not. And yet the cynicism and skepticism of our age (the one thing that they have picked up) have left them completely unable to embrace the notion that change can matter. And so they replace physical reality with virtual reality. It very quickly becomes a form of addiction.
(Part 2 will address the spiritual components of this worldview, and offer a Christian perspective and response).