One of the roots of empathy is our ability to imagine what it is like to be another. Stories take advantage of our ability to identify with a character to make us care about what happens as the plot unfolds. The reader or listener ‘sees’ the tale with the eye of the imagination. In theater the characters are presented ready-formed but still the imagination is needed to translate the theatrical artifacts of curtains, stage exits and entrances, costumes and makeup into an emotionally compelling drama. With the advent of movies the first audiences had to be taught how to interpret them as well; their language of cuts, close-ups, and POV shots was found to be just disconcerting until our imaginations got the hang of it. In all these cases the meaning of the story affects us for a number of reasons but most critically it is by identifying with the protagonist we are able to make an emotional investment in the outcomes of the plot.
This identification is taken to another level in video games. Now the audience for the story is to some degree in control of the protagonist; the illusion of the double-self, the as-if self is complete. Video games leverage this skill for imaginatively identifying with another to explicitly place your character within the stories they tell.
When acts of violence tear through our schools we are brought up short in our feeble attempts to understand. Immediately the vested interests are feeding off the tragedy as if the issue of gun control were the only one relevant to the conversation we as a society should be having as our children begin to routinely act out video game scenarios in our schools.
Pretending it is just an issue of gun control regulations also provides a sufficiently abstract rationalization that most of our conversations, collectively and individually, can steer clear of the full emotional impact the horrors the specific events evokes. Where are the tears, fears, rage? These emotions are felt but unacknowledged fully, even to ourselves. A few among us of course will open that door and follow the trail to study the issues in depth and work towards reversing the dismal trend of such events occurring with increasing frequency. Their work can inform us as we struggle to formulate a compassionate response.
Setting aside the issue of gun control entirely, how might we proceed?
Understanding will grow if we are able to recognize which causes and conditions of the young person’s life contributed substantially to this particular behavioral result. What social and cultural milieu are these young people experiencing day to day? We need to understand the human ecology involved if we are going to get beyond sound bite level analysis. In this case we are not interested in an ecological food web or population numbers but want to look into the pain-hate-rage systems. Something somewhere acted in the role of nurturing the desire to commit the violence all through the planning stages and something somewhere acted as the trigger that caused the perpetrator to choose the particular time and place they did. These acts of violence do not just drop out of the sky; our police investigations inevitably uncover particular causes and conditions.
As caring human beings, concerned fathers and mothers and as adult citizens of a democracy what can we learn from the wealth of detail these police investigations have gathered? Among the particulars that embody the tragic reality of the events, are their any patterns?
It turns out there are. Though it is the nature of such things to always be able to find a few exceptions to whatever common features arise, that is just a reflection of the complexity of human behavior. If we find that eight out of ten perpetrators shared a fascination with violent video games we are justified in giving that fact some weight. To a first approximation that is in fact what we find. This should surprise no-one; the clothes worn, the weapons chosen, and details in the plans are coming right out of video game personas and plots. Columbine, the dark standard of such events in the public conversation, presents us with events that resemble nothing so much as a team mission in countless first person shooters.
That these crimes are video game constructs brought to life is so obvious it very often goes without saying. The armed services have long known that such games are effective killer trainers. The education of the person playing volumes of hours will imprint itself on their nervous system. The hand-eye coordination becomes trained (among the killers at times to mastery levels) in a social context of trash talk while executing explicit head shots in stories that often use drugs, prostitution and torture as plot devices. This is very significant human programming.
That certain young men and boys find these entertainments as enjoyable as they do is a testament to the effectiveness by which game designers have honed their craft. Arguably the neural mechanic that makes all this work is a hijacking of the fight or flight chemical systems. The ancient survival systems are invoked by presenting an environment of non-stop threats made hyper-realistic with the slo-mo head shot and all the rest of the graphic realism the art form strives for.
There are other details about how the human nervous system reacts when it encounters these games worth examining. Like most things there is some good mixed with some bad. Attention is drawn into the here and now by the hyper-threat level which provides some relief from the planning and ruminating cognitions of everyday consciousness. The necessary sub-second response time bypasses the more leisurely thinking circuits, greatly simplifying the cognitive burden of the moment in favor of a more visceral response to the environmental clues. Finally the immediate ‘positive’ hit to the reward system with each successful kill keeps a stream of pleasure causing nerochemicals going. To frame the overall experience each game offers some device for tracking experience points, medals earned, number of kills and other minutiae of the rewards earned as we would expect from our understanding of the role of the reward and status emotional system.
Mixing fight or flight with reward and status provides the player with the whole smorgasbord of emotional systems to tickle and prod except the soothing, contentment ones. After a successful mission no-one basks in the arms of a loved one, grows a garden behind a picket fence or in any way lives ‘happily ever after’. Typically the next mission is queuing up before the adrenaline drenching of the previous one has completely dissipated. Watching a person playing you will often see very little emotion being expressed as they sit twitching the controller with that dreamy, entranced video game stare, but inside ancient passions are getting one heck of a workout. At some level the brain no longer makes distinctions between physically caused and virtually caused inputs. Combine this with our ability to identify with a character on the screen, which now has an enemy gun pointed at it, and we are off to the races.
All these elements working together have propelled the video game industry to becoming the largest grossing entertainment medium in the history of history. These first person shooters are the biggest sellers in that industry – by far. There are consequently powerful interests threatened by this turn of events, this new dark sociology of criminal youth. We need to bear this in mind as we do our own research into the issues.
On the other hand we need to be careful not to jump to overly simplified conclusions. Correlation is not causation. As I tried to show when describing the neural responses to gaming there are real benefits for many of the participants in what is ultimately our socially sanctioned, safe expression of the fight or flight systems of our generation of young men; the population that have carried out all the wars of history. Give me video simulation over real war any day. It is important not to let the horror of the crimes we are discussing obscure our sense of balance and proportion. Some people are choosing to play and can set it aside with ease when other parts of life call for their attention. Others have some degree of an addictive need and among them only a very few will develop their persona around the killer-hero these games depict.
Looking to empathize with our youth we ask ourselves what is it like to be them? One slice of their lives is the video game entertainments they choose to indulge in after school and on weekends. Friends meet online to team up or they join packs of strangers and as a tribe go looking for trouble. This is youth peer bonding as gang-banger model or more generously, as warrior model.
Note that this protagonist is a hero or anti-hero as the case may be, who solves issues by violence. It is a role that says it is ok to bully other people, ok for some people to be victims. It is a persona that sees itself as a violent person. Spending inordinate amounts of time with such ‘people’ as most everyone does since they also populate our TV and movie screens, is it any surprise at all that our society is becoming more coarse, crude, mean?
Because the crimes have such affinity with the action depicted in video games I submit those games as primary evidence people of goodwill should struggle with. Comprehending the role the ultra-violent computer and console games do and should play in our societies, while complex, is unavoidable. It is however, only one piece of evidence.
When a young person sits a down to play, what characterizes the environment he came from? What, we might ask, are the types of causes and conditions in their school days? Here again we find that violence, ranging from vicious bullying to assaults, are a defining feature of youth culture for many. This is one of the items we will pick up next week.