Murderous violence has been with us since the generation after Adam and Eve first trudged, ashamed and burdened, east of Eden, banished from the Garden because of their disobedience. Through the ages, few things have defined us so much as our ability to visit horrific cruelty upon our fellows. The ability to “mass murder” is anything but a new phenomenon. Jews have a much too intimate knowledge of the horror and sadness that comes with the experience of the vicious slaughter of multiple numbers of innocents in a short period of time.
If technology has been consistent over the span of history, its greatest constancy has been is that it has always lurched forward in creating ever more efficient methods of killing.
Murderous evil is not new. The recent mass murders are not wounds unique to our age. What the base nature of man and technology has conspired to create that is new and unseen until very recently is the efficiency and effectiveness with which the latent evil of man has transformed too many vulnerable, damaged individuals into killing machines.
What is revolutionary to this moment in history is the veritable army of weak, damaged, vulnerable young people who have metamorphosed into agents of slaughter unshackled by the hand of the state. That is, for the first time in history, mass murder is not directed by the state but by individuals who roam our streets and avenues; individuals not gathering beneath the banner of fascism or communism to serve as drones in the armies of a satanic leader but rather by the release of some restraint that exists within themselves.
We see the evidence of the horror on our television sets. It screams to us from the front pages of our newspapers. It is a cancer, a sickness that needs to be healed. But as we know only too well, addressing the problem of mass murder in our society is a complex issue and process. Too often, in this complexity, viable and appropriate avenues of healing are ignored or discredited, almost always in the service of profit or power.
There is much we do not know about the eruption of mass murders in our society, but there are some things we do know, which we must examine closely if we are to be successful at all in keeping our children safe and stemming the tide of violence.
Among the things we do know is that the slaughter of innocents, as we witnessed in Newtown, Connecticut, demands a specific mechanism of slaughter, a firearm that allows for many people to be killed and maimed in a very short period of time, and that it also demands a catalyst, something that transforms a damaged and vulnerable individual into a killing machine.
As for the “mechanism of slaughter,” apologists and lobbyists for guns and those who vociferously defend gun “rights” will reflexively refer to the Second Amendment or some trivial sentiment (“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”) to defer critique. They will dismiss the “same old liberal complaints.” They will also correctly point out that the vast, vast majority of gun owners do not commit horrific crimes or, indeed, any crime at all.
What these apologists miss is the simple truth that no other civilized country in the world has so many guns, or so much freedom for its citizenry to own and use guns without a direct association to a formal, military involvement. So too, no other civilized country in the world experiences such horrific gun violence.
That said, while we feel strongly that the proliferation of guns, and guns of remarkable lethal power, needs to be stemmed, we also acknowledge that ultimately guns are just the tool for accomplishing these evil and horrible acts. And while it is manifestly true that denying access to the “tool” would forego the slaughter, the greater and more pernicious ill at work is a culture that glorifies murder and violence, a culture that finds its most damaging expression in violent video games.
On that count, we will hear too from the producers and apologists of video games that millions upon millions of players of violent video games do not engage in acts of violence. We will hear from defenders of the First Amendment that denying producers of violent video games the right to produce their hateful product will compromise our essential freedoms.
Both reasonable and important arguments.
And while they are being made, children continue to be slaughtered.
Ultimately, both claims by the video game producers hinge on the claim that there is no causal relationship between violent video games and actual violence. For if there is such causation, the other arguments become moot. The First Amendment cannot be claimed as protection if the activity leads to murder.
In engaging in the question of the causality and influence of violent video games on acts of violence, and addressing the protests of the video game industry, it would serve us well to recall the many years that the tobacco industry protested against the effect of their product on health, arguing that there was no “causal” relationship between smoking and lung cancer, or heart disease or any number of other health issues. Deflection, defense and the anecdotal evidence of a handful of individuals who smoked three packs a day and lived healthy lives well into their nineties should not have been allowed to pass for a sound argument. In the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, the tobacco industry resisted, insisting on – how ironic in the context of our current discussion – a “smoking gun.”
But might there not be such a smoking gun?
There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest a direct connection. Consider Mrs. Sherratt, an elementary school teacher in England, who notes that she has witnessed her class of four- and five-year-olds in the playground, “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” to mimic scenes from violent games.
As a professional working with young children, she is well aware that children are often very physical in their play. “We all expect to see rough and tumble but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping in the classroom for no particular reason.”
While apologists will dismiss her observations, they have yet to counter the thoughtful argument presented by my son Nathan Safran. Rather than address the issue “head on,” my son suggests a compelling example of how video games directly impact attitudes and behavior. He notes that the length and breadth of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has unwittingly provided clear evidence of the power of video games to affect players.
This extended military mission has resulted in an overwhelming incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) in the military, forcing a new urgency on military psychologists seeking to find a way to address this debilitating condition.
One of the most promising treatments the military is working with is virtual reality treatments: a combination of video and audio programs that are designed to be immersive and so most effectively counteract the violent experiences the soldiers experienced. This treatment seems to be very successful because it seems to rewire the brain.
In other words, when used as a treatment program for PTSD, the very same immersive experience that gamers enjoy is effective because it alters emotions and behaviors by rewiring the brain. We applaud the creativity and determination of the military psychologists. We also wonder how this experience changes behavior when it is used to treat PTSD but has no direct impact when the question is, Does it promote violent behavior?
Video games are unique in that they are immersive. Players “live” in them. They do not passively observe or listen to them, like music, television or movies. Players interact with the game. The player decides what happens. In video games, the player makes a conscious decision to “kill” a cop or innocent bystander on the street. The player decides to kill with his bare hands, with a baseball bat, or with a gun. In a game like Nintendo Wii’s Manhunt 2, the player can literally simulate the movements of cutting his victim’s throat with a piece of glass or suffocating them with a plastic bag.
Think how that makes you feel when you are simply reading it. Now imagine how it impacts the player himself as he experiences it. It has to be a disturbing image, particularly for parents.
I would ask parents who do not believe that there is a link between violent video games and violent behavior and so intend to let their children continue to play to consider this: even in the absence of that “smoking gun” connection between violent video games and violent behavior, there is still the issue of “rewiring of the brain.” Are you really comfortable with your child being affected in such a profound way by a video game manufacturer, whose fundamental motivation is to manipulate your child’s brain to want to continue playing–so the manufacturer realizes the greatest profit possible?
In other words, are you really comfortable submitting your child to what amounts to brainwashing by people to whom your child is essentially a disposable source of income?
In fairness, video game producers maintain that just because a violent person plays video games, the video games have not made the person violent. After all, millions upon millions of people play violent video games without engaging in violence. Right? Perhaps. We do know that in 1999 only 5% of students aged 12 – 18 reported being bullied in school while 32% complained of being bullied in 2007. That these numbers correspond with a rise in video game playing cannot be discounted.
Mr. Safran suggests that the professed lack of a causal link between these video games and violent behavior has everything to do with science’s inability to document conclusively that the games have a detrimental effect on the neurology of children and not what actually happens.
To scientifically conclude that videogames have a direct causal relationship to violent behavior demands that researchers “feather out” some of the variables that impact behavior, i.e., environment, upbringing, genetics, diet, education, etc.
No doubt some are more susceptible to the influence of video games than others (most likely, the same players who become most immersed in the gaming experience). Certainly, the perpetrators of these mass murders have been individuals with significant social and psychological deficits. However, with nearly 97% of 12-17 year olds playing video games, the number of young people drawn into these games is astronomical.
Perhaps most insidious thing about these games is something that Joshua Gardner points out in a piece for ABC News. He quotes Laura Davies, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in San Francisco who is reluctant to support tighter controls on media of any kind. However, she believes too many children are exposed to too much violence through video games and that there can be consequences.
“A huge part of discipline and development is understanding consequences, letting kids know that their actions have consequences,” Dr. Davies told ABCnews.com. “Video games like Grand Theft Auto turn the consequences into positives. You kill a prostitute and get points, you’re rewarded.”
Video games are not only immersive but they upend any civilized moral system by rewarding murder and violence.
Even without the a clear, causal link between violent video games and violent behavior, there is one observation that we can make with certainty. The proliferation of violent video games and violent media desensitizes players to real-life violence. These games teach impressionable young people that violence is an acceptable way to solve conflicts and achieve goals.
From a Jewish perspective, the desensitizing is perhaps most fundamental (and suggests the nexus of causality). As Rabbi Emanuel Feldman writes in his article, Sandy Hook: A Jewish Antidote on Aish.com, there are no “quick fixes” to the problem of violence but Judaism offers some insight:
The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) records an incisive tradition in which God says: “I have created the inclination to do evil, but I have also created an antidote, which is the Torah.” Thus, man is not born a warm and fuzzy creature. He is born grasping and selfish, fists tightly closed, concerned exclusively with his immediate needs. Says God in Genesis 8:21: “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his very inception.” Left to his own devices, not taught the ways of civilized behavior, so will he remain throughout life: a rapacious, self-centered infant masquerading as an adult whose fists will not open until he departs this earth.
We are profoundly physical beings. We are, by nature, heavily influence by the physicality of life. Our senses inform us and influence us directly and profoundly – which is why the immersive quality of these violent video games is so detrimental. We experience the violence as if it were real. We are rewarded for our violent behavior in the games. When, in reality, because of our brute, physical nature, it is only Torah that offers the antidote to our brutishness – not a reinforcement of it!
As Rabbi Feldman goes on, the Torah’s teachings “…enable us to construct and maintain self-discipline and self-control, and ultimately to metamorphose into a mensch. For one of the underlying purposes of Torah is to tame the savage beast within us and to transform us into responsible human beings with a conscience that enables us to differentiate right from wrong.
Man is a base creature with the same drives as the common beast. He was brought into the world with an inclination to do evil. However, he was also brought into the world with an inclination to do good. The goal and purpose of mitzvot (commandments) is to lift man from the pure physicality of the animal world and allow him to exist in a world of the spiritual, a world in which G-d’s goodness is evident. We know that the performance of mitzvot uplifts. Mitzvot elevate man to a higher level.
Just as behaviors change who we are for good, so too can they change who we are for bad. In this way, video games, by immersing the player in the action and rewarding evil rather than good, change the player. If the gamer does not become more violent by virtue of his experience, he becomes desensitized to the violence around him.
Either way, he falls further and further from the ideal of the Torah life and closer and closer to a world in which the wanton murder of innocents is no more than a tree falling in the forest.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.