Hard Choices

Violent entertainment promotes aggression, experts say

Posted January 23, 2013 8:30 p.m. EST

— After the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association blasted Hollywood, video games and music for creating a "culture of violence" in the U.S. The prevalence of violence in media is hard to ignore, and 31 percent of respondents to a WRAL News poll said they believe violence in entertainment is a major cause of mass shootings.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, television programs display 812 violent acts per hour. Further, the typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of violence, including 16,000 murders, before they turn 18.

And that's just on TV. 

Popular movies and video games also tend to be violent, graphic and gory, but does that play a role in making society more violent?

Jane Brown, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says yes. She studies the link between violence children and teens see on screen and its effect on their behavior.

"The more violence they see in the media, the more violent video games they play, the more likely they are to be aggressive in their own lives," Brown said.

Watching the movie "Kill Bill" may not make people want to kill someone in real life, but young people who are naturally aggressive see violence in media and think it's an appropriate way to solve conflict, she said. 

"We think the media probably reinforces those tendencies, so those people would be more likely to behave aggressively after seeing a violent movie or after playing a violent video game," Brown said.

That's a connection parent Lisa McGoldrick wants to avoid. Her sons, 10-year-old Michael and 12-year-old Billy, only play non-violent video games such as Guitar Hero.

"(Violent video games) can get a child to think, 'Wow, this is really cool. This is great. Look, I can shoot 100 people and I'm not getting killed,'" McGoldrick said. "I think playing violence and watching violence sometimes does promote it, and I'm not one to promote violence."

Wakefield High School senior Patrick Hines said the blame on video games for causing violence is misplaced. If anything, he said, the news media plays a role in promoting violent acts.

"I do believe when people report on violence – war is going on in foreign countries, people are getting shot and killed in neighborhoods – that kind of stuff, I believe, has more impact than any video game," Hines said. "It hits closer to home."

First-person shooter games can be very graphic and intense.

"That's why it's rated M for mature," said "Call of Duty" fan Danny Shattuck. "You're pretty much trying to stop terrorists from destroying the world."

But diehard gamers like Shattuck say it's only fantasy.

"I get a rush from trying to win," he said. "It's a game in the end."

"If I'm playing a war game, I know it's a fake person that I'm shooting at," said Nina Saponara, the 16-year-old president of the video game club at Wakefield High School. "It doesn't really phase me."

Lenny Hume said he prefers fighting games over shooting games, but doesn't see either as real violence.

"When I'm in a game to win, you need to beat up another player. I just see that as an objective," he said. "I can play war games, but I don't have a desire to shoot anyone in real life. But it's fun to do in a video game."

Experts say not all violence in entertainment has a harmful impact. In movies like "Schindler's List," for example, Nazi aggression and violence cause enormous pain and suffering. It's violence with real consequences.

The problem comes with gratuitous violence in films like "300," which glamorizes the brutality of war.

"We want to be emotionally stimulated," Brown said. "We like that in our entertainment media, and so, violence is a cheap way to do it. It's cheaper than having really great dialogue, really great acting and other kinds of portrayal. That's harder. Violence is easy."

After the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the Motion Picture Association of America said the movie and television industries "stand ready to be part of the national conversation."

The Entertainment Software Association recently sat down with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the issue. 

"We expressed in the meeting that the United States Supreme Court recently affirmed that the independent, scientific research conducted to date has found no causal connection between video games and real-life violence," the group said in statement.

North Carolina-based video game companies Epic Games, Red Storm Entertainment, Shrapnel Games and Virtual Heroes refused to comment or didn't respond to WRAL News' requests for interviews. 

Ryan Snell, who started his own video game design company in Cary last year, said violence in video games is not gratuitous – it serves a purpose.

"The realer it is, the more gritty it is, the more people will feel immersed," he said.

Snell said video game companies are marketing an experience, not murder.

"It's just like playing a race car game and you run into a wall, and your car doesn't get damaged," he said. "You feel like something's been taken away. It's just like, that's not how it works."

As much as violence appears on television, there are no rules to regulate it. The Federal Communications Commission does put restrictions on sex, nudity and foul language, but nothing on blood and gore.

"It's not only the parent who has to pay attention," Brown said. "The media must take responsibility for this. It is egregious at this point. It's way out of line."

In a WRAL News poll, 500 adults were asked whether requiring a reduced amount of violence in entertainment would reduce the incidence of mass shootings. Thirty-nine percent responded "a little," while 36 percent said "not at all" and 20 percent answered "a lot."

Major medical and public health organizations, based on their years of research, have called on Congress in the past to step up to this issue. 

"We know from more than 50 years of really good studies that the media have an effect on adolescents' aggressive behavior," Brown said. 

Even more than that, she said, violence in media can desensitize everyone – whenever violence goes unpunished, or is rewarded, it only makes it seem acceptable.

Shattuck said that's the way it's always been.

"We've always been a culture of violence in America. Look at all the old books about the West, at John Wayne movies," he said. "To be honest with you, Dante's Inferno is way more graphic than 'Call of Duty.'"

Video games have ratings, and retailers say that helps keep mature-themed games out of the wrong hands, but there's no substitute for engaged parents.

Saponara's mother, Tammy Saponara, said she used to prohibit the first-person shooting games, but she doesn't anymore.

"When her and her brother were younger, I definitely would. They weren't playing it when they were young," she said. "But they're 19 and 17, (and now) I really don't because I know how my children are, and they're not violent at all."

Shattuck said parents, not video games, are to blame for exposing children to violence.

"Everybody wants to find somebody to blame," he said. "They don't understand. The problem is, we're a country of absentee parents."

This story is part of WRAL's prime time special "Soft Targets, Hard Choices." We welcome your comments and questions. Send email to hardchoices@wral.com or use #hardchoices on Twitter.