Why is Violent Media so Pervasive?

Representations of violence are not new. In fact, violence has been a key part of media since the birth of literature: Ancient Greek poetry and drama frequently portrayed murder, suicide and self-mutilation, many of Shakespeare’s plays revel in violence, torture, maiming, rape, revenge and psychological terror and some of the most popular books of the 19th century were “penny dreadfuls” that delivered blood, gore and other shocks to the lowest common denominator.

In today’s mass media world, the conventional wisdom is that violence sells. Violent media costs less to export, it costs less to translate, and it has way fewer problems being picked up by markets in different cultures than ours. As a language, violence is easy to understand and requires little context in order to present a plot: explosions, gunfire and martial arts are a language that anyone can understand. Consider some of the following numbers:

  • From 1995 to 2020, the top grossing movie for each year was a decidedly violent movie with the exception of five films, with the top two genres: action and adventure, both having elements of violence.[1]
  • Films that are rated PG-13 hold almost 50 percent of the American market. Films that are either PG or PG-13 make more money than all other film ratings combined and currently contain more violence than R rated films.[2]
  • 70 percent or 51.5 million kids under 18 are video game players in the United States. [3]
  • The average age range of a video game player is 35-44 years old. [4]
  • Only 13 percent of all games sold are given an M rating for “mature,” the highest rating possible.[5]
  • In 2019, consumers in the United States spent approximately $43 billion on video games.[6]

As we can see from the numbers above, the two major forms of entertainment media that traffic in representations of violence are huge businesses. It is interesting to note, however, that while much of the moral panic tends to revolve around video games, the majority of game players are not children, but adults. Conversely, movies targeted towards a youth demographic are a major source of income for filmmakers in Hollywood.

For film, the financial “sweet spot” appears to be films that are action rather than dialogue oriented, but still accessible to young people. This combination allows filmmakers to target the most profitable local markets while still maintaining relevance in foreign markets due to the relative lack of dialogue and domestic-culture-specific references: action movies don’t require complex plots or characters. They rely on fights, killings, special effects and explosions to hold their audiences. And, unlike comedy or drama—which depend on good stories, sharp humour and credible characters, all of which are often culture-specific—action films require little in the way of good writing and acting. They’re simple and they’re universally understood. To top it off, the largely non-verbal nature of the kind of films that journalist Sharon Waxman refers to as “short-on-dialogue, high-on-testosterone” makes their dubbing or translation relatively inexpensive.[7]

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom in the film industry. In fact, research has found that violence has, at best, a minor and indirect effect on a movie’s financial success[8] and the single largest foreign market – China[9] – is more aggressive in its censorship than the United States. This censorship “makes things difficult for foreign films…[with] restrictions on…nudity, sex and violence.”[10] As well, research has found that what appeals to young people – even boys – is not violent heroes, but heroes that successfully solve problems.[11]

The belief that violence is a ticket to foreign revenue is still widespread, however, which means enormous pressures on the American movie industry to abandon complexity in favour of action films.[12] 

Video games and violence

Though there are many successful non-violent video games, they continue to be almost synonymous with violence. Their movie-like realism, combined with enormous marketing budgets, has made this entertainment industry the second most-profitable in the world.

Unlike movies, though, there is little tradition in video games of works that critique or question the need for violence. Games that try to prevent moral disengagement and make you conscious of the effects of your actions are few and far between and are typically negatively received by players.[13] It may be that the interactive quality of games makes it impossible to achieve the distance needed to critique media violence at the same time as you’re experiencing it. Criticism of the game Six Days in Fallujah, for example, which replicates a battle in which U.S. troops are accused of having committed war crimes, encapsulated the issue: if it were to have players engage in those actions it would seem to be endorsing them or trivializing the issue, but leaving them out would “create a sanitized version of real-world events.”[14]

In 2019, the most popular video games included the ultra-violent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019 and Grand Theft Auto V, successors to the first-person shooter genre made famous by Doom.[15] This genre continues to make huge sales and, just like violent film and television, these games require minimal translation or adaptation to move across cultures. While many of these games are primarily played in multiplayer competition – which research suggests is experienced more like playing a sport than consuming violent media[16] – most do have single-player narratives, as well.

The 24-hour news cycle

In 1980, Ted Turner founded the first 24-hour news television station, CNN, revolutionizing people’s relationship to current events. Nine years later, journalist Eric Pooley coined the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” referring to the pressure that news outlets feel to highlight violent and sensational stories in the name of ratings.[17] While there’s evidence that this is only partly true of Canadian news outlets in general,[18] the pressures of the 24-hour cycle, in which news is constantly “breaking” and producers have less time to judge whether or not certain images are appropriate, means there is significant pressure to run anything that might be a “scoop.”

Livestreaming and social media

Though nearly all social networks and video sharing sites prohibit graphic violence, the sheer quantity of content posted to them means that some will always slip through. The need to review that content also takes a tremendous psychological toll on the content moderators for those sites, who may have to view hundreds of violent acts per day.[19] In particular, livestreaming has been used to broadcast violent acts as they happen, including hate-motivated mass murders. While platforms generally act quickly in removing these once they have happened, it is often difficult to prevent them at the time and copies are often made and shared before the original is deleted.[20]


[1] (2020). “US Movie Market Summary from 1995 to 2020.” The Numbers.

[2] Hervieux, L (2017) According to researchers, the most violent movies aren’t rated R, but rather…Fox News. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/according-to-researchers-the-most-violent-movies-arent-rated-r-but-rather

[3] (2019). “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry.” Entertainment Software Association.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richter, F (2019) Americans spent $43 billion on video games in 2018. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/chart/9838/consumer-spending-on-video-games/

[7] S. Waxman (1990). “Hollywood Attuned to World Markets.” Washington Post; Page A1.

[8] Taylor, Laramie. (2003) “The Effects of Nudity, Sexual Content, and Violence on a Film’s Financial Success.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA.

[9] Ma, A (2019) China is ramping up censorship of its movie industry ahead of the communist party’s 70th-anniversary celebrations, and Hollywood is stepping in to fill the void. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/china-movie-censorship-gives-hollywood-advantage-2019-9

[10] Savistsky, S (2019) Hollywood’s cave to China on censorship. Axios. Retrieved from https://www.axios.com/hollywood-movies-china-censorship-bba26aa9-b122-4b2c-80e1-054394414698.html

[11] Götz, M., & Herche, M. (2012). What really annoys me about the way girls and boys are portrayed in children’s television”: Children from 21 countries write illustrated letters to TV producers. Sexy girls, heroes and funny losers: Gender representations in children’s TV around the world, 181-202.

[12] Lacey, Liam. (2011). “International box office: The tail that wags the Hollywood dog.” The Globe and Mail

[13] Hartmann, T. (2017). The ‘Moral Disengagement in Violent Videogames’ Model. Game Studies, 17(2).

[14] Francis, B. (2021) Six Days in Fallujah tramples over the human cost of the Iraq War. Gamasutra. Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/379277/Opinion_Six_Days_in_Fallujah_tramples_over_the_human_cost_of_the_Iraq_War.php

[15] Kain E, (2020) The 20 Best-selling video games of 2019. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2020/01/17/the-20-best-selling-video-games-of-2019/?sh=b8cecb573da5

[16] Shoshani, A., & Krauskopf, M. (2021). The Fortnite social paradox: The effects of violent-cooperative multi-player video games on children's basic psychological needs and prosocial behavior. Computers in Human Behavior, 116, 106641.

[17] Pooley E. (1989) “Grins, Gore, and Videotape: The Trouble with Local TV News.” New York.

[18] MacRae, K. (2016). Does it lead if it bleeds? An analysis of Toronto newspapers and their coverage of trauma-related events (Doctoral dissertation, Concordia University).

[20] Grygiel J. (2019) “Livestreamed massacre means it’s time to shut down Facebook Live.” The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/livestreamed-massacre-means-its-time-to-shut-down-facebook-live-113830