Violence - Overview

Questions about media violence have populated the headlines for almost as long as mass media has existed. Every few years, there’s a new line up of suspects: music, video games, television shows, and movies.

Criticism of media violence is often mixed with concerns of racism, gender, ageism, and class: print media, talk shows and evening news programs [1] often feature stories in which hip hop and rap are held up to the viewer as the exemplars of contemporary culture’s slide into violent depravity. [2]

Given the widely differing views about the effects of media violence held by both researchers and cultural commentators, it’s important to identify those effects that are well established by reliable research and to cast a critical eye on the things we think we know. When it comes to the question “Does violent media cause violent behaviour?” the simple answer is “We don’t know.” Media violence is a very complicated subject and a question like “Does it cause violence?” ignores the complexity of the relationships, beliefs, and economic imperatives that surround violent media content. What we can say, however, is “We don’t know—but we do know many things that will inform how you feel about media violence. We also know that there are certain things we wish we knew, and there are key questions about media violence that need to be asked.” Questions like:

  • How is violence used in mass media?
  • Why is it so common?
  • Is it as common as I think?
  • What effects does it have? Is it dangerous?
  • What are people saying about it?
  • Why is it so hard to just get a simple yes/no answer?
  • How important is the context in which it appears?
  • How can we deal with it?
  • How can I teach my children or students to deal with it?

One frequently heard claim is that media violence causes real world violence. Recent attention has focused on the possibility that media violence (especially video games) has been a contributing factor in mass violence such as the shootings at Columbine High School (1999), Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2007), and Utøya Island in Norway(2011). As technology has advanced and media have become more immersive – from the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train to today’s “first-person shooter” video games—people have been concerned that viewers and players will lose the distance between themselves and the media and be driven to acts of violence. Given the focus of these games on weaponry, the paranoia-inducing corridors that are typical of game environments, and the role of the player as lone judge, jury, and executioner, it isn’t difficult to see the line of thinking that links these types of games to the idea of mass violence. Even experts on television tell us that these games are responsible:

…common sense tells you that if these kids are playing video games, where they’re on a mass killing spree in a video game, it’s glamorized on the big screen, it’s become part of the fiber of our society. You take that and mix it with a psychopath, a sociopath or someone suffering from mental illness and add in a dose of rage, the suggestibility is too high.

And we’re going to have to start dealing with that. We’re going to have to start addressing those issues and recognizing that the mass murderers of tomorrow are the children of today that are being programmed with this massive violence overdose.
Dr. Phil McGraw, commenting on the Virginia Tech shootings on Larry King Live – April 16, 2007 [3]

Looking at Doom (1993) - the game that established the first-person shooter as a genre - it isn’t hard to see where McGraw’s anxiety stems from. With its graphic depictions of violence coupled with occult and satanic imagery, the game hardly needed help from the architects of the Columbine shootings—who remarked in planning the massacre that it would be “just like Doom”—to propel it into controversy. [4] Despite these suggestive connections, however, no clear relationship has ever been established between media violence (including video games) and real-world violence. For example, it should be noted that despite Dr. Phil’s assessment of Cho Seung Hui, police searches of the Virginia Tech shooter’s dorm revealed no video games, [5] and a profile of perpetrators of school shootings done by the United States Secret Service found that only one-eighth played violent video games. [6]

While there may be a more complex and subtle relationship between media violence and violent behaviour, the debate is dominated by one question—whether or not media violence actually causes real-life violence. This may be because the debate is at least partially a political one, between those who want to censor violent content to protect children and those who see regulation as the slippery slope to censorship or a smokescreen hiding the root causes of violence in society.

One thing is certain: the issue of media violence is not going to go away. Increasingly the debate is shifting towards “cultures of violence,” and on the normalization of aggression and lack of empathy in our society.

The realities of digital media complicate these issues in new ways. For instance, new media forms are everywhere and interactive, something that traditional narrative forms (such as books, film, and TV) are not. As well, given the increased ability of consumers to access whatever media content they want, whenever they want, the prospect of censoring or even limiting access to violent media is becoming more and more remote.



[1] McWhorter, John H. “How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back.” City Journal, Summer 2003.
[2] “Swash, Rosie, Nas and Bill O’Reilly try to out-Fox each other.” The Guardian: Tuesday, July 29, 2008.
[4] Harris, Eric and Dylan Klebold, Basement Tapes. Cyn Shepard, Ed.
[6] Vossekuil, Bryan et al. “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.” United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, May 2002.