Brad Hodson, English 103
Instructor: Beth Brown
Kornbluh Award Winning Essay, 2008
Slaying Dragons: The Positive Benefits of Violent Media On Children
A school shooting has just taken place in Helsinki. As I write this, the newscaster wonders if there is any connection between this and other school shootings, whether through method or motive. There will likely be a roundtable discussion on one of the myriad talk shows later, the ubiquitous scrolling headline at the bottom reading something along the lines of “Video Games Influenced Shooting” or “Shooters Mimicked Action Movie.” And why not? Violence in the media has received an ample amount of attention in the past few years. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the effects of violent television programming and video games on children is harmful, damaging, and possibly influencing violent acts in turn. Yet children have long been drawn to violent fantasy scenarios, whether it be Beowulf or Gunsmoke or Mighty Morphing Power Rangers. There is a magnetic pull for children toward these types of stories and there has been since the dawn of time. Children like the shooters in Helsinki are an aberration, the sociological equivalent of a defective gene. Far from creating generation after generation of serial killers and gang bangers, violent stories can be and usually are beneficial to the young people that they target.
My own development would be sorely lacking without such tales. In my youth I was an awkward, overweight child with no social skills. In this vacuum of social input, I was instantly drawn to comic books. Spider-Man was by far my favorite. There was an appeal there in reading about the hero beating up his villains, and I admired this fictional character so much that I took to heart his credo: "With great power comes great responsibility." The violence that drew me in and thrilled me also inspired me.
Later, as a still awkward teenager, I fell in love with martial arts films. Again, the violence and action drew me in. In the fantastic athleticism of Bruce Lee, Yuen Biao, and Jackie Chan, I also discovered a sense of right and wrong, of honor and nobility. There was a moral code in these films imparted through the characters, not much different from the moral codes extant in Medieval tales of knights slaying dragons or in the stories of Wild West lawmen. Lacking a father figure in my own life, these characters (who were no doubt strong and in control of their lives) gave me something to aspire to, some sense of what a grown man should be and how he should interact with the world around him.
Then, of course, there was the more obvious benefit gained from these films. Even though I was poor and unathletic, I began to train in the martial arts, realizing my athletic potential, loosing weight, and gaining confidence in myself—in short, slaying my own dragon
Later in life my interest in violence took a more literary bent and I discovered Greek mythology, as well as the novels of Joseph Conrad and Stephen Pressfield. Again, the violence drew me in, but what I discovered about human history and the human spirit was invaluable. The stories of the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae, of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and of William Wallace dying in the name of freedom showed me that there were things worth fighting for in this world, and ignited a fire within me to fight against such injustices. Granted, my battles have taken place on much smaller scales, mostly participating in charities, but the lessons were applied all the same.
My own personal experiences aside, children from all walks of life have been drawn to violent stories since the first school children heard the Epic of Gilgamesh in Sumeria 5000 years ago. We are, after all, animals, no matter how highly evolved, and as animals there is an aggressive core to our natures that yearns to find expression. In his Nobel Prize winning book On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz shows that aggression is a natural urge developed through millions of years of evolution. Its original purpose was for hunting and competing with other “packs” or “tribes” of people for resources, whether for food or procreation. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was only yesterday that we were apes. Though violence seems abhorrent to our new society, those violent urges won’t just vanish because we wish them to. Thus we find new outlets for such aggression, rituals like sports and vicarious outlets like violent media. War and violence are intricately tied to our DNA, and as such bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. But children are bright and able to latch on to the nobler aspects, to the bravery, courage, and sacrifice found in these stories.
There is a societal fear of aggression and violence that permeates our culture, and so we try to shield our children away from these. But this shying away from violence has led to a society where tragedies like Columbine occur. In his paper Lessons From Columbine: Virtual and Real Rage, Dr. Jerald Block theorizes that it wasn’t playing violent video games themselves that led to the Columbine massacre, but when the killers’ parents deprived them of such an outlet. Block himself does a much better job than I could of summarizing this theory:
“When Klebold and Harris [the Columbine killers] are kicked off their computers, few, if any, would recognize just how important their virtual lives were to them... For heavy computer users, cutting them off can free up 30 or more hours a week. That is a lot of time to fill, especially for an enraged teen with limited social skills. The second issue is to recognize that computer users have a relationship with their computers... As silly as it may sound, being cut off from the system might feel something like being cut off from your best friend... I believe the primary issue is not the violent content... [A violent game] becomes our best friend, our container for aggression, and the place we spend time… One minute you might be enormously powerful online. The next minute, the plug is pulled and your entire virtual existence is deleted away. We should expect such events to make people question what they have been doing with their lives for the past year(s). Imagine the day when that happens to [to other games]... will we have 9 million infuriated people across the globe? (Block)”
It's highly likely, as Block suggests, that the aversion to violence and aggression refuses such troubled children an outlet for their instincts. As their aggressive urges pile up over a long period of time, they require an outlet. Violence, rather through sports or watching television or playing video games, is a necessary release on a pressure valve. Refuse that release, and eventually there will be an explosion.
Anthropologist Richard G. Sipes sums up these tendencies in his studies on the relationships between sports and war. In his research, he labeled a model of relationships between the two that he called the drive discharge model. In the drive discharge model, aggressive tendencies are innate. A buildup of these tendencies can result in warfare, and violent sports serve to make war less likely by providing an outlet for this tension. This model suggests that levels of aggression don’t change from one society to another, although the types of behavior can vary, with an inverse relationship between the propensity to war and to warlike sports. Allow the society an outlet for its aggression, and violent behaviors subside. Using the drive discharge model, children would need such outlets to avoid more harmful violent behaviors, like school shootings.
My own awkward youth is just one testament to the escape that can be achieved for children. Life for such children can be stressful, lonely, and seemingly purposeless. Comic books and fantasy films offer a way for these children to escape such stresses, if only for a small period of time. The heroes of such stories usually pummel their foes into complacency, and this can offer a feeling of empowerment to outcast youth, even if only vicariously, that they tend to not experience in their lives. For every bully that has ever picked on them, or every verbal abuse that they've received, they are able through such media to gain some measure of confidence back.
Like most issues, violence in the media is a complicated and gray issue. But put aside the knee-jerk reaction that incidents like Columbine and Helsinki engender, and it's easy to see how every child needs to slay a dragon, even if it’s just a virtual one.
Sipes, Richard G. "War, Sports and Aggression: An Empirical
Test of Two Rival Theories." American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 75, No. 1. (Feb., 1973), pp. 64-86.
Lorenz, K. (1963) On Aggression. San Diego: Harcourt Brace,
reprinted in 1966.
Block, Jerald J, MD. "Lessons From Columbine: Virtual and
Real Rage." American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry,
Vol. 28, Issue 2. (Feb., 2007), pp. 3-25.