According to Funk, steadily increasing homicide rates have made the United States the most violent country in the industrial world. Additionally, each year, the perpetrators of violence are younger. Coupled with this phenomenon is a meteoric rise in the portrayal of graphic violence in the media. Before the arrival of advanced special effects, there was a time when film audiences were required to use their imaginations — they heard a gunshot, but did not literally see a person being brutally massacred. Partially because technology has improved, very little is left to the imagination. Films like Starship Troopers no longer shy away from the inherent savagery of violence, but gleefully display glorious showers of gibs whenever the screenplay dictates audiences should be getting restless from all the inane dialogue and meager plot mechanics. This same mentality has been applied to many video games. No longer does Pac-Man inoffensively munch on regenerating ghosts; rather, frantic pedestrians are graphically squashed under the brutish advance of killer vehicles, innocent bystanders are mowed down with free bullets-to-the-brains therapy, and Duke doesn’t pump iron, he pumps hot lead, and plenty of it. The substantial growth of media violence may also be a result of an unchecked permissiveness and a broadening social acceptance of the material. However, the question of causality is where the issue becomes problematic. Society has obviously become more tolerant of violence, yet the basis for this leniency remains in dispute. Has the media’s appeal to our natural curiosity of the sordid broken down our shields of protection and unleashed our evil, slavering ids upon society, or is a widespread moral degeneration and desensitization to violence simply being reflected in the films we watch, the music we listen to, the magazines we read, and the games we play?
Critics of media violence argue that by glamorizing and promoting a general toleration of violence, games and other mediums of entertainment and information (for a truly potent experience, try enduring the evening news) increase the relative risk of real-life violence. This theory of provocation suggests that exposure to media violence desensitizes the player to real-life violence and increases aggressive behavior through observational learning and practice. To win many games, players must typically employ strategies that rarely generate realistic consequences. When is the last time you cleared a bathroom of undesirables with a pipe bomb, or driven at breakneck speeds down a crowded sidewalk to reach the finish line? These violent actions are rewarded, and critics claim children receive positive reinforcement for maladaptive and anti-social behavior. The theory also suggests that because children are exposed to these concepts before they are emotionally equipped to make rational decisions, they may transfer the favorable experience of winning a violent game to real-life conduct. For example, young players may assume that conflict is best resolved through brute force. “On a theoretical basis, playing games can be a very powerful learning situation,” Funk explained. “When winning requires anti-social actions, the modeling effect combined with the practice inherent in a game is disturbing.”
The system of reward is not the only key variable which generates concern. According to Funk, the intensity, or the amount and frequency of a game’s violence, and the degree of realism are other important factors. The frenetic nature of games like Quake, which enables dozens of online participants to blaze through maze-like structures killing opponents with rocket launchers and nail guns, is a major selling point. The more intense the conflict, opponents argue, the more extreme the behavioral impact. Additionally, progressive technology is enabling game developers to render increasingly realistic scenes of violence, complete with polygonal chunks of eviscerated flesh, raging showers of blood and gore, and disturbingly authentic sounds of death and carnage. According to the theory of provocation, the more genuine the fictional representation of violence, the greater the probability that the behavior will be duplicated in real life. Critics of media violence also claim that attitudinal changes may result from the trivialization of violence. One eye-popping magazine advertisement for Resident Evil realistically depicts a rabid canine chewing on a severed human hand, while the ad for Segasoft’s Flesh Feast features a chainsaw dripping with flesh and blood. Lieberman’s report goes as far to contend that the murder and mayhem being depicted through the media “are helping to create a culture of violence that is increasingly enveloping our children, desensitizing them to the consequences and ultimately cheapening the value of human life.”