As a society, we often seek to find an explanation for things that are new or that we don’t understand. This explanation often, and unfortunately, takes the form of a scapegoat. The truth is that often the ‘new thing’ that we’re denouncing is a source of good rather than evil. Today, it’s video games.
Historically, society has misplaced blame in dangerous ways. Comic books were said to cause criminal deviance and promiscuity during their golden age in the 1950s. Further back, pinball was declared the source of humanity’s downfall. Even the printing press was thought, by some, to undermine the moral character of people.
By the 1980s, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons picked up in popularity… along with it, quite a few displeased parents. In one instance, after a player died by suicide in 1980, his grieving parents blamed the game for their son’s untimely passing. This pattern of blame continued when, in 1983, a particularly distressed parent founded Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). This organization actively and publically fueled cultural panic through televised campaigns and small, religiously-focused gatherings. Their most well-known claim was that players of D&D were being recruited into a satanist cult through their gameplay. It wasn’t until further research was done in the early 1990s that it became clear such panic was unfounded. Just in time, a new scapegoat was found.
Rap, industrial rock, and metal were in the cultural zeitgeist by the mid-80’s; conversations about whether their expressed violence was affecting unsuspecting youth arose amidst their popularity. By the 90’s, without scientific evidence, MTV removed rap videos, police shut down entire concerts, and politicians called for advertisers to stop supporting radio stations that played rap music. Eminem lyrics were mentioned in one court case as being the catalyst for a violent sexual act. The court presumed: “One possibility is that the 12-year-old boy [now 13] in adolescence heard the track and thought it would be a good idea to make someone do that to him.”
On the heels of the Columbine tragedy in 1999, news outlets connected the perpetrators to their appreciation for Marlyn Manson’s music; this claim turned out to be false. The panic surrounding the artist’s influence sparked a campaign that forced Manson to retreat, as every defense he attempted only further fueled his critics’ objections. Manson canceled shows and warned people in his public appearances that by scapegoating his music, the media was only further alienating kids who felt marginalized. All of this fell on deaf ears. Even if violent songs are less than ideal for youth to consume, they can still be a means of self-expression – their interpretation is up to each person. How many other people hear violent lyrics yet do not hurt others? Now, this doesn’t mean that caretakers should just accept kids’ choices carte blanche, but neither should we assume that new media is universally detrimental. Having an open and curious conversation can reinforce positive connections with youth, and might simultaneously build connections and help both sides learn new things.
Taking Pause for Openness and Learning
It should not be noted that both music and D&D have since been used as their own forms of therapy. In all the above cases, the communities of players and listeners were already considered to be part of a counter-culture. They were already thought of as different, thus likely marginalized. Alienating those who might be in need of help does not help reduce violence.
Even if we presume, for a moment, that music and games were at fault…what if we first encourage exploration and discussion around these things before we jump to conclusions about them? Having a conversation about the violence heard in songs, seen in video games, or portrayed in comics might be the difference that saves lives. Connecting with others about what they enjoy, how they connect to it, and how they’re doing could be a more powerful effort towards preventing alienation. Here are some simple tips for connecting with people and understanding their involvement in new forms of media:
- Understanding mindset – Approach the conversation with the intent of understanding, rather than condemning others’ interests. An understanding mindset changes a person’s behavior and tone.
- Nuanced thinking – It’s easy to think of things as simply “good” or “bad,” but it’s rare that they are entirely good or bad. Embracing the possibility that there might be both positives and negatives helps you understand and helps the other person feel less like they are being attached and more like their opinion is being heard.
- Questions and summaries – Using open-ended questions to inquire about someone’s interests is a collaborative way of connecting and understanding. Summarizing the other person’s perspective and allowing them to correct your summaries can help to connect even more!
- Expect frustration – When you’re talking to someone about something you might not fully understand, it’s okay, even expected, to feel frustrated and confused. The other person is probably feeling the same way. It’s okay to acknowledge that. Care and patience go both ways in any disagreement.
We will always have new media emerging. New things will often be met with skepticism and some fear. We have no shortage of examples throughout history. Violence wasn’t caused by Dungeons & Dragons in the 80’s. It wasn’t caused by Marilyn Manson or Eminem in the 90’s. It’s certainly not video games today. As noted in a previous Take This article on aggression and violence: “Certainty is more comforting than complex ambiguity, but aggression is a complicated topic.” With some patience and a few skills for connecting with others, we can better understand the nuance of both new media and healthy skepticism, making connection the savior of rationality, instead of fear.
Marie is better known as Mxiety, a talk show host and writer. Her goal is to create an uplifting space for mental health through interviews with professionals and advocates, games, and supportive, inclusive community chats. Welcome on in! You can learn more about her and access other resources at mxiety.com or buy her blog compilation book at mxiety.com/book.