The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.
In the posting about so-called “violent” computer games, I mentioned that I had an issue with one of the measurements. I think it produced measurement artifacts and was not an actual measure for the detrimental effects of violent computer games. But I couldn’t phrase it at the time. A nice “spirit of the stairway” moment, but here we go.
If I recall the issue correctly, the argument was that “violent” computer games desensitize players to violence. A method used to test this effect was to use a scale with descriptions of different forms of violence (e.g., ostracizing someone, hitting someone, etc.) and letting the person rate them on how violent they are (e.g., on a scale of 1 to 10, one being not violent at all and ten being absolutely violent). Half of the participants did play a “violent” computer game beforehand, the other half did not (e.g., they played another game like Tetris). If the players who did play the violent computer game rate the violent behaviors as less violent than the ones who did not, you can show that “violent” computer games desensitize these players. You could further argue that this would mean that they don’t see violence as that bad, and perhaps even that they might be more prone to violent behavior themselves.
So much for the argument for this measure.
In principle, it’s a nice measure. But my issue with it is that it does only reflect the current situation the players are in, not anything within the players. It over-represents the situation in the rating values — they do not represent the disposition of the person. But let’s make the issue clearer with an analogy.
Suppose you have two groups of people, like in the example above, and you give one group a book about whales, and the other a book about cats. Now you let them rate a list of animals on a scale denoting size (again from 1-10, one being very small and ten being very large). I’m willing to bet that you would find a statistically significant difference between the whale-readers and the cat-readers when it comes to the size ratings. But would you be making the assumptions that the whale-readers are larger? Or more prone to “large” behavior? Or did they simply had a different frame of reference represented?
Sure, it’s dangerous to use analogies. You could easily use the different perception as the crucial issue. They might not be larger but they might feel this way, which when it comes to violence is the only thing that counts. But one criticism still stands: It’s an effect of the scale, specifically that the scale was without fixed and clearly denoted end points. By giving the players of “violent” computer games another frame of reference, you changed the scope of the scale. Similarly, for the whale-vs-cat group, the whale group has the largest living animals in the back of their mind. No wonder they (likely, it’s untested as far as I know) underrated the size of the animals.
Whether it’s animal size or violence, these end points should be specified with a case example. And that might be hard to come up with. For animals it’s easy — a blue whale for the living ones. But what would you use for violence? Torture? Murder? Genocide? The sadistic killing of a deranged individual?
I mean, seriously, reading a book about serial killers (by John Douglas if I remember correctly) and what they did with their victims redefined what I consider as “very violent”. Does that make “lesser” forms less relevant. No. But it puts them into perspective.
And frankly, I think that’s missing a little in today’s Western world. Luckily, extreme cases of violence are extremely rare. But I wonder whether this also means that we react overly sensitive to things that are not really that much of an issue. And perhaps this is the main criticism to “violent” computer games. They give us a glimpse at what people are capable of. Take the torture scene in GTA V. Sure, it’s over the top, it’s cliche, but are we really to believe things like this do not happen? By the “good” guys (and girls)? And what’s the problem here, that a person is tortured, or that this information is used to kill someone?
So, if games with violent scenes are criticized, perhaps the arguments should be better than a few points on a scale that is more a measurement artifact than an actual effect. After all, that might be an issue — and that these games show us a world that does or can exist, whether we want it or not.