About 100 years ago two very respected figures were deeply worried about a trend involving the mass media. Actually, it was not 100 years ago but only about thirty or so years–it’s just that things in the mass media have evolved so quickly since then, it feels longer ago. But the two concerned persons were movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Yes, these are the “Two Thumbs Up” guys of “Siskel & Ebert” fame from their movie review program on television. Both are gone now and both died too soon. They were cracking good film reviewers but more than that, they routinely demonstrated keen insights into society and into trends that were troubling.
In the 1980s in particular Siskel & Ebert worried about a lot of the slasher horror movies that were coming out. Since nothing inspires copycats in Hollywood like one or two successful films, there was an avalanche of horror movies that spun out from the success of films like the original “Friday the 13th” (1980) and “Halloween” (1978). Both films have had multiple sequels but they spawned far more similar films of varying degrees of quality and gore.
What worried Siskel & Ebert, however, was the point-of-view or perspective of the films. Over and over the more terrifying scenes in the movies were seen through the eyes of the killer. As a viewer you simply WERE the mass murdering and knife-wielding Jason in “Friday the 13th” or the remorseless killer Michael Myers in “Halloween.” What’s more, as often as not in those films, but even more so in the scores of copycat films that followed, this point-of-view from the killer meant the stalking of young women–often scantily clad young women–and thus Siskel & Ebert seriously worried what this would do to the minds of young men watching these films. Victimizing and stereotyping women was surely a concern but so was the idea that there was something thrilling about stalking them, spying on them, terrorizing them. These two film critics used their popular TV show to lobby Hollywood to think long and hard about placing the audience in the role of the killer and particularly in the role of those killing women.
I thought of all that recently when I was forced to watch an online advertisement in the run-up to watching a video. The ad was for one of the countless X-Box / PlayStation video games that involve military grade violence. The ad promoted one of the games by sharing a review blurb from some magazine that called a certain game “The Year’s Best Shooter Game.” Indeed, most of these games–whose technical sophistication in graphics and interactive software have advanced to stunning degrees–are played from the perspective of the shooter. You are looking down the barrel of a gun or through an assault weapon’s targeting scope throughout most of the game. You are the killer. You make the bad guys go splat. Similar points-of-view are true of “games” involving tank warfare–you are the gunner–and other forms of urban warfare.
It seems more than legitimate–a la Siskel & Ebert of old–to wonder what this does to the perspectives and minds of those who play these games for sometimes endless hours each week. We already live in a gun-crazy culture in which somebody with a high powered set of guns goes off about every other day to shoot up crowds of people. Depending on how you count and what you define as a mass shooting, there have been nearly as many such shootings in 2015 as there have been days in the year thus far. The New York Times recently ran a series of statistics about other countries and their comparative lack of gun violence. In the U.S. 31 people per million die from a firearm. But in the Netherlands people get killed with a gun about as often as someone in this country dies of accidental gas poisoning (2.3 people per million). People in Japan get killed by a gun about as often as people here get struck by lightning (0.1 people per million), etc.
I am not so naive as to say video games make people into mass killers, and probably someone would point out that there is no evidence that the guy who shot up the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater or the terrorist-inspired homegrown terrorists who shot up San Bernadino were addicted to shooter video games. Still, in an age of epidemic gun violence, should we be glorying in having the point-of-view of gun toting people who “win” games by achieving a high body count? Should Christians in particular at least pause long enough to wonder what this does to a person?
As Neal Plantinga once reminded me, once upon a time in Reformed theological circles people worried long and seriously about the acting profession and whether it was appropriate for Christians to pursue careers as actors. Some of our forebears worried what it would do to a Christian’s soul to inhabit the character of a Hannibal Lector type, of Hitler, of someone who beat his wife to a pulp. Can we be damaged by getting lost in a part when “the part” in question is a violent, hateful person? These were serious inquiries.
Well, what about staring down the barrel of a gun for hours on end each week? Would Christians be right to ponder what this does to one’s soul?