The world became a funnier place when Sigmeund Freud popularized Psychology. With him came the notion that we could hold, within our brains, aspects of personalities that weren’t immediately known or visible to us. He leapt into dreams to do combat with people’s inner demons, but as modern psychologists can tell you, it only got a lot more complicated from there.
Psychological studies that have attempted to lay down whether or not violent media influences violent behavior have shown no proof. The problem is mostly not having a large body of work to go off of. Psychology relies on the scientific method where phenomena must be observable and repeatable under the same circumstances. Media Violence comes at people in a lot of forms and everyone responds a bit differently to it, so it is very difficult to determine any correlation between its consumption and resulting behaviors.
The reason I bring this up is that ever since Columbine occurred, the trend of reporting on the video game habits of mass murderers has increased. In Columbine, the two young extremely unhealthy individuals who carried out the planning and murder of their fellow students used the video game Doom to create floor maps resembling their high school in order to simulate the experience they planned to carry out. The media used this to carry a statement and argument about violent video games and the effects they had on kids.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time violent media was used as a talking point around a tragic event. Judas Priest was made to stand trial under accusations that back masked lyrics encouraging suicide were present in a song. It was a media circus that was largely part of the dying embers of the Satanic Scare of the eighties.
The most recent case to see video games at the spotlight of a tragedy was the Sandy Hook shooting. Here the video game used was Dynasty Warriors, a game that represents highly fantastized versions of feudal battles in China during the 3rd and 4th Centuries. The games are cartoonish in their characterizations, battle animations, and dialogue. They are far more akin to the traditional kung-fu film than what some in the media claimed was a “mass murder simulator.”
Let’s be honest about the first two examples: Doom is a game that did enable the players to create their own maps and was renowned for pushing the First Person Shooter genre into the limelight. Judas Priest may not have been one of these, but there were certainly heavy metal artists that capitalized on selling the satanist image to teens in the eighties, especially once the fundamenalists got fired up about it. The idea of scapegoating a singular text, genre, or artform for creating a psychological state prone to violence and imbalance, has existed for a long time.
I’m not a media expert, a psychologist, or a professional in any way, shape, or form on guns, mental health, or mass murders. But seriously, violent media isn’t making people into school shooters, mass murderers, or unstable, unhealthy individuals. I say this with the full understanding that it isn’t an easy statement to make or thoroughly defend. But this entire issue is surrounded by the opinions of people who aren’t wholly qualified to pick and blame other elements of the conversation either.
There’s a really good Jimquisition episode where Jim Sterling responds to the arguments that violent media desensitizes people to violence. He does so by using the video of the accidentally televised suicide of Robert Dwyer, a Pennsylvanian Treasurer, from 1987. The footage is very graphic. If you believe there’s even the remotest possibility that any of this has desensitized you to real life violence, you may be interested in how you respond to the footage.
Here’s the Jimquisition episode.
I have a personal story connected to this video in particular, because I didn’t first see this through Jimquisition. A popular alternative rock song by Filter takes on this suicide as a topic. After about the hundredth time of hearing it on the radio I decided to research it. I knew there was a video of the suicide. My google search greeted me with meme images depicting what appeared to be a cartoonish representation of his dead face. I didn’t think much of it.
So I watched the video and… it was horrifying in a way I’d never experienced. A real live human being committing the ultimate act of violence on themselves. The google images weren’t cartoons, they weren’t photoshopped. The face of a human being who has just died is that unrecognizable, that unnatural, and that terrifying.
To add depth to my personal situation, I was not merely a kid who had played violent video games, watched violent movies, listened to aggressive music, I’d also been a kid who periodically looked at the website rotten.com. The website posts voyeuristic pictures of dead people in a variety of situations. They have pictures of many, many dead people, some of them having begun decomposition, some of them suicides.
But even that did not prepare me to watch a person die. Watching them transition from alive to dead, seeing the first hand results of violence, realizing that it wasn’t just this suicide, this is what every suicide, murder, death looks like. Movies and Video Games have NOTHING on that. There is no way to depict that. There is no reason to want to depict that. People don’t want to see it, and when they do, sometimes they can’t believe it’s real.
Our mediums of artistic expression are fictional and so is the way people die in those mediums. The majority of human beings “corrupted” or made “aggressive” by these fictional acts of violence have no idea what violence and death look like in the real world. I’ve seen one person die and I never want to see it ever again.
And I still game every day. I still watch violent movies. I still listen to hard rock and metal.
My behavior is influenced by being a gamer; my best friend and I are friends because we share gaming. This blog is one of many attempts to make gaming a more constructive part of my life. I’m not saying the decision of a hobby isn’t fundamentally game changing to the people involved, but that person’s use of a hobby is significantly personal. People drink without being alcoholics, people gamble without going bankrupt, and some people completely lose themselves and their lives in these tasks.
No one can say everyone is worse off for playing video games. The Columbine example is a couple of frustrated kids experiencing extreme levels of hatred and mental disorder who then used a video game as a way to elevate their frustration. They made an unhealthy choice to recreate a real world place they go to and funnel their negative feelings into that environment so that they lived in that by day and by night and could think of nothing else and couldn’t balance it themselves. And the few adults who did know about it were not able to instruct these kids and convince them that they weren’t going to be stuck in any unfavorable situation forever. In fact, most of the adults involved wouldn’t talk to these kids about it, wouldn’t sit them down and coax it out of them. And then somehow those kids got a hold of guns, made bombs, and committed a horrible atrocity. Video Games served a purpose in the story of Columbine, but only as one of the disparate elements that should have made it obvious to someone that these boys needed a lot of help.
Jon Lennon’s killer, was obsessed with The Catcher and the Rye, to the point of believing he was the main character. He also had a history of attending mental hospitals. The man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan has the same story. In and out of mental hospitals and an obsession with the film Taxi Driver. He wanted to be Travis Bickle so badly that he harassed the starring actress and attempted to assassinate a politician.
Each of these incidents features a multitude of failures to stop a situation from occurring. Much of the debate that surround these tragedies is at what level to restrict things. Every level of the situation has people unwilling to move on the issue. Stricter Gun Control Laws are constantly lobbied against by big name associations like the NRA. Mental Health is largely misunderstood by the public and no one attempts to push this education, Psychology included. Most people’s touchstone for psychology is Sigmeund Freud and there’ve been four major movements in psychology since his time. People still don’t understand the differences between Counselors and Psychiatrists and Psychologists. And we have parents who don’t know when they’re kids are seriously sick, or don’t want to accept it.
There is a series that represents what I believe to be our society’s obsession with manipulating how we look at violence in a way so that we can lie to ourselves about the significance of that violence, both in the real world and in fictional universes. And that series, is Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass is a story based around the idea of real-world superheroes. In other words, it’s a story that poses the question, “What if a real person became a superhero?” The idea is that if we believe a real person is going to be pretending to be a super hero we can grasp a narrative about the reality of the super hero mythos we’ve built in to many a comic book and movie. It’s essentially a sub-genre that serves as a closer look at what a super hero really is.
There are going to be significant plot spoilers ahead, in case anyone is thinking of reading or viewing for themselves.
Kick-Ass is about Dave Lizewski. He’s a comic book fan who wants to be a superhero. So one day he dons an outfit, starts calling himself Kick-Ass, and begins acting like a superhero.
Kick-Ass embarks into a reality of the super hero life, waiting around in alleyways waiting for some crime to happen close enough in his vicinity that he can intervene. He eventually does stumble across a mugging in a parking lot where he is stabbed in the ribs with a switchblade, stumbles into the road, and is hit by a car.
He doesn’t die, but spends a realistic amount of time in the hospital where he gets metal reinforcement in his bones. These actually give him a mild kind of super power, increased tolerance to pain due to the loss of nerves from the surgeries.
But a few metal implements can’t solve everything. Kick-Ass takes on a job for his high school crush that consists of confronting a drug dealer she has become involved with. This comes dangerously close to ending in disaster, as Kick-Ass finds himself about to be shot and killed.
At this point, Hit Girl and Big Daddy show up.
These two proceed to murder every drug fiend and dealer and gang member in the apartment, sparing only Kick-Ass but brutally and violently murdering every thug. Kick-Ass’ misguided heroics have not only nearly killed him, but the very goal he’d set out to perform has just been thoroughly done better by two mysterious individuals, one of whom is a twelve year-old girl.
The incident leaves Kick-Ass traumatized but he eventually teams up with a fellow superhero, Red Mist, who was inspired by Kick-Ass’ determination. Unfortunately, Red Mist is the son of a mob boss, Frank D’Amico who is hunting down Hit Girl and Big Daddy to put an end to their vigilantism. As it turns out, Big Daddy’s goal has been D’Amico all along. However, as Kick-Ass and Big Daddy plan to get the jump on D’Amico, they’re double crossed by Red Mist, and Big Daddy is killed.
It’s here where a significant break between film and graphic novel occurs.
In the graphic novel, Big Daddy apologizes to Hit Girl before unceremoniously being shot in the head. From one panel to the next he is gone and dead.
In the film, the mobsters decide to make a web show to warn anyone who becomes a costumed vigilante that they will be executed by the mob. They set Big Daddy on fire where he dies slowly.
The graphic novel scene is meant to mirror the apartment scene where Kick-Ass was about to be shot in the head. Big Daddy has been acting as a vigilante superhero, and his reward for all of his efforts is to see his dream die short.
The movie scene is quite different. Big Daddy and Kick-Ass are tied up and tortured. Big Daddy is set on fire. However, Hit Girl, who escaped being captured as she was in the graphic novel, reappears and takes out several armed guards, in what is meant to be one of the most “bad-ass” scenes in the film. Big Daddy calls out to her through the flames, encouraging her, and ultimately gets one last chance to talk to her and see that she’s grown into a strong young woman under his guidance.
One might ask what the significance is in giving Big Daddy a sweeter send-off in the film. Well, the primary problem is that the film wants to garner sympathy for a kidnapping murderous psychopath. Seriously, it’s after this scene that we get a lot of back story for Big Daddy.
Hit Girl binds Kick-Ass to help her kill D’Amico because Kick-Ass was responsible for leading the mobsters to Big Daddy. But first they go back to Hit Girl’s home to open a metal briefcase that Big Daddy has had with him throughout the story.
The contents of said briefcase are, once again, entirely different in the graphic novel and the film.
In the graphic novel, the briefcase contains a massive collection of comic books. In other words, the inspiration for Big Daddy to dress up and be a masked crusader, a dark vigilante against evil, a murdering cleaver through the seedy underbelly of the city’s crime, to seek personal revenge, is the exact same reason Kick-Ass started as well; a strong love of superhero comic books.
Big Daddy’s life was violent from early on until the end of his days. He sought vengeance on D’Amico for murdering his family, and he kidnapped Hit Girl in order to raise her as his own weapon for revenge. An obsession with comic book heroes, an escape from his pain, caused him to commit unspeakable acts against other human beings on the simple basis of whether or not they got in the way of his revenge or not. Big Daddy is essentially every action hero ever.
Hit Girl and Kick-Ass mount an attack on D’Amico’s headquarters, where they succeed in killing D’Amico, but not before he brutally cuts Hit Girls face with a meat cleaver. And their rewards for following on the vengeance? Red Mist survives the bout and dons himself The Motherfucker and new leader of the D’Amico crime family and vows bloody revenge against Kick-Ass in the sequel. Which he more or less gets in full. Kick-Ass loses nearly everything he cares about in Kick-Ass 2, not as a result of it being some attempt at a dark side, but as a direct result of every single time that Kick-Ass continues to keep being a superhero. His reward has always been to commit violence, accomplish nothing, and lose everything.
The movie sees takes a somewhat different route.
When they open the suitcase, rather than being filled with comics and creating the post-mortem character and theme connection, the suitcase reveals the plans of Big Daddy’s ultimate weapon: a big jet pack with big guns and lots of bullets. Kick-Ass pilots the jet pack during the climactic battle against the mobsters while Hit Girls murders hundreds of men in the most exciting violent murderous scene in the entire film. The crowd roots for them, cheers for them, and is happy when the mobster is shot by a rocket and blows up high above the streets of the city, showering blood on all below who watch because this is amazing and wonderful and thank god violent people exist to murder other violent people, am I right?
The thing is the movie is attempting to rewrite what the comic book set forth to do. The comic book is meant to be a discussion about our obsessions with violence in the media, how attempting to be an action movie hero is only going to ever lead to violence in our lives, and how the violence in our lives is only ever going to cause us to lose the things we care about. Kick-Ass in the comic book is jilted by the girl he has a crush on, and she taunts him with photos of herself pleasuring other men. Kick-Ass in the movie gets a super hot sex scene with this girl in a skirt behind a coffee shop in public. One version of Kick-Ass destroys our fascination, paints a picture of what it would really be like if we tried to actually be super heroes, and that we should try as hard as we can to fight for normal life, not super life, to achieve happiness. But the film preserves the same thing every action film fights for; that violence is cool. That a superhero is something you want to be. That obsession with violence is not only okay but that you’ll come out on top if you just keep killing the people who stand in your way. That there is nothing wrong with wanting to be Kick-Ass.
The two versions of Kick-Ass paint the two understandings of Media Violence. However, the key element of the comic book is that it just treats its gore and murder more realistically than the movie, and by that end, the comic book features the more gruesome violence, the more gruesome kill shots, and paints its picture clearer by representing the violence as bloody and difficult to look at, cringing to imagine, and painful to watch. Meanwhile, Kick-Ass the film uses this violence as stimulation, as something to cheer and applaud for, whatever subtext there is behind the character of Hit Girl is lost on the fact that we are encouraged to cheer for her, even though she’s twelve, even though she murders hundreds of men.
I’m not saying that what we should seek in real life is pacifism. That we should never attempt to solidly deal with a problem by putting an absolute end on it. I think human passivity can frequently lead to worsening of all lives involved in potentially violent situations. It was passivity that allowed the shooters of Jon Lennon and Dimebag Darrel, it was passivity that allowed the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings to occur, it was passivity and a lack of action that create the tragedies that occur in everyday life.
There are no easy solutions to ending mass murders because the situations that create the personalities that decide to kill are complex. The reality is that I’ve discussed situations after the fact. If a troubled person is properly intervened, treated, rebalanced, and allowed to grow past any illness or insecurity, they don’t make the news, because they don’t kill anyone. The family with a sick kid, obsessed with violence, who just don’t keep a gun in the house, doesn’t make the news. And when they do, it is so much easier for all of the mourning people to point to one single aspect of something and say that this did it. But the reality is that no single element of anything has done it. We have. Not because we created violent media, but because we were too busy, playing it, watching it, simulating it, or blaming it, to actually give two-shits about whether or not we are preventing it.
And that’s just sad.