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Archive for the ‘Violence’ Category

I recently came across a clear case of plagiarism, which should be simple enough to deal with. Except that situations such as this, as well as giving failing grades, also bring fear about how students will respond. A combination of the sense of entitlement that many students at my current institution have as a result of their social class backgrounds and news reports of horrible events occurring regularly on college campuses always give me pause about doing what is right in these situations for fear of violent repercussions.

This has not dissuaded me so far, but a former colleague of mine reported a situation in which he caught a student plagiarizing and his house was vandalized shortly afterward. There was no definitive proof that the student was to blame, but he had been even more cautious about reporting students in the years since.

Ultimately, I do not think that faculty members are trained well (or at all) in dealing with students who may see the difference between a D- and an F as the sole factor in the potential disruption of their future plans. I fear that this training will be increasingly necessary in the future.


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In some ways, even “family friendly” video games are centered on violent acts. The first moments of Super Mario Bros. (1985), for example, likely involve the player stomping a goomba to death and repeating this act countless times over the duration of the game and its many sequels. There is a qualitative difference, though, between stomping a goomba and shooting a realistic-looking human with a virtual gun. I recently realized the desensitization to virtual violence that can take place over a lifetime of playing violent video games and that it is possible to become resensitized to this violence.

Other than NES games like Contra (1987), my first experience killing virtual humans (and dogs, incidentally) came in the early ’90s while playing Wolfenstein 3D (1992) on my family’s first computer (with a 33 mhz Intel 486 and sans sound card). Its rudimentary 3D corridors were amazing to me at the time and the ability to shoot Nazi guards and see their blood splatter seemed “cool” to my pre-teen self (and his friends). Nothing about the experience (or that of playing Doom (1993) a few years later), however, suggested that killing real people would be anything like it.

Around this time, I remember seeing the game Pit Fighter (1990) in the mall’s arcade and noting its realistic graphics. Pit Fighter used the same digitization process that later made Mortal Kombat’s (1992) over-the-top violence infamous, with real actors playing the parts of its characters. When I eventually purchased a copy of Mortal Kombat, I was sure to get the Sega Genesis version, which had a code that allowed you to see blood like in the arcade. Nintendo seemed to learn that kids like blood, since Mortal Kombat II (1994) was released on the Super NES with blood intact (unlike the virtual “sweat” of the first game), and I bought that version as a result. Again, there was nothing about the experience of playing these games that seemed to reflect real-life murder. Having never been in a fight, I certainly wasn’t going to pull out anybody’s spine or beating heart.

The beginning of college took much of my attention away from video games but I later revisited the Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye 007 (1997) after buying it at a pawn shop early in grad school. The characters looked like faces pasted on blocks of wood so, again, I never got much of a sense of killing real people. Because of my late arrival I also missed out on the deathmatch aspect of Goldeneye. My first taste of shooting at friends in a video game came with Halo (2001) on the original Xbox. I particularly remember playing on my friend’s huge (maybe 35 inch) SDTV. This, I think, is where my desensitization to virtual violence really began.

During the single-player campaign, Halo players kill multitudes of strange-looking aliens. Multiplayer options allow players to kill each other’s space marine avatars, but helmets and body armor prevent them from looking particularly human. Starting with Halo and continuing with its sequels on the Xbox and Xbox 360, I spent hours killing various aliens, friends, family members, and strangers on the internet. The Gears of War (2006) series on Xbox 360 also tasked players with killing strange-looking aliens creatures from beneath the planet’s surface.

I spent so much time killing aliens and unrealistic-looking humans during these years that I don’t remember thinking twice about killing more realistic humans in games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) and its sequel (although the sequel’s immersion of the player into a terrorist act got some attention from others at the time). I also played these games with family members and didn’t think anything of “killing” them even when they looked like soldiers.

The last game based on shooting virtual people or things that I played before this year was probably Gears of War 3 in 2011. In the meantime, things like teaching, research, and changing jobs took up much of my time and the time I devoted to video games was more likely to be spent killing goombas in Super Mario 3D World (2013) or driving virtual go karts in Mario Kart 8 (2014). Over the summer, though, my curiosity was piqued by articles about Battlefield 1 (2016) and its approach to World War I. The only issue was that I did not own one of the new video game consoles or a PC on which to play it. Instead, I sought an Xbox 360 launch title, Call of Duty 2 (COD2), that focused on World War II and had gotten good reviews upon its release in 2005.

COD2 is what made me realize how desensitized I had been to virtual killing in the past. As an 11-year-old game, its representations of humans are not incredibly realistic, but I was constantly aware that the avatars I was mowing down with a machine gun represented people (a sense I do not recall having when playing its sequels five years ago). While this was surprising to me, it also worked to heighten the cost of WWII in terms of human life, a point that the creators of Battlefield 1 also make in terms of WWI. One important difference between COD2 and Battlefield 1 (which I have not played), though, is the technological advancements of the past 11 years. Battlefield 1 looks incredibly realistic, which might make the experience more jarring for those who are not desensitized to virtual violence while also furthering the desensitization of those who are. Had I not stepped away from virtual warfare for several years, after all, it is unlikely that my response to it would have been the same.

I would not argue that games like this should not exist. By many accounts, Battlefield 1 does a good job of communicating the horrors of WWI in the same way that a good book or film might. I do think it is important to be aware of how these forms of media affect us and our responses to violence, though. This is particularly problematic in terms of video games because, unlike authors or screenwriters, some video game developers seem to have a hard time envisioning solutions to problems that do not involve violence. The 2014 game Watch Dogs, for example, focused on hacking but required players to shoot a large number of people. Other than The Matrix (1999), I don’t recall a lot of movies about hacking that focused as much on gun violence as actual hacking.

This is unfortunate. Not every game involves virtual murder but it would be nice to see more room for genres that focus on other forms of problem solving. (Notably, Portal (2007) focuses on problem solving while also making light of the callous disregard the protagonists of many games have for those around them.) Adding to the problem-solving toolbox might allow more space for players to be aware of the effects their virtual behaviors have on their perceptions of violence inside and outside of increasingly-realistic game worlds. After all, if all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.

See also: This related article at Slate that was published after I had written this but before it was posted.


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When I initially read The Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, I appreciated the third book for its depiction of the messiness of revolution. It is not surprising that this messiness allows people from a variety of political orientations to connect with the story, as Sarah Seltzer and sociologist Mari Armstrong-Hough discuss at Flavorwire:

Beyond just advocating personal resistance to forces of political control, she says the books put forth the idea that “violence breeds docility.” “I don’t mean that threatening people with violence makes them docile, because it doesn’t. I mean that teaching people to be violent and consume violence makes them docile,” she explains. “The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.”

Via: The Society Pages

See Also: Katniss Everdeen on the Academic Job Market and The Hunger Games and Movie Relationships

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If you have access to Facebook friends who are feminists and/or sociologists you might have seen the video above, directed by Eléonore Pourriat. In it, a man faces the sorts of things that women in the real world face on a daily basis. By reframing things in order to change the viewer’s perspective on them it is reminiscent of the Heterosexuality Questionnaire (which asks questions like “Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?”). At Buzzfeed, the director stated that her inspiration “came from my experience as a woman over the past 40 years, and from the incredulity of men when I told them about the comments and behavior of some men on the street, in high school, in public transportation, everywhere really.” In that way, it is also similar to many of the early posts by FemaleScienceProfessor.

As a white male, the most interesting thing about the video to me is how hard it is to see the women’s statements as threatening toward the man after growing up in a society dominated by white cisgender straight men. Pedagogically, then, I think that the discussion of why it is so hard to see men as threatened by women in our society would be even more interesting than the discussion of the ways that the director plays with gendered experiences.

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It seems very likely that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has done terrible things. He and his brother were suspected of the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the events that have transpired since their photos were released on April 18 have done nothing to ease this suspicion. Still, seeing media coverage of the events between the time his photo was released and his subsequent capture, I couldn’t help but feel bad for him.

Lots of people have probably fantasized about violent acts, even if few carry out those acts. Watching the media coverage I couldn’t stop thinking about Dzhokhar as somebody whose fantasies had become real in the worst possible way. He and his brother seem to have carried out the bombings at the Boston Marathon without much of a plan. Afterward, they did not flee the city, they appear to have carried on as if nothing had happened. Dzhokhar attended class, went to the gym, and even went to a party.

It seems unlikely that the weight and ramifications of what he had done were “real” to him at this point. The fact that he stayed in town seems to indicate that he underestimated the ability of the police to identify him based on video and photos before and after the shooting (the sheer amount of data that police combed through to identify the suspects was, indeed, staggering). But three days after the bombing he was identified, looking like a frat guy, as the suspect in the white hat.

This is where I suspect that things started to get real. With no apparent plan (or, at least, no good plan), the Tsarnaev brothers shoot and kill an MIT police officer, hijack a car when they apparently already had one, allow the driver of the car to flee, and engage in a firefight with police. Likely injured, Dzhokhar gets in a car and attempts to escape, running over his own brother in the process, before eventually abandoning the car and escaping on foot. He and his brother had been identified. Things had gone awry. His brother was dead. Dzhokhar was alone.

Waking up on Friday the 19th and reading about the shootout in Watertown, I wondered how Dzohkhar felt. His brother was dead but the entire city of Boston was at a standstill because of him. If he had access to TV or the internet I surmised that he either  felt very powerful or completely out of options. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say. Based on his eventual capture, though, I suspect that the latter is closer to how he actually felt.

Having been shot by the police, Dzhokhar spent Friday the 19th bleeding and hiding in a boat in somebody’s backyard. The world knew his name and what he was accused of doing. The entire city of Boston was looking for him. He knew that his brother was either dead or in police custody. Escape was impossible. His own capture or death was inevitable. He was as alone as a person can possibly be in this world, bleeding, lying in a boat in a stranger’s backyard. I felt bad for him.

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The recent shooting in Newtown, CT, caused many to think about gun control laws. Of course, the NRA held a press conference blaming violence in the media – including movies and video games – and arguing, as always, that the solution is actually more guns, this time in the form of armed school guards (overlooking the fact that armed guards do not always prevent school shootings). Earlier this week, Senator Lamar Alexander reiterated the claim that media violence, particularly video game violence, is worse for us than the presence of guns in our homes, stating “I think video games is a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people. But the First Amendment limits what we can do about video games and the Second Amendment to the Constitution limits what we can do about guns.”

While it is nice that he recognizes first amendment rights as well as second amendment rights, his statement fits into the larger narrative that we should look everywhere but at gun laws in order to prevent gun violence. The fact that video games are playing a role in this narrative is also interesting because it demonstrates the extent to which they are still seen as a fringe activity. As the previously linked Ars Technica article points out:

“[I]f Alexander had said, “I think TV is a bigger problem than guns, because TV affects people,” he’d have been laughed out of the room. That’s because TV has been an established part of the cultural landscape for the entire memory of almost every person alive today. Thus, TV’s effects, both good and bad, are a well-known quantity to practically everyone. Video games, on the other hand, are still seen as a new and hard-to-understand media bogeyman by many of the elderly voters who vote in disproportionate numbers and, consequently, by many of the politicians they help put in office.

When discussing the media in class, I like to use the following quote by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from 1811:

“Where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind: it is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time.  It conveys no trustworthy information as to facts; it produces no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler faculties of the understanding.”

I first present this to students without the bolded words and ask them to guess what it is about. They provide a wide variety of responses, but nobody has ever guessed that it is about reading novels because today reading novels is seen as a valuable use of one’s time, not the “kill-time” that Coleridge saw it as. The Ars Technica article also links to an article that I wasn’t aware of discussing the broader moral panic surrounding novels. Maybe the NRA will bring us full-circle and blame murder mysteries for the next school shooting.

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David Cole, in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, discusses the connection between race and attitudes about the second amendment:

The history of gun regulation is inextricably interwoven with race. Some of the nation’s most stringent gun laws emerged in the South after the Civil War, as Southern whites feared what newly freed slaves might do if armed. At the same time, Northerners saw the freed slaves’ right to bear arms as critical to protecting them from the Ku Klux Klan.

But as long as gun violence largely targets young black men in urban ghettos, the nation seems indifferent. At Newtown, the often all-too-invisible costs of the right to bear arms were made starkly visible — precisely because these weren’t the usual victims. The nation took note, and President Obama has promised reform, though he has not yet made a specific proposal.

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