When Does Graphic Violence Become too Real?

I was wandering around YouTube the other day, when the service recommended this video — X-Men Origins: Wolverine — as something that should interest me based on my previous watch patterns.  I was surprised YouTube wanted me to view a trailer for a video game, because I really only watch Blues videos.  When the Wolverine clip began playing, I was immediately incensed by disgust and fury because of the blatant blood and gory exploitation:

Spikes through the head are never enjoyable.

The ballet between fighters was not enhanced by the blood spatter that quickly became a pink fog encircling them.

Even Wolverine’s regenerative powers were ultimately disgusting.

Here’s the full video if you want to dare to watch it on an empty stomach:

The reason I am sharing the killingfest with you is to try to divine the line between fantasy gore and realistic, ritualistic, killing.

When I was younger, video games and movies could only suggest violence because of social values, the MPAA, and other conscious, moral, restrictions.  In the rare event that blood was spilled, it was usually done in a postmodernist way that bordered on cartoon caricature:  You always knew it was fake.

That Wolverine game clip is so photorealistic that it fools the eye and fakes that mind that what you are watching is more documentary than pretend murder.

The adult aesthetic can be horrified by how fast technology has made murder everyday and brilliantly gruesome — but what effect do these “hold nothing back” construed killings mean for the immature mind that is malleable, culpable and antagonistic?

Why do we seek to make killing more believable and more realistic as an entertainment escape?  What does that reveal about us as a society where blood sells and guts find glorification — and promotion — on YouTube and in our colloquial culture?

26 comments

  • I’m guessing they’re appealing to fans of the film who want to feel like they’re in control of the film and taking it in their own direction. A bit too gruesome for my taste.

    • The entire movie wasn’t as bloody as that short clip from the game, though. With the artificial physics in play where blood becomes a fog — it stretches reality into a new set of “acceptable behavior and facts” and appears to be enticing young minds instead of dissuading them from wanton bloodthirst.

  • The only way this sort of video will ‘entice young minds’ into violence is if their background is already bad. Of course, your opinion is perfectly fine to have, but I think you’re going a little over the top with “wanton bloodthirst”. Normal kids can tell the difference between a game and real life.

    • James —

      What is your definition of a “normal kid” and how do we quantify their future behavior against those children with a “bad background?”

      • David – first off sorry for not saying hello before my first post – I was just roaming the net and came across your blogs – some interesting stuff.

        A “normal kid” would be one who would go to high school, get some decent grades, and maybe go to university or college and go on to have a job. A “bad background” could perhaps be a kid who grew up in a council estate in a ‘rough’ area – maybe his parents fight, or the area has gangs. I’m overeggagerating a little but do you see my point? I don’t think just a video game would turn the first kid into the second without some sort of other impetus.

  • I think that would depend if you are religious or not, as some religions say that you ‘come back’ as someone, in that case, you could argue that a child was born bad. Some also say that people can be controlled by an ‘evil spirit’, which would be another argument for being born bad.

    However, if we put aside religion and focus on the scientific approach, then no, I do not believe children can be born bad – your actions and mannerisms are detirmined by your environment. I think I may see where you are going – if you bring up a child on that sort of game, then he or she may turn bad; but I say again, that alone amongst the rest of what a child is brought up with (if they are brought up to be ‘good’) will not, I think, turn them bad.

    P.s. Sorry for the delayed reply!

    • There is research that claims some babies, because of DNA problems, or familial chromosomes, are “born to be bad.” The “Demon Seed” is a very real phenomenon and while religion may play a part in some instances, it is only a bit.

      I do think environment forms children and grooms their expectations and fosters human reactions and violent entertainment entities that approve murder and promote killing have a quantifiable effect on the acceptability of that behavior. A radicalization of a killing on the page or on the screen is intended — by its creators — to not just entertain, but rather to affect and influence emotion and thought all while selling soap.

  • Really? I’ve never heard of that before – is it supported by many prestigous scientific bodies?

    Of course, but my argument was that if you are brought up well, then you will be able to distinguish between real life violence and violence on some pixels. The gaphics affecting you are all part of the entertainment…it attempts to make it more real, but at the same time, it is still just a computer (or tv) screen. I have been playing computer games for at least eight or nine years, mostly with conquering, or some destruction in it, yet I still feel revulsion when people kill in real life.

    I feel the media hypes up games making people violent too much. After all, you don’t get all the headlines about the people it doesn’t affect, do you?

  • James,
    you wrote,

    my argument was that if you are brought up well, then you will be able to distinguish between real life violence and violence on some pixels. The gaphics affecting you are all part of the entertainment…it attempts to make it more real, but at the same time, it is still just a computer (or tv) screen. I have been playing computer games for at least eight or nine years, mostly with conquering, or some destruction in it, yet I still feel revulsion when people kill in real life.

    When you say “you will be able to distinguish” it seems you’re primarily referring to a person’s conscious processes. There seems to be evidence that continued exposure to realistic depictions of violence does blunt people’s sensitivity to them. One large experiment on this has been done on all of us over the past 50 years: we see things today on the tv or movie screen that would have shocked us or revolted us decades ago, and now they are mildly unpleasant. This is necessarily not to say that our conscious judgments about, say, torture have changed, but our visceral reactions to the depiction certainly has.

    Doesn’t it seem as though that must have an effect, must make it easier to accept (for instance) reading about military torture, make it easier to pass over it without revulsion or outrage?

    • You make several interesting thoughts, nosleepingdog, and you’ve made me realize there is one, particular, American form of violence that we are actually more queasy about than we were 50 years ago: The Death Penalty.

      Instead of opening the doors to state-sponsored death, we’re more restrictive — yet, curiously, “friendlier” — in our killing methods. Why can’t we just admit, and accept, our violent need to express revenge in bloodshed and not rehabilitation?

      If we are like the killers before us, why not just be who we are in public and without tint? Phil Donahue had it right: Why not televise Death Row executions? We earned them, so we deserve them at the dinner table.

  • Oh, double down there, David! going from opposing excessive graphic violence imitated in drama (to give tv and movies the honor of being included in “drama”), to proposing public executions? You agent provocateur, you!

    There are various potential justifications or motivations for public executions:
    1) entertainment. The unwashed enjoy it, maybe tickets can be sold.
    2. example. Steal a ribbon, and you too may swing!
    3. evidence. The execution was indeed carried out, and its methods were subject to observation.

    Only #3 is justifiable these days, balanced against other moral considerations.

    And it is fulfilled by 20 or so witnesses including representatives from the press, and the family of the victim if they want to attend.

    You knew all that.

    • Right, but one would think that exposure to “entertainment violence” would make the real violence of public executions more palpable — but, for some reason, that hasn’t happened. There’s a numbing when it comes to the perpetuation of anonymous violence, but when it is specified, and localized, and given a name — the aftereffects appear to become harder to take.

      • Different segments of the American population influence the two areas when decisions are to be made. For entertainment, the appeal is to the lowest common denominator and decisions are made by those with money to be reaped from the sales; political actions such as executions answer to a slightly higher group, and to the courts. One might also speculate that some number of Americans are uneasy about the death penalty but at the same time support it, and don’t want it flaunted.

        What type face is this in your comments? quite an unusual “f”.

  • Pingback: Taking the Mechanism Out of Man | Carceral Nation

  • nosleepingdog —

    How would one flaunt the death penalty? It’s a matter of life — and death — and we pay for it and we support its ongoing enforcement.

    Fonts are from Typekit. Base font is Obliqua and headline font is Chennai.

  • Doing things out in the open, with media covering it, is what I meant by flaunting—probably a bad word choice. Whether it is bringing home soldiers’ coffins, or executing convicted killers, if something can appear on the front page or on tv then people must bring it out from that compartment of “I know it is happening but I choose not to ever think about it except very abstractly”.

    Because of the potential for sensationalization, I think the limitation of witnesses at an execution is preferable to a fully public performance of the sentence.

    Obliqua’s a handsome and readable font. I just started using Typekit myself, but don’t find either Obliqua or Chennai listed even in the Full Library ($50/year Portfolio account–I’m just sing the free one).

    • Hi nosleepingdog —

      Oh, I’m all for showing the caskets of dead soldiers who gave up their lives in distant lands just as I favor televised — for free, not Pay-Per-View — executions because we deserve transparency from our government. Why hide the dead? Are we ashamed of them? We’re paying for the soldiers and for the executions with our taxes, and to cut off access is an attempt to deny the realities of what’s really happening.

      This is the same sort of thing with killing animals. Open up the slaughterhouses. Make a reality TV show showing the life and death of a “veal chop” — so people really know where and how their meat comes from every single day. We are too removed from the ugliness of life and we prefer to whitewash reality with a false nirvana that neither helps us nor enables us to cope with an ever-darkening future.

  • Hmm, re the fonts, they do appear on the text-only list of All Fonts
    http://typekit.com/libraries
    but not on the Full Library search by title
    http://typekit.com/libraries/full

    Rather odd. Either way, for paid users only. Maybe I will take the plunge, after using Typekit more.

  • It was your WP Typekit tutorial that brought me to your blog initially. Thanks for doing it.

    re: televising executions, abbatoir scenes and the like, I whole-heartedly agree that people need to understand and feel the realities that underlie our lives. But this takes us back to the beginning of the discussion, in a way, about the distancing power of modern media. If watching violence on TV and in movies makes us desensitized to violence (as long as it is not happening to us!) then showing executions would do the same. I recall a science fiction story about a future in which the demand for organs to be used in transplants to extend the lives of the rich has resulted in crimes down to jaywalking being capital offenses. (Like the Chinese, the story posited use of the bodies of those executed, as organ harvest sources, can’t really call them :donors”.)

    • nosleepingdog —

      I appreciate your clear and cogent commentary. Thank you!

      I love Typekit. I think it’s worth the money — but I’m using it on 14 blogs, so it’s probably more cost effective for me than for someone who might only have one or two blogs. I should also be using it on my standalone websites, too.

      Oh, I agree that televising executions would eventually desensitize us even more to the vulgarity of violence — but isn’t that just a matter of degree now? Can we put the demons back in Pandora’s Box?

      Would people be more offended watching Iraqis get ripped to shreds — or watching the Kosher slaughtering of a cow? Which killing is more readily available for the mainstream watching on the internet, and which one gets the most media push to promote the bloodshed?

  • Pingback: Strengthening the Binding Between Virtual Violence and Real Aggressiveness | Dramatic Medicine

  • Pingback: In Love with the Gun: A Deadly Night for the Dark Knight | WordPunk

Share Your Thoughts:

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s