Killing Monsters

Killing Monsters

I’ve been reading plenty of books in the past few months, just haven’t been inspired to write about them. I began to write a roundup post with a short description of several of the more noteworthy books I’ve read recently but found that this one was long enough to merit it’s own entry. So I’ll hold off on the other books for now and just publish this as it stands.

Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones

After the recent events in Colorado this book seems especially timely. I’ve spent some time discussing it on Facebook with people who argue that the Batman movies are responsible for creating the violence that occurred. Jones argues that media violence—even violent movies and first person shooter games—far from causing people to flip out and go on shooting sprees, actually helps people—children, adolescents and even adults—to process real world violence. Much of the book really focuses on children and adolescents, not adults. There is also a strong emphasis on comic books—Jones is not only a critic but has written comic books and has done many workshops in schools helping young people to create their own comics.

What I liked most about Jones’ approach is that he begins first by asking kids questions: Why do they love the kinds of violent stories and games that they love? Their answers are very interesting and not always what you’d expect. The book poses a question for the reader: What is the place of fantasy violence in a society that condemns the reality of violence? Instead of a knee-jerk reaction that there is no place for such violence, it well behooves the reader to listen to the stories Jones tells and look at the data he presents and to think long and hard.

As far as copycat shootings, Jones examines Columbine and several others and argues that the causal link is tenuous and mainly created by the news media. The data show that the kids who watch the most violent movies and games are actually the least likely to commit real-world violence while most real-world shooters are actually not very into violent games. Media violence doesn’t cause insanity, at best it just gives a particular insane person a particular focus but the insanity has to already be there for it to latch onto the image. But for healthy individuals violent movies, shows, games, comics tend to be a tension release and help them to create safe fantasies, which help them to process violent emotions rather than causing them to act out violently. In fact, it tends to be a safety valve. And in the cases of very public shootings the actual psychology points to a much more complex web of causation, the particular focus on a movie or song or game tends to be overemphasized by the media, which wants to draw a connection in order to provide an explanation for what is really inexplicable.

Jones is not a scholar but this book is well researched and does present data that convincingly supports his thesis, but the strength of the book is really in the stories where Jones talks to the kids and teens and asks them about their experiences. I was fascinated by the kids who loved both the Power Rangers and Teletubbies, turning to the Tubbies when he was feeling vulnerable and in need of reassurance and to the Rangers when he was feeling powerful and unafraid. Eventually he merged his fantasy worlds and imagined Tubby Rangers who morphed from cuddly buddies into powerful warriors.

One of the aspects of the book that really stood out was an interview with a Quaker peace worker in Northern Ireland who plays Quake recreationally (or probably not Quake but Doom or one of the other realistic first person shooter games, I don’t have the book any longer and my mind wants to remember that the Quaker played Quake but I think that’s wrong.) He asks the guy if there isn’t a contradiction between working for peace and playing this incredibly violent first person shooter game and the guy says something along the lines of it’s just fantasy. When asked why he plays a game that is so realistic and not something with less graphic violence, he answers that something less realistic wouldn’t be as useful to release the tension created by the very real violence he has to deal with every day. In other words, fantasy violence has to be at least as realistic as the stuff the news media feeds us or it doesn’t actually work as a psychological safety valve for some people. It is precisely the feeling of having power over the violence in the context of the game that is necessary to not feeling overwhelmed by the real world violence of living in a society where these kinds of things happen. The book also looked at upticks of people playing violent games after 9-11 and other events. I’d bet after the Aurora incident some people actually have a need to watch Batman and to play shooter games precisely to face those fears and to deal with the violent imagery.

Jones doesn’t suggest that parents and teachers should take a hands-off approach and simply let children and teens consume any media they want; but he does critique the typical reaction of parents who are made uncomfortable by their children’s choices. Rather than trying to ban media influences which we dislike, Jones suggests that parents and teachers instead engage children in conversation, asking them why they like what they do. Often the values that have led the child to the film/game/comic/music are ones that we can identify with. First, seek understanding, try to see it from the child’s perspective. Then you can share your own perspective: what elements make you uncomfortable and why.

The book’s main limitation for me was that as a secular work it addresses only the psychological value of fantasy worlds for the child consumer and doesn’t at all consider the moral component unless it is considering a moral compunction as a hurdle the adult has to overcome in order to seek understanding and empathy. While I agree that in any discussion of this sort with children we do need to first seek understanding, I do think the adult’s better formed conscience must at times prevail. Unlike Jones, I do think there are good reasons why an adult can and should impose restrictions on a child’s media consumption—although Jones does highlight the dangers inherent in a totalitarian ban, which is it can make the banned item into a forbidden fruit and alienate the child, creating a relationship of conflict instead of one of trust and partnership.

Jones looses me when he retorts: “We don’t ask whether game shows predispose our children to greed or love songs to bad relationships.” Well, in fact I have asked those very questions. Perhaps not so much of game shows per se but I recently read an article that questioned whether HG TV isn’t just a vehicle for encouraging envy as well as a materialist attitude and consumption in excess of our needs. And I certainly do feel that certain kinds of love songs—and love poetry and romance novels—can lead to unhealthy and immoral attitudes about sex and relationships. At the same time I do agree with Jones that when we find that our children are attracted to something that we find morally problematic it should be an opportunity for discussion and connection and that we should avoid making it into a power struggle. So Jones leaves the moral questions unasked and unanswered Perhaps violent and sexually charged media isn’t encouraging violence directly; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is never an occasion for sin. So, yes, I do think that Jones’ narrative is lacking a crucial ethical component to the discussion. The book is good as a conversation starter but I’d like to see a follow up from a Catholic perspective.

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