Back in a previous life, I worked for one of the most legendary deejays in broadcast history.
Ron Chapman had been on the air in Dallas-Fort Worth before the two cities could even agree on a hyphen, and over the years he’d built up an enormously loyal following. So, when a flurry of stories broke in the 80s concerning shady televangelists, Ron decided to test that audience with a social experiment.
Learning from legal that he could do it if he didn’t specify a purpose, Ron opened the mic one morning and asked listeners to send him checks for $20. No reason. Just go to your checkbook, write a check for $20, and send it. To us. Blindly. The man told no one what he was about to do before he did it, let alone his producer – which was me. I remember being on the phone and looking up in stunned disbelief.
I don’t remember much else about that morning, but I do know that after three days we had to tell people to stop sending money. Give or take, the station received around $275,000. At one point a picture hit the papers showing me standing neck-deep in envelopes, each containing a check. Long story short, Ron never expected to get that much – so we had no plan for what to do with it. Eventually it was put to the listeners, and the money went to several local charities. Anyone who wanted their money back got it. Fewer than a hundred people asked.
The mechanics were simple. A guy people had grown up listening to since before the Kennedy Assassination asked. He’d been there day in and day out for decades. He was part of their environment, as sure as the sunrise, and people trusted him. He built up capital with his customers, and they paid him back interest in checks.
A great memory. Now let’s talk about violence.
Yeah, that was a left turn I’ll bet you weren’t expecting. Cute little story like that, and all of a sudden Jody dives off the ledge into something we’re all tired of facing every day. But are we? I mean, like, really facing anything?
One thing you learn after almost 50 years of being around advertising and promotions is the value of messaging. That’s why I’m always mystified by colleagues who insist mass media has little or no hand in cultivating the mayhem among us. If that’s true, explain the cost of one thirty-second Super Bowl ad. It’s kind of hard to argue that people aren’t swayed by what they see and hear when our business is based on swaying people with what they see and hear.
Messaging is our business. Successful messaging has fundamentals. One is repetition. If it doesn’t play to an already existing appetite, it might just create one. Then there’s familiarity. Ask your parents to sing their favorite commercial jingle. You might have one or two yourself. What year did that come out?
Things stick. “Just do it.” “Feed your thirst.” “You deserve a break today”. “Just win, baby.” Oh, I know. It sounds so trite. I can remember the 60s, and my parents shuddering as the preacher thundered against the idea of if it feels good, do it. Really, though. Did we think only reasonable people would adopt that as a mantra? Having sensed our desires, these messages of gratification have now been pounded into us for three and four generations. Did we think only nice people would take us up on it? I’ve previously written about the rise of radio consultants in the 80s, who constantly preached that conflict was compelling. Essentially, the idea was to grow our audience by starting a fight. How has helping engender that climate worked out for us? The law of unintended consequences, at work.
But people really don’t lose their heads until someone suggests that a constant barrage of violence upon our senses might just manifest itself in our actions. Movies, TV, music, and video games in particular. That hits a nerve.
For starters, forget anyone who wants to “blame” mass shootings on video games. That is a copout, usually from a politician, and never what I’ve suggested. What I have said, and what I believe, is what a half-a-century of professional experience has taught me: messaging works. A culture that once went bats over Beanie Babies and pet rocks cannot claim it is not easily influenced. And when it comes to violence, it’s the frog in the pot. The frog doesn’t know he’s cooked until its too late.
No, I’m not kidding. In fact, I’m completely serious. Look, I love blow ’em-up and shoot ’em up movies just as much as anyone. Some of the music I listen to makes me want to chew raw meat. But if I’m honest, sometimes I do have to ask myself exactly what is it that I’m digging? What’s my rationale for enjoying what any objective observer would find astonishing, if not horrifying? It’s worth at least as much to ask what we’re defending.
The first argument made is that every culture has video games. The problem with that argument is that not every culture is the same. Results may vary. Our sensibilities are not Japan’s, nor anyone else’s. Our histories and mythologies are not the same. Even our ages are different. We are our own thing, and to expect any influence to have the same impact across the global cultural spectrum is absurd. My contention is that by the end of the 20th Century, America in particular became uniquely subject to the consequences of confusing liberty with license – and those consequences are starting to land. Marianne Williamson might never be elected president, but she’s right about one thing: we need to address whatever spirit we’ve adopted that rewards rage and then tries to rationalize it.
Every culture also does not have the same access to firearms. Look, I get the arguments for owning a firearm. But it does seem to be minimum common sense to say that if hate pulls the trigger, maybe it would be a good idea to give it fewer damn triggers to pull. Just a thought.
What I’m getting at here is environment. Honestly, if atmosphere didn’t matter coal mines wouldn’t have canaries. So I’m trying to figure out how we can flop around in the mud and not expect to get dirty. See, normal people like you might be able to get up and go wash it off. But others might just get comfortable with it. You might take out a village playing Call of Duty and call it a night. Someone else, maybe someone who can’t relate to the world any other way, might call it practice. And the climate has changed. In 1976, the video game “Death Race” was removed from stores because people were upset by the noises the game’s small “gremlins” would make when killed by the player. This year, esports are expected to pull more than $1-billion dollars in revenue globally – although the Olympics have declined to include them because too many games have been deemed too violent or misogynistic. One notable gamer appeared on network television to insist that no direct link has ever been established between violent acts and violent video games. His handle? “Slasher”.
I would have found his argument against the influence of excessive violence more convincing had he just gone with “Rod”.
Older readers may at this point suggest that we played guns with sticks when we were kids and nobody shot up anyone (actually, we have). Some will say we’ve always been violent and games are a harmless outlet (isn’t the plan to be better than our natures?). A few will say it only affects a limited few (not since the first smartphone was introduced in 2007). There will even be some who say we can keep it in context. I say put a game out that you win by strangling puppies and see how fast it’s yanked off the shelves. On the other hand, we have no problem only whacking people. Don’t we think in the long run that might leave a mark?
In the aftermath of the horrific shootings in El Paso and Dayton, a technology provider shut down support for a platform known as 8chann. It’s one of those places on the internet that decent people are usually stunned to learn exists, or at least it was before last week. Imagine the worst aspects of human behavior you can think of and multiply by a factor of 1000x. Other sites like it still operate. Basically, users celebrate and encourage mass shootings – and keep score by body count. Most kills wins.
Wonder where they found inspiration for that?
The next argument is that there’s no data to support the idea that violent video games lead to violent behavior. That’s not entirely true. Multiple studies have shown exposure to ultra-violent content does lead to increased aggressive behavior. Doubters rest their argument on the presumption that there is no direct link yet established to behavior that crosses into violence – the fig leaf in the previous sentence being the word direct. But on what basis do they form their apologetics? That immersing ourselves in digital bloodbaths is a healthy idea? Might enhancing aggressive responses potentially lead to acting out violently? Nah, that never happens. And while you might not be able to establish a direct link, here’s a question I have yet to hear apologists answer: do they think this easily abused abundance of sanctioned, endorsed gore is a good thing?
In 2004, a ten-year law known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was allowed to expire. Many studies concluded that during its existence, the law had no effect on reducing overall homicides. In the 10 years the FAWB was in effect, there were 12 mass shootings. In decade prior, there had been 19. But in the decade after, from 2004 to 2014, there were 34. As someone once said, you can believe the statistics or your own lying eyes. But here’s what the numbers also intimate: maybe we aren’t the same people we were 25 years ago.
Whether we realize it or not, we laud violence right down to our language. Stop for just one minute and examine how harsh that’s become in say, the last twenty years. In fact, we’re killing it. Are we so numb to its normalization that we can’t hear ourselves? Apparently. Yet we hurl these seeds into the universe and somehow convince ourselves they will bear no fruit. We are all aware that troubled or bitter minds are easily radicalized by online white supremacy or radical islamists. We accept that the words our leaders choose can lead us into the light or further into the darkness, and have historically held them accountable for the results. We might finally be ready to admit that porn is not harmless, and that it might destroy relationships as much as it does steal humanity. Most Americans are even finally prepared to admit that maybe a sophisticated social media campaign of false information and misleading claims can tip sentiment enough to possibly swing an election. More than a few of us right now believe the appalling irresponsibly and manipulativeness of the current president has made things exponentially worse, and will take him to task for a tweet. But hour upon hour racking up kills in a the only reality where you feel you have any control has no effect? At the very least, has it escaped our attention that video games improve reaction times by as much as 25% – which is one reason the military uses them for combat training?
Someone seems to think they have an effect. Just not us.
Because we like them.
That’s really what it gets down to, you know? We like the fact that we can retire to the couch for hours and blast things and virtual humans to smithereens. It’s a release. But as a great song once observed, every form of refuge has its price. Even once one gets past the idea that we’re defending death as escape, a sad truth is there will be some who come to see it as an alternative. Absolutely we need to address what we put in our hands, but why do we make excuses for what we put in our heads? The answer is simple: are you not entertained?
Has no one heard that too often we become what we behold?
Mass shooters are almost always exposed to trauma as a child – including domestic violence, bullying, sexual abuse, neglect or parental suicide. The recent study conducted by the Los Angeles Times, which tracked mass shooters from 1966 forward, went on to say that another major commonality was that mass shooters study other shooters. And they seek affirmation for their intentions. How hard is to see that for anyone pre-disposed to hatred, smothered by the inability to feel noticed any other way, stoked by resentment and isolation in a world that applauds selfishness, it often isn’t simple recreation? It’s practice reps.
In 2012, an Ohio State study of 151 students revealed that after only 20 minutes of practice, those playing ultra-violent video games were more accurate with their shots, and more likely to shoot for the head. Those who told researchers they played such games frequently had the highest number of kill shots.
Nope. No influence at all.
Finally, I’ve heard that blaming the environment we’ve created for all this is “lazy”. The opposite is true. Creating effective, reasonable ways to keep guns out the wrong hands is hard enough. Trying to change a mindset that insists on its peacefulness but considers carnage to be acceptable fun appears to be practically impossible.
Suggesting that our diet might affect our health is not unreasonable at all. It’s essential.