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For those not familiar with the term, game theory is not theory about how to make or consume games, it’s theory of the best way to make decisions in systems where the outcomes are also determined by the decisions of other participants in the field of activity (or other “players” active on the field of “play”). The film A Beautiful Mind includes some introductory examples of game theory, as its protagonist is one of the pioneers of the field, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a boiled-down, binary example of the kind of questions that it can raise.

I have a deep distaste for ultraviolence in any medium. Lacing brutal violence with hilarity and other fun payoffs for its witnesses is problematic enough even in a single work – while the vast majority of people are balanced enough to engage with sufficient detachment to have their fun and walk away, we live in a world which we know to contain unbalanced people who will seek this sort of material out and use it to reinforce their own pathological tendencies.  I question whether the mere entertainment derived from ultraviolence, no matter for how many, is worth the real damage on the psyches of the vulnerable and the risk of actual physical harm should those unbalanced minds collapse completely. Entertainment can be found in so many ways and places that I find it hard to justify serious harm for the sake of any specific instance.

(And catharsis doesn’t apply to a regular indulgence. Catharsis is purification; the original idea was that the audience be purged of the emotions the spectacle – i.e. the Greek tragedy – inspired, that those feelings flare up and fade away. But if people are instead seeking violent spectacles out more and more, their desire to witness brutality is not being exorcised but exercised – and becoming more potent as a result.

The only argument I’ll concede may possibly be true in favour of ultraviolence is that it’s a form of sublimation – by watching or participating in fictional violence, people are relieved of their desire for the real. But I’m very much unconvinced and would want to see solid behavioural research supporting the claim – and what research we’ve seen seems to point the other way, where an effect is reported at all. Links not to hand/to come, but along with the studies showing no long-term effect, there have been studies done that showed that the randomised half of a test group of children exposed to violent entertainments did in fact behave more violently subsequently, compared to both their own prior behaviour and their peers in the control group. The randomisation eliminates self-selection as a possible cause, and the clear sequence indicates the causal relationship that most parents I know report anecdotally. Whether the entertainment instigates violent behaviour, and/or is merely due to the children having a greater sense of license to indulge their own violent tendencies, is of course open to dispute – but of secondary importance. As for the difference between short-term effects and long-term effects, that’s a red herring – unless you’re arguing that repeated short-term behavioural effects will not produce habits if exposure is repeated in the long term, which aside from being dubious plays into the hands of people who claim that violent culture directly and immediately causes violence, and therefore should be censored right now because that will magically stop people being violent.)

Where violent entertainment becomes even more disturbing is when it becomes a selling point, which it indisputably has thanks to the grotesqueries of psycho-and/or-torture-centric horror films, fragfest games, and all the familiar bugbears of the Joe Liebermans of the world and their predecessors.  It’s only a short step, and one we’ve already taken, from something being a selling point to it being something in which people compete to outdo each other, leading to both the rapid escalation of extremity of violence (whether considered as a percentage of total screen time or  in terms of the degree of violence and the toxic emotions expressed thereby), and the tremendous growth in the number of such entertainments we’ve seen over the last decade or two.

Given that we know that human beings both determine their values and decide how to express those values in the real world based on a kind of composite picture of the people around them – not blindly seeking some perceived average, but using that as a basis for judgment, and often completely unconscious of the assumptions and prejudices they incur in the process – a culture which features more and more images of violence with payloads of enjoyment and fun is particularly problematic. It’s not just that it’s arithmetically, or even exponentially, more likely that a mind way down on the troubled end of the bellcurve will find some disturbing content to latch onto as such content is more frequently available. I would also argue that as violence saturates the culture, that has the effect of shifting the curve itself towards the violent end. I recognise that this is a slow process, and is resisted by other forces in human nature and in the wider culture. But as any student of probability will tell you, even small shifts of the bellcurve produce dramatic increases in what was seen as extreme under the old bellcurve, and dramatic decreases at the other end. (Think about the shape of the curve. If you’re right at the edge of the bell, not much fits underneath; but if the bell moves towards you even a little, there’s a marked increase in how much fits underneath, and therefore how often the same thing is occurring.)

The upshot of this is I have been known to take the view that most if not all ultraviolent entertainments – certainly pretty much every one I’ve seen – should never have been made. Even where there is actually some substantial moral point being made, rather than it being essentially a bloody confectionery (and yes, that’s intentionally a revolting image), I have taken the view that to the extent the point could have been made without the shock value it should not have employed such tactics.

This is often taken as an argument for censorship. And to be clear, I am not absolutely opposed to censorship – and neither are you if you believe that gloating images of cruelty and harm to children, or animals, or women, or minority groups, or anyone should be produced for entertainment, even if no actual harm was done in making them. A poster exulting in a photograph of a racially motivated murder, or a film whose entire content was the torture of a child and gleeful comments thereon, would be illegal on the grounds that the acts necessary to make them are clearly crimes… but if you agree with me that such material should be illegal even if the images they contain are cartoons and nobody need be directly hurt in their creation, then you are in favour of censorship, and the question is merely one of where we draw lines.

But I also know that power to censor absolutely (as opposed to restricting access based on impartial, impersonal, and indisputably relevant criteria, such as age restrictions) and with criminal penalty is a very grave one to cede to any government, and increasing the scope of such state control over public discourse is something to avoid if at all possible. I’ve volunteered for Amnesty International for over ten years – so I need no convincing on that point.

As always, I find the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the informed discussions of human rights advocates and scholars to be deeply informative (in both senses – it contains useful data, and it helps shape my conclusions) in navigating the conflicting interests at stake in this question. The key point is the UDHR’s insistence that no human right carries with it the automatic right to violate any other human right, and the principle of proportionality – it forces you to look for the solution that preserves freedom.

So my take on it is this:

  • We need to recognise that competing over deriving fun from goriness, violence and general destructive behaviour – and especially making public declarations that imply such things are fun or otherwise desirable, such as in marketing and promotion – will naturally tend to produce more numerous and more extreme examples, as it becomes a point of competition within the culture.
  • We need to acknowledge that in sufficiently large quantities that clearly has social effects. Society is an aggregate of the people, values, behaviours, actions and pronouncements that comprise it – how exactly that aggregate coheres and combines to produce actual lived outcomes is a complex process, but surely we can all agree that the more of a meme goes in, the more of that same meme is likely to come out (and go back in).
  • To the extent that that influences actual behaviour, and thereby produces violations of people’s rights, it is a bad thing; and given that there is not really a major shortage of ways for humans to have fun, pastimes with such effects can and probably should be moderated or even foregone.
  • We need to recognise that if we as citizens do not want a central authority deciding for us which memes are acceptable, we need to take responsibility for ensuring ourselves that the mix of memes is a constructive one, one which is more likely to produce positive outcomes; and while we can’t ever agree exactly on what constitutes a positive outcome, the framework of human rights that emerged from the global trauma of WWII is by formulation and definition a solid common starting point, and a fine articulation of the common sense understanding that we want to be able to be able to live and speak freely and without fear of harm, and that we want that framework to persist across distance (social, physical and otherwise) and time – for our contemporaries, for our travelling/future selves, for our kids.
  • Those of us who are culture-makers have a particular role to play in this matter, as few-to-many meme-generators. Each of us is a key element in the churning and spawning of memes, and we are also those most directly affected by any move to impose central control on which memes can be created and controlled. We therefore have more responsibility than others, and more at stake than others, in ensuring that the overall cultural mix is good, healthy, honest, and all those other contested but still incredibly important qualities.
  • If we fail to take this responsibility, the responsibility doesn’t go away. Someone has to take it up. And the whole thing about “with great power comes great responsibility”? To the exact same extent that that’s true in any given culture, it’s also true that “with great responsibility comes great power”. That’s pretty much the contract on which government rests – they more or less do what needs to be done, and we more or less let them do what they say they need to do to do it. And the more responsibility we surrender, the more power we surrender, and the more likely that corruption creeps in (because it always goes where the power is) and that tradeoff we made is less and less worth it. (Hmmm… future blog post…)

In other words: if we don’t get on top of this ourselves, we’re opening the door for people who quite possibly understand nothing about culture – and who certainly have less time to spend understanding it – to take over the business of deciding what’s good, healthy, honest, etc.

I’d like to think we’re smarter than to let that happen. But we have to start doing more than just applying social pressure, like the kind of statement this blog entry is making – or this one, which I commend – though that’s important too.

We need to actually make this a serious part of our conversations about the creation of culture – and we need to have concrete and honest data on which to base both those conversations and the creative decisions that individual culture-makers make. To me, this should be central to the business of the industry associations – monitoring and reporting on the nature of the culture being created and consumed, not just so that we can all mindlessly mimic the most obvious traits of whatever sells lots in the hopes of cashing in, but so that we can sit back and consider the bigger picture to which we’re contributing.

And in order to reward that reflective approach, we need to be much more scathing towards the only-more-so rip-off, whether that’s a copy within the medium or crap franchise-related adaptation into another medium, like the recent Sands of Time film, which somehow managed to take a truly ingenious (though sometimes a little undercooked in execution) story and fail to even copy all the good bits. (It may be a sometimes-successful business tactic, though it’s a lot more risky than it feels; but we need to do our best to make sure that unoriginal crap gets no more encouragement than such deserves. Note that this definition of unoriginality emphatically includes material that relies for its power on sensationalist exploitation of violence, and puts it squarely into the same category as the crap, emotionally cheap soap operas that most violent game players or film watchers would quite rightly disdain.)

The harshness of our rejection of lazy creations should increase proportionate to the density of the clone population; cultural weeds need to be treated as such. But note that the disrespect and discouragement should be directed at the work, not the creator; we want to foster good creation, so a smaller pool of creators is not in our interests, and imitation is a valid way to learn.

Similarly, we need to be more vociferous (but still reflective and creative) in our admiration of what genuinely does add to the quality of the meme pool – felicitous new combinations or mutations of existing memes, genuine originality, re-appreciation of a longstanding classic, whatever. Here also avoiding ad hominem comment other than attribution is worthwhile – both because the same creator (and sometimes the same work) may offer both praiseworthy and execrable creations, and because keeping that author/work division culturally strong buffers exceptional creations from the failings of their creators.

Finally, creative professionals need to reassert the all-around benefits of getting a work right before releasing it into the wider culture (and that includes shareholders, since better works do better, and besides – shareholders are part of the culture); this is why Valve Software’s approach to game development is widely and rightly accoladed by the very people it most frustrates.

This combination of better information, an increased culture of creative responsibility, and a reassertion of the value of the creator’s vision (and of creators… Bobby Kotick take note) is the best response to the genuine issue raised (often for entirely cynical reasons) by advocates of centralised vetos of culture.

The good news, as I see repeated again and again in the comments of the culture-makers who most seem to work in this way already, is that striving to take into account a wider scope of considerations when making our creative decisions only increases the rewards. Certainly as a reader/player/audience member having more levels on which to enjoy and engage with a creation deepens my appreciation, which benefits both me and the creators whose works I will more actively seek out and support.

A postscript to those who think this smacks of social engineering

Of course it’s social engineering. The thing is, society is always engineered (and always engineering itself); the question is who benefits from the current engineering, who is doing the engineering, and who misses out on both scores.

What I’m advocating here is decentralised engagement culture in ways that neutralise the critics, as opposed to centrally mandated, compulsory engineering that forces creations into some sort of mould. The difference is total.

What I’m suggesting is a more co-ordinated, coherent sharing of information and perspectives, in order to neutralise the problem the Prisoner’s Dilemma so compellingly illustrates: people acting in what seems like their own rational self-interest without consideration of the bigger picture (and understanding of their own contribution thereto) will almost certainly act sub-optimally, even in terms of that simple self-interest.

The alternative, just not addressing people’s legitimate concerns about shifts in culture and refusing to join the dots between our own work and its peers, doesn’t benefit creators – access to a better understanding of the bigger cultural picture is not going to hurt their work – and it essentially abandons the field to the self-appointed censors, who can be trusted to take the responsibility on themselves and to demand the power that goes with it – which is power over our creations.

So we need to tweak the “rules” – which are constantly shifting anyway – of the creative subculture to reward more originality, reduce incentives for reliance on escalation of emotive (especially violent) content, and help everyone (creators and public) be better informed – and make judgments and decisions accordingly.

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