The draw of the undertow: Extremity, otherness and emergent harm in gaming and pornography

By Rowland Atkinson

My own interest in the cultural and social impact of videogames probably began with morally conflicted feelings while playing Grand Theft Auto III for the first time. I remember experiencing a real sense of surprise at the possibility of running over pedestrians and perhaps more so, a sense of worry at what other, younger, players might take from the game. The game felt like an incredibly violent space, a bleak vision of a city without moral codes or goodness, a space most of all where we were being goaded to bring out our more callous side, running over the homeless in tunnels, sniping at the unsuspecting or beating and stabbing to advance, or just for the sheer hell of it.


The early work I conducted with Paul Willis, with avid players of the game, suggested that this kind of ‘ok for me, but perhaps not for others’ was an important element of their response to the game. The vicarious delight of killing by multiple means and the blood lust of rampages were part of a much more variegated response that belied the simplistic designations of adrenaline fuelled potential killers so often found in the media. But perhaps the wider cognitive, social and cultural effects of such media artifacts, complex worlds photographically realistic, was always going to be more complex anyway. The kinds of question one might ask were more fruitful when expressed as a search for how gaming and its values and apparent deviance were being folded into everyday lives in increasingly subtle ways.

What is interesting about these questions is that we soon realise that they generate wider concerns with certain kinds of spaces and experiences that are now almost ubiquitous: screen-body connections through which we immerse ourselves in increasingly weightless spaces, unencumbered by social convention. These themes reconnect us to ideas about western society’s consumerism and decline of spiritual content and our focus on death, injury and violence. If we saw this grow in the post-war period when Freud and then Fromm had charted our obsession with war and then media violence, what are we to make of the incredible saturation of lives amidst photo-real carnage and convincing and bloodthirsty forms of play and interactive entertainment? To video games we should also add pornography and film as spaces in which we can make choices, release our desires and express ourselves and our identities. Since we can now drop into these experience spaces at a whim this has generated interest in what kind of subjectivity emerges as a result. The response has been variously angst ridden or celebratory of the possibilities of such media immersion, yet from celebrations of autonomy, freedom of expression and sociability have come widespread worries about needful, trained consumers with a diminution of boundaries between previously regulated conduct and newfound abilities to slip into forms of behaviour. This contribution is a summary of my thinking on some of these issues and a thumbnail of a forthcoming paper on work that discusses violent games and pornography as examples of these unregulated, cathartic spaces that latch on to our needs for excitement, sexual release and desire. Honest or indeed systematic surveys of this terrain have been slow in being developed, yet it is clear that there is more and more concern about early exposure to screen technology and issues of hyper consumer training, brand awareness, pornography exposure, the remoulding of sexual scripts and desires as well as the well-worn concerns of criminologists about the place of media diets in shaping deviant conduct. This then is a modest attempt at thinking through some of these themes.

If cultural criminology has taught us anything it is the need to develop more empathically attuned insights into criminal, deviant and harmful motivation, to understand how apparently mindless or brutal acts may be internally logical acts or which may be seductive or satisfying to their enactors. Robert Park, the Chicago sociologist, once argued in a short essay about newspapers, that if something alarms us we probably don’t understand it. There is plenty to take from such a statement, but we also need to be very wary of seeing everything around us as simply a new form of panic or social distortion. It may well be that the kids are not alright, that they may need help, that longer-term damage, to individuals and societies is being generated by the intensity of our screen culture and our increasing immersion in the kinds of beautiful, violent and satisfying encounters we have within them. No doubt this is the concern of all commentators, but are they merely shooting from the hip in a period of rapid social change that will later stabilise and show moral outrage or concern to have been ill-founded? Or perhaps a kernel or such pronouncements will be shown to have been rooted in reality – that contact with certain forms of media for particular social groups or at key stages in social development might have massive personal and social consequences further down the line? Because of the nature of such rapid social change, robust social research has struggled to catch-up with describing, naming and understanding much of what is going on today. How should sociologists or policy makers tackle questions of social regulation, control or prohibition when evidence is so lacking? A further problem to add to this mix is that large profit-making entities have a real interest in helping produce needful, attention seeking, narcissistic and indeed deviant kids. The assault on childhood has often been seen as a right of centre position, yet the effects of bespoke advertising, social media and screen culture are potentially far-reaching. We have few terms and concepts for such effects and often outmoded understandings of the research literature that often yield the factoid response; violent media doesn’t make people violent.

But what if we weren’t only concerned with violence? What about sexual attitudes, notions of the private self and its erosion, bullying, social voyeurism, new modes of cruelty, blindness to human dignities, as well as grabby and insulated social subjects who see little further than when they might next eat, view or masturbate? Suddenly we may realise that we are back in the realms of critical theory, asking more penetrating questions about the nature of our culture, who it is produced for and how corporate imperatives come to shape our desires so deeply that we are barely aware of spaces to think and be outside them.

When I have presented on these questions I am increasingly struck by a response that I find more and more alarming and which takes us to the heart of debates about realism in criminology – so what? If I’m taking head shots a thousand times a day, who cares? If I enjoy watching fisting or simulated rape, where is the harm in that? Extreme liberalism leads us to a worrisome tyranny over others compelled to participate through a money nexus or because their social mirroring is so broken that such harms are anticipated forms of sexual or social conduct.

I want to introduce the idea of these spaces as not only fun, emancipatory and exciting, but also as spaces that permit and create an othering of those we encounter within them, these are often revealed in the calls to experience unlimited freedom, to do what we want to the bodies of those encountered and to engage in fantasies of submissive sexuality and the dominance of our needs and desires. These tell us something about the kind of spaces we look to to feed and assuage our desires – anything goes (or the illusion of such freedom). If you want it, we got it. If you didn’t know you wanted it, why not try it anyway? Critically, to take the example of pornography, whether you want it or not you will get it since we see an increasing blending of more extreme material alongside mainstream content. We are drawn or channeled toward more extreme experiences, often because the game and porn industries believe that competitive advantage stems from offering more extreme content. This isn’t a moral point to make but an empirically verifiable one. Interestingly research on home made porn has shown that it too tends to be scripted in very similar ways to that offered by the industry, far from offering some more erotic or egalitarian positioning of participants. Such reformatting of desire is notable because it suggests our libidinal energies are capable of being attached to different kinds of object experience, rather like the linking of sexual desire to car crashes in Ballard’s novel Crash. Crash-J.G.-BallardTake the example of porn websites which link background blood spatters to sadistic content as an example of we can begin to see these reformulations of desire being enacted through such media – images of violence, female subjection and paid subjugation are not merely fantasy experiences in a virtual space but are based around real forms of exchange and material encounter within the industry. To label this as deviant or extreme is to miss the point, such experience is a daily element of our culture, something that large sections of our population choose to immerse themselves in. Does this worry us or not? Does it cultivate other forms of contact and behaviour or cancel them out?

We can start by thinking about this lapping and eroding effect of widespread intense sexual and violent experiences in such spaces as a kind of undertow. We are drawn to experiment and to play with things that we find enjoyable, satisfying, arousing and disgusting. The idea of the undertow is useful because it suggests forms of experience and behaviour that may emerge from below the substrate of human activity, moving and drawing us in, appearing to us as something that might overwhelm our better nature or moral codes despite our attempts to resist these new and deepening cultural currents. In this sense we need to get inside this territory, to map it out, to calibrate the quantity of content of particular types and tropes and to ask how these elements intersect and impart more broadly. Condemnation will help us very little, whether we are alarmed or excited by the possibilities.

The information age appears to have defused a series of tensions, boredom, sexual desire, violent expression. All are capable of being eliminated via discrete interfaces to which we devote almost loving attention. The possibility of a physical untethering from such devices has become unthinkable. A simple mind experiment of passing a few days without a mobile phone, even for modest technophobes, has become worse than unthinkable, it has become near impossible. Our reliance on networked media and communication systems makes us willing adjuncts to a matrix-like system. Despite widespread social critique of such systems and the deepening collation of our personal data by profit motivated corporations we lack the impetus or capacity to escape. On top of this many of the offerings, unchecked sexual fantasy, bloody and sadistic heroism and the immediacy of consumption of all kinds (amazon prime, networked gaming, paypal etc etc) allow us to live apparently fulfilled lives without impediment. But what is in the detail of the pact that we are signing up to each time we play our games, login to an apple or Microsoft or Facebook account?

The cost of these rapid transformations are deep, complex and, though a huge challenge, open to empirical investigation. What can we begin to say about these issues in the context of concerns about the relative breaches of social convention through the pursuit of leisure and pleasure? I want to make three points in closing. First, the denial of harm of those caught in the pursuit of pleasure and entertainment may stand in the way of balanced assessments of the depths of harms generated. The response of gamers and male users of pornography indicate the need to deny possible harms – getting inside this necessary facade will be difficult. Second, methodological innovation will be required and multi method strategies in order to measure and offer adequate causal models and deeper understandings of how and why such entertainment may be harmful or indeed beneficial.

Finally, the political economy of gaming and its commercial cultural positioning as a good due to its economic contribution is likely to generate increasingly significant oppositional statements against critical research that seeks to measure the more subtle influences and effects of areas like gaming and pornography. The wedge on such issues is perhaps to begin to recognise the unease and complex moral frameworks generated in the psyche of those witnessing, for example, abuse within increasingly mainstream pornography, or the presence of torture or sexism within games. Does the positioning of such abuse help to neutralise the feeling that these are indeed harms by offering a sense of communal support (if I am one of millions watching these images it must be ok), or does it create cognitive dissonance and anxiety? Even if the latter we can imagine that the suite of options available allows niche needs to be compartmentalised such that we lock into ‘our’ desires and try to ignore the more extreme, sadistic and sexual content on offer. Finally we must acknowledge the ways in which the internet has not only connected us to our objects of previously unrealisable desire but also introduced us to new expressions of unregulated and indeed cruel forms of sexual expression and violence. No doubt here also we can debate whether such extremes may in fact allow cathartic releases of violent intent that act in lieu of real enactments, but we would be neglectful as social researchers not to seek to trace and monitor the wider contours of harm that emerge, unintended or not, from the massive market aggregations of networked demands for the cruel and the unusual. Set against the backdrop of global and regional inequalities the young, the weak, the poor and female are prepared, bought or coerced to enable the apparently harmless harms of apparently virtual fantasises to be realised, because to be without these supplies of objects would now be unthinkable. In the meantime we must deny the possibility of ourselves as dupes or agents in a wider social and media matrix that generates such emergent harms.




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