Hitting things is usually satisfying.
Watching a villain get away is stressful because we want to see the hero fight him into submission, and if he’s a murderer, we’ll root for the hero to kill him in revenge.
Violent video games are best-sellers.
Let’s not deny that if you practice swordplay or stage combat, you find violence fun.
However, most of us decry actual violence and try to keep it utterly out of our lives. We only support wars that are justified in the name of saving more innocent lives than the lives of soldiers killed in duty. We would immediately leave a partner who physically hit us, even once. And we increasingly think that any cruelty to animals of any species is unacceptable.
So how do we explain this discrepancy?
Punch & Judy
Entertainment has always included violence, and people have often preferred those forms that have fights. That’s great news for the fight choreographer.
Punch & Judy were violent puppet shows. Shakespeare’s most popular plays involve wars and duels. And we can go all the way back to Beowulf and Oedipus. Of course we also like comedies and jugglers and beautiful paintings, but when it comes to stories that people love to retell, it’s the ones with bloody battles that get the most attention.
Is it culture from a more violent past that influences our current fascination with heroes who kill? I don’t think so.
Every drama student studies Artistotle’s Poetics, a treatise on why art functions and how to create art from one of our most revered Greek thinkers.
Aristotle explained tragedy as a way for the audience to purge fear and pity and return to a balanced mental state with the ability to control their emotions. By showing a character in highly stressful situations, then resolving them with a huge emotional crisis such as a murder, the audience feels closure or resolution and the relief of their own stress. He called this catharsis which means “purification or cleansing” or “purging”.
He may have been on to something, because harmful stress hormones can be eliminated from the bloodstream when brought to a resolution, as we’ll see later.
Violent Video Games
In an article on Gamasutra, Will So has three explanations for the popularity of violence in video games:
- Hero Complex: If the player is to be heroic, they should vanquish evil.
- Power Trip: The ability to utterly destroy something, even in video game form, gives the player a sense of power that they aren’t afforded in real life.
- Forbidden Fruit: Although some miscreants may steal or commit fraud, we are raised to abhor killing and murderers. That level of crime is inaccessible and therefore tantalizing. The game gives an outlet to dark urges.
And what does it mean for violence in games becoming more realistic:
Games and Action Movies: Practice
An article on Edge Online makes an evolutionary argument for learning about winning violent encounters by watching others (especially our own group) win. He quotes Dr Aaron Sell, an evolutionary biologist formerly of the University of California.
Why we kill: what is it that makes us find video game violence so entertaining?
“The human mind has an appetite for viewing violence because a great deal of important but rarely available information is displayed in these fights,” says Sell about prehistoric adolescents. “This is particularly true for boys who need to learn the skills of combat. Obviously, practising it in its unrestrained form is highly dangerous. This way they can observe the actions of others and learn vicariously.”
Earlier, [Dr Andrew Weaver, University of Indiana] explained that young boys seem to be the ones most interested in violent content, and in this case, Sell agrees. “Boys do, in fact, practise aggression with extreme frequency,” he says. “Adults will often try to strip key aspects of violence out of it, so modern sports don’t look a lot like combat, but if you look at the skills involved they are still essentially practice regiments for hand-eye coordination, running speed, accuracy of throwing, strength and accuracy of weapon use – such as tennis – ability to evade others, and so on.” All of which are necessary skills for surviving in the ancient world.
The argument is this: Our instincts for emotional traits (the things we fear, the things that excite us, the tastes or smells that are disgusting, etc) are evolutionary and only change slowly. Humanity evolved in a violent world where people not only hunted prey, but also had to kill predators, and against each other. A young person who did not learn to fight would have a lower chance of survival, and would not pass on that trait due to natural selection.
How does one learn to fight without putting oneself at risk of death?
- Watching others fight
- Playing a game that is safe but practices all of the relevant motions
- Craving the thrill of battle, in which death is not at stake, but reputation
Our modern attitudes towards violence have not yet pulled our instinctual fascination with violence up to a more peaceful level.
The evolutionary explanation is a little unsatisfying because it basically says, “It’s human nature to enjoy violence, and we should just try to make it safe.” There are other psychological factors that come into play, and I want to highlight two that are problematic.
Stress and Violence
First, let’s look at the stress response. I once bought a little novelty statuette with the engraving:
“Stress is the feeling of not smacking someone who desperately deserves it.”
In a physiological sense, stress is a condition in the environment that is a challenge to the organism. Living things like to be in a state of homeostasis or balance. If the environment changes, the organism has to change to compensate. Fast changes are harder to react to, but it’s all called stress.
In common usage, we use the word “stress” to refer to mental anguish or anxiety. It is the brain’s response to impending danger. Anxiety is worry about something that may happen in the future. Alarm is the rapid version, detecting an immediate life-threatening challenge.
Part of the stress response is what we call the “adrenaline dump” where the brain releases norepinephrine into the blood stream which (among other effects) makes the heart beat faster, diverts blood from the digestive system to the muscles, and generally prepares the organism for fight-or-flight.
The fight-or-flight response is a black-or-white evaluation of the danger: should I try to kill it, or should I run as fast as I can from it? The pause before action is composed of two different evaluations:
- Is this thing really dangerous and I should calm down?
- Approach or flee?
The problems that arise in modern humans from this very practical mammalian system are countless:
- Most threats are emotional or economic, not physical danger. Physically attacking or running will not help you.
- We’re smart enough to anticipate events days ahead, and in the case of climate change, decades ahead. Stress response on these long timeframes is not only impractical, but detrimental to the body.
- Epinephrine causes black-or-white thinking on many issues, not just the choice to fight or flee. If you have an elevated heart rate due to stress, you’re likely not seeing the many creative solutions to problems, only one way will work, any other suggestion will lead to disaster.
To stop the stress response because you realize you are not in immediate physical danger, you have a few choices:
- Take some deep breaths, and slow down your heart rate.
- Go for a run and exhaust the flight option.
- Punch something safe (a punching bag or pillow) to exhaust the fight option.
The nice thing about the stress response is that it is general. Stress from one source (a job deadline) can be reduced by going for a jog, as long as you don’t allow the deadline to cause more stress when you go back to work. According to Aristotle, a good movie should do the same trick by hijacking your personal stress and make you think it’s resolved because it was resolved for the story you were watching.
Dealing with social stress is difficult, and not the point of this article, but one strategy is to have clear options. Create a plan that has alternate steps for each option. That way, if something fails, you have an immediate change of plan ready.
The point about stress is that it is satisfying and healthy to engage in physical combat in a safe place to reduce the harmful effects of stress. Soren in the video above disagrees, but the popularity of martial arts clubs in safe neighbourhoods bespeaks the opposite.
The Dark Side: Victim Blame
A more problematic effect happens when we watch violence perpetuated by people we believe are good (especially if you do the violence yourself in a video game): Victim blaming.
If you have a sense of justice, then you think the world is working correctly when wrongdoers are punished. Revenge seems to be a justified response, and the only reason we prefer a judicial process is that revenge is done by an angry party who may not be carrying out justice in a fair way against the truly guilty.
Most action movies and violent video games use revenge for fuel.
It is the flip side of meritocracy. It sounds like a good idea: we want good and intelligent people to be rewarded and have more authority over evil or stupid people. And since we all believe ourselves to be above average in intelligence and moral standards, we count ourselves among those who ought to have power. But if you believe that good people or good actions are rewarded, then those who are suffering must be making bad decisions. The rich must be more intelligent and because they are so clean they must also be good. If we have given somebody power through democratic means, it is hard to believe they are anything but saintly.
However, the trap in this thinking is that those who are victims of natural disasters are being punished by an angry god. Those who suffer because of my actions are either dehumanized or they are painted as evil. And the poor must be lazy or criminal or defective in some other way. Meritocratic thoughts stop us from empathizing with victims, or deposing corrupt leaders or vilifying the rich.
And if you see yourself as good, then it becomes okay to exert power over others. Power is most easily expressed in violence, so the good are justified in using violence to bring peace and happiness to the world. What's wrong with that?
So there’s a tough nut to crack: Can you believe in meritocracy and justice and at the same time avoid victim blaming and depersonalization of those less fortunate? If you indulge in violent pastimes, it may be harder than you think.
I'll admit that I may have raised more questions than answers. The simple question that we started with can be answered: We find violence fun because life is stressful and we have evolved hormonal pathways in the body that give us pleasure and relief from that stress when we hit things or watch violent stories, which is easier than meditating. This is reinforced by a moral justification bound in meritocracy. It is undoubtedly natural and not a new phenomenon, but it may need to be monitored and used in moderation to make our society a more peaceful place to live.
Let's finish with an upbeat tune to give us an emotional release from these stressful questions.
“Vicarious” by Tool:
Eye on the TV
'cause tragedy thrills me
Whatever flavour it happens to be
"Killed by the husband" ...
"Drowned by the ocean" ...
"Shot by his own son" ...
"She used a poison in his tea,
Then (she) kissed him goodbye"
That's my kind of story
It's no fun til someone dies.
Don't look at me like I am a monster
Frown out your one face, but with the other (you)
Stare like a junkie into the TV
Stare like a zombie while the mother holds her child,
Watches him die,
Hands to the sky cryin "why, oh why?"
Cause I need to watch things die from a distance
Vicariously, I live while the whole world dies
You all need it too - don't lie.
Why can't we just admit it?
Using the Illusion of Violence
If you're interested in using violent stories for their proper cathartic expression, join our Performance Combat class to learn stage combat. Tuesdays and Thursdays 8-10pm and Saturdays 5-7pm.