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In my final year at Florida State University, I was lucky enough to be able to conduct a bit of research on religious identity and violence in the U.S. I focused primarily on video games since they have and always will be a great passion of mine. The day I turned in my final research paper, something awful happened. At the beginning of our last class meeting, my professor informed us about the Sandy Hook tragedy. He told us that he hoped everything we learned in his class about religious violence would help us to consider the circumstances that led to this tragic incident. And the truth is, it did.
Following the events of December 14, 2012, many reporters were quick to point out that the gunman, Adam Lanza, was an avid video game player. Some would even refer to him as an “addict.”
Blaming video games for violence is nothing new; however, many scholars have recently begun applying serious research to the connections between real-life violence and violent media. Their work is what provided a framework for me to conduct my own study.
In his book, Violence and the Sacred, French philosopher and historian René Girard posits that violence is a form of sacrifice, a “social function” that “serves to protect the entire community from its own violence.” In his model, sacrifice quells internal communal conflicts, desires, and discord, restoring “harmony to the community” and “reinforcing the social fabric.” This sacrificial violence is not static, and, unless placated, “seeks and always finds a surrogate victim,” according to Girard. This seeking out has been occurred throughout American history time and again in the way of intolerance and violence toward Native Americans, Catholics, Mormons, and Muslims.
Girard later poses the question, “What will happen when we share the same desires?” He answers, “Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash.” Regina M. Schwartz raises a similar concern in the introduction to her book The Curse of Cain when she asks, “What kind of God is this who chooses one sacrifice over the other?” Her answer points a finger directly at monotheism. Schwartz states, “This God who excludes some and prefers others, who casts some out, is a monotheistic God — monotheistic not only because he demands allegiance to himself alone but because he confers his favor on one alone.” Here, Schwartz is making a claim that monotheism’s legacy of violence is directly linked to the language of scarcity that is prevalent in its scripture. This scarcity is what leads to the construction of the “Other,” an act that — according to Schwartz — is not only the antecedent of violence but violence itself. Both Girard and Schwartz emphasize that the construction and subsequent sacrifice of the Other are necessary in identity formation. Their theories create a framework that can be used to examine religious intolerance and violence in the U.S. as perpetuated by popular culture and media.
Girardian themes can also be found in Rachel Wagner’s Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality. Wagner argues that in the same way “Girard sees Mass as the perfect example of substitutionary violence functioning as a salve for societal anxiety” in which “violence is not denied” but “diverted to another object, something it can sink its teeth into,” video games can also serve a similar function. “If Girard is right,” she writes, “virtual (mimetic) violence is substitutionary.” Here, Wagner is suggesting that violence in video games can be considered a kind of ritual where violence is redirected, and digital beings become the scapegoats. Although Wagner does question whether or not video games can “functionally do the same kind of symbolic work as the Christian Mass” in a Girardian context, she also points out that video games create a liminal space in which the actions of players are excusable because they don’t really hurt anyone. Games such as Second Life allow players to “blow up virtual churches,” “sit naked on the Koran,” and “paint swastikas on synagogues.” One player, Roger Junchke, calls himself a “Second Life terrorist” and says his actions within the game are just “his benign and petty way of expressing my dislike of Christian fundamentalists.” Although players who participate in this kind of behavior may consider it “benign,” their actions within the game are fueled by same construction of the Other that Regina Schwartz would refer to as a form of nonphysical violence in and of itself.
Godwired also takes a close look at the violence in the controversial video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a companion game to Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series of novels. In the game, the player controls “tanks, helicopters, and infantry with the primary goal of converting the uncommitted (neutral units) to the Christian cause while killing non-Christians when necessary.” The game, like the series of novels it is based on, caused disputes and led one member of the Anti-Defamation League to state, “This theology portrays itself as the only path to salvation. And Jews, people of any other faith, or those of no faith who do not convert before it’s too late are destined to suffer horrible deaths.” Not only does this game echo Schwartz’ notion of scarcity, but it also creates the same “dualistic construct of reality in which every entity in the game is identified as with the forces of good or the forces of evil” that was seen in the war-themed games released in the wake of September 11, 2001.
However, this does not mean that video games and the Internet should be viewed as harmful tools. On the contrary, even a living Buddhist Lama can see the benefits of video games. Rachel Wagner explains how 24-year-old Karmapa Lama Trinley Dorje finds that “if I’m having some negative thoughts or feelings, video games are one way in which I can release that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better afterwards. The aggression that comes out in the video game satiates whatever desire I might have to express that feeling. To me, that is very skillful because when I do that I don’t have to go and hit anyone over the head.” For Lama Dorje, video games then become the scapegoat, and the violence, or “negative thought,” is slaked. Here, we can see that video games can further be viewed in a Girardian context by providing a liminal space for sacrificial violence.
World of Warcraft has the alliance and the horde. Final Fantasy XI Online has its national conquest. And even Dark Souls has its covenants. All of these create division among players as well as instill a sense of identity.
So where does that leave us? Are video games a tool that allow us a kind of “liminal stage” to perform violent acts? Are they substitutionary in that we can take out our anger on avatars rather than real people? Or do they inform group identity while condoning intolerance and violence to others? Is it neither? What do you think?