The issue of violence in entertainment media was again raised only days after the release of violent video game Mortal Kombat. Wade Stephens looked at the different arguments in the on screen violence debate.

The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne hosted a public forum to discuss whether violence in movies, television and video games impacts people’s behaviour.

The Archbishop, Dr Philip Freier, was concerned that advertising companies are constantly scrutinised over the content they show, but graphic violence is still prominent on Australian television screens.

“You can influence people’s behaviour by advertising in all sorts of ways, and the other side, there seems to be an argument that people’s behaviour is not in any way detrimentally influenced by participating in violent games.”

Author, journalist and former editor Bruce Guthrie and criminologist Professor Alison Young, of the University of Melbourne, both spoke at the forum, which was held on Wednesday November 14.

“There are lots of problems with that argument because I think that choosing a hamburger or choosing a clothing detergent is not the same as choosing whether or not to commit an act of violence,” said Professor Young.

Professor Young has spent time analysing on screen violence and how it affects the public.

“I’ve looked at the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, I’ve looked at the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings in the US, and similar events in the UK. So I’m interested in how those singular, very unusual, events are often used to kick start changes in legislation or in social policy.”

Professor Young said there are no studies that conclusively link on screen violence to violence in real life.

Dr Freier said he does believe there is a relevance to some depictions of violence, but that the distinction should be made clear.

“You might watch a movie which is a violent movie, but you might feel very sobered. We’re talking about Schindler’s List, a movie which, in a way, depicts highly violent events, but, in another way, gives people a message of the futility of that violence and courage that comes out of suffering,” said Dr Freier.

He said the main issue for him was media that showed violence for the sake of violence, or video games that put players in a situation of kill-or-be-killed.

Dr Freia said that social policy might need to adapt to deal with violence in extreme cases, because violence is now a necessary part of many movies and video games.

“We should be concerned about the violence and seek to be getting people to think more about it and engage in responsibility, because if people are socially isolated, and they’re away from other people who are positive influences who might work through them with their problems, they probably are at a higher risk because they’re immersed in a virtual world feeling socially isolated and perhaps with their own issues and problems that cause them to be quite despairing. It’s imaginable that can lead to a very destructive scenario for them and for others.

However, Professor Young said that, despite the link between violent movies and events like the Port Arthur massacre, violence in media has its place.

“When one of these events takes place, there’s often a search for a cause or some factor that can be blamed. It’s quite understandable – people want to know what went wrong, and controlling violent images might be a way that a government shows itself to be doing something about an issue, trying to prevent it happening again. But, of course, it’s a very different thing to base a social policy on the act of one individual, really an immeasurably small minority, and not on the acts of the majority who normally watch violent images without any kind of behavioural changes whatsoever.”

Wade Stephens is a journalist for The Wire.