Violence in the media has always been a hot-button issue, and it generally becomes a more salient topic when real-world brutality gains extensive news coverage. Violent tragedies often defy explanation, but we look for them anyway, examining the nation’s mental health systems, gun control laws, and media consumption in the wake of mass violence. With all the brutal, graphic images that appear in film and video games, it is rather easy to pin the blame on fictionalized violence—logically, it seems that being exposed to those images over and over again could desensitize users, especially young people, to the value of human life. Anxieties about gaming and graphic films have even begun to influence public policy, prompting many politicians to examine these media industries in order to determine if violent images should be reduced or censored. Avid media consumers have long championed the positive and artistic qualities of games and movies, but for many, the similarities between real-world tragedies and their Hollywood counterparts can be alarming.

Research on the topic does little to assuage these fears, and studies often produce counterintuitive results. Despite protests from parents, pundits, and politicians, there is still little consensus as to whether the situation is really all that dire. Certainly, many researchers have validated the common fear that video games lead to higher levels of aggression, stress, and blood pressure, but others tell a different story. For almost every study that finds a link between simulated violence and aggressive, real-life behavior, another finds that gaming is essentially harmless. While media consumers might feel more stress immediately after playing a game or watching a violent film, no links have been found in the lab connecting fictionalized violence with real crime.

For Dr. James D. Ivory, an associate professor from Virginia Tech’s Department of Communication, the link between video games and violent behavior is simply too tenuous to draw overarching conclusions about the media industry. Ivory has long been interested in studying video games and other media, but now he has turned his attention to discovering some of the media’s potentially positive effects.

“There has been a lot of attention on the potential negative effects of media portrayals on perceptions and behavior, and those effects appear to be very complex,” Ivory explains. “What we know much less about is whether some portrayals of violence can actually bring out our better nature and increase prosocial behavior.”

the similarities between real-world tragedies and their Hollywood counterparts can be alarming

The idea came from a discussion Ivory had about some of the artistic and narrative qualities of video games.

“I had a conversation with a colleague at a research conference about how he had been reflecting on a video game that had made him feel very thoughtful about the way a violent scene had been portrayed,” Ivory says. “That experience had him wondering about the many ways that we might respond to violence depending on its presentation.”

In other words, perhaps violence affects us most by its context. In many television shows, the good guys often behave violently, ostensibly for the greater good or to protect others, but many other violent actions are treated as problematic and disturbing by their narratives. The possibility of using violent images to encourage anti-violent attitudes is central to Ivory’s ongoing study.

Ivory turned to Virginia Tech’s G.A.M.E.R. Lab for this project, a laboratory group devoted to studying gaming and media effects that he founded in 2008. The lab allows undergraduates to become directly involved in the research process. Kwaku Akom, a Virginia Tech student majoring in electrical engineering and an undergraduate research associate for the lab, contributed to the design of the anti-violence project and spearheaded the process of student data collection. Students working in the G.A.M.E.R. Lab collect data for a variety of projects, but they can also influence the kinds of questions that researchers in the lab hope to answer.

The experiment will involve three separate groups of participants, and each group will be exposed to a different clip from the film Once Were Warriors. Two of the clips involve violent scenes—one in which the main character fights an unlikable antagonist and one in which he engages in domestic violence. The first clearly presents violence as a positive solution, but the second scene shows violence that is both visually and psychologically disturbing for the audience. A third clip shows the main character singing, a non-violent control that will demonstrate the difference between reactions to violent and non-violent scenes.

Photograph of students in the gamer lab

Photo courtesy of Dr. James Ivory

According to the group’s hypotheses, viewers should be negatively impacted by scenes depicting domestic abuse, which might cause them to recoil from violence in general. In keeping with the idea that fictional violent images can affect real-world behavior, participants in the study will then watch a news clip of the ongoing Syrian conflict immediately after viewing their respective film clip. The participants can then record their reactions to real-life violence, through surveys, heart rate measurements, and other factors. Theoretically, they will tend to hold more negative attitudes toward violence, experience more empathy for victims of violence, and might even be more willing to donate to Syrian relief funds.

The idea that anti-violent messages within media, however subtle, can influence audiences to actively contribute to charities and other pro-social efforts could go a long way in reforming the idea that violent media has a purely “corrupting” influence on society.

If anything, it’s clear that the media can be used in a number of different ways, for good or ill, and the audience is rarely as easily swayed by the media’s messages as we might imagine. Still, mass media is a major source of information, entertainment, and engagement for a vast majority of Americans, and that level of influence demands attention and careful study. With public policy hinging on current research findings, Ivory’s exploration of potentially positive effects could give the public a much more thorough and balanced understanding of how we can use our media to create a better society.