No image has ever created a massive war, ideology, or crime. Unless you count people who kill painters and artists because they are afraid of their power, of course. The simple truth is that words and language are the best, if not the only, means to communicate worldviews. Images, as propaganda, are useful to reinforce a previously held belief, make a joke, resume more complex ideas, or may be used as “infographics” to make a point. However, those images would not be useful if the observer had no previous idea or reference about what they are talking about. For example, an antisemitic cartoon that stereotypes Jews as blood-sucking vampires is only useful if the person who sees this has already heard about those accusations from other places (his parents, friends, the education system, journalists, etc.). To an alien from another planet, the cartoon would be incomprehensible or ridiculous.
However, there are still many people who are terrified of images and their power. They HAVE power, that is true, but it’s limited compared to the power language has. They fear because it’s a liberating power; it may not be enough to free yourself, but at least it’s a check against absolutism. And don’t be deceived, there are people who NEED to be absolutists. Their concern for public issues is just a mask.
Making a Muhammad cartoon, for example, is a statement, but by itself it can’t do much (it needs help from other sources, literary sources, mostly). Still, for the totalitarian mind, any dissension is painful like a tear in the fabric of the Universe (i.e., his own ego), but it’s also an opportunity to test the waters and see what you can get away with (can you bully them into submission? Or even kill them?). Images, like cartoons, can transcend barriers and are easy to understand, so they are a primary target for totalitarian minds.
The history of ideologies and revolutions is the history of the man of letters, journalists, and demagogues. It’s the history of the printing press, the pamphlet, and the manifesto. It’s not the history of painting or music, even if those had an auxiliary role sometimes. Language lets’s you create worldviews, which are essential for your own Theory of Evil, which are necessary if you want to create a political movement. You can’t create and explain why the world is wrong and who is to blame without human language since language is essential if you want to build an abstract system of references, symbols and bullshit ideas. These systems can be memorized or, at least, simplified in a few terms/slogans that allow for a description of history and reality in terms of a process with direction, and destiny and implicit morality according to “on which side of history are“. That seems more difficult than it actually is; it’s just creating a worldview of history from Oppression -> Liberation -> Nirvana. Once this is believed, everything else flows easily and morality jumps out of the window.
Violence, massive violence, requires language and worldview. So, why, in the name of all that is holy and obvious, are video games and popular culture products -which are mostly a nonsensical way to waste time- blamed for such crimes, when it’s obvious that journalists (or pundits, at least) and television would probably be more responsible? No one has ever been indoctrinated through images alone or playing chess; in fact, I’d say images are a good antidote to the sometimes toxic effect of (misused) words. Revolutionaries didn’t go bonkers while watching gothic or romantic art but while reading books of terrible philosophy and simplified worldviews that stroked to their wounded narcissistic egos. Do you want to save lives or stop mass shootings? Ban journalists. And try not to overmedicate unstable children.
You can put more disturbing content in a single sentence than in all the “violent” video games you have ever played. Why? Not only because words have meaning, but because they are meaning. They will always have as long someone reads them. That demon you killed in Doom? It has no meaning, it can’t be sent to the future as a message for anything meaningful, it dies even before it was born. However, what about the children dashed against the walls of Babylon?:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
As long as one human can read, that will mean something. It’s meaning goes beyond the concrete scene being described, since, in fact, it’s talking about human nature. You don’t need to be an enslaved Israelite to understand that. That is the power of words. But, now, what is the meaning behind this piece of gratuitous child-vaporizing shenanigans in Fallout 1?
None, in fact, I always chuckle when I see it. Now, compare it to this other scene since it’s a later Fallout game, where a protagonist paraphrases the Psalm verses I quoted earlier:
Do you see the difference (you can even see it in the comments)? Which one is more disturbing, more unnerving or powerful? The second one, clearly. That is the power of words (and good literature). They mean things beyond the concrete description, they have a meaning that transcends a simple sequence of images that represent a game. If they are powerful enough, they can create a whole reality, a web of meanings, histories, rules, morals, heuristics, fears and hopes. A religion, even.
You can say that a gory game is only a bunch of pixels, but you can’t say words are just sounds. Words create meaning that is always real, even if they describe fantastic things. It is much more difficult to do that with visual stimuli, which is why we have a whole category of immortal and universal Art to those few works that accomplish that. Criticizing media creations because they (may) have an effect on people, while ignoring the even bigger effect the criticism itself has (since it uses words and redefines worldviews), is just dumb or hypocritical. You can rally all the hysterical moms, demagogues and preachers, blaming rape on sexism in video games, but you can’t do the same with a game system. Then, why do some people consider a game more dangerous than the person able to convince everyone about how dangerous it is? If you can pick the most useless piece of popular culture and convince people it’s rape apology, satanism or murder simulators, you clearly have a dangerous power in your hands (or mouth). It is you the one who should be watched.
Moralist panic mongers don’t watch society, searching for the biggest threat to social health. No, they search for the weakest product and attack it as a way to lift themselves up socially. The biggest threat to society will always be the man of letters, the pundit, demagogue or the con artists. They are writers and speakers, professional bullshitters, and mind rapist, and they control the most powerful tool to reshape the human mind: language. Is it interesting to see how the media attacked by these moralists are products found on the other end of the words-spectrum: music and video games are two easy examples. A video game or music can hardly hope to create a competing worldview, so why are they attack? For that reason, because they can’t and they serve as a reminder that there are things beyond ideological purity. In any event, they are products that let you evade reality (fake ideological reality) for a moment, to have fun or live another life for an instant. The totalitarian can’t tolerate that since it’s a reminder that his 24/7 fanatism is a personal choice, and something that many people don’t need to make sense of their lives.
In video game debates, a common expression said by certain people is that “they don’t want politics in their games”, and the common retort is: “That’s already a political statement.” No, it’s not, at least not for a sane person. The insane fanatic believes everything is about politics, but he is unable to understand that’s a personal desire and ambition, not a fact. It’s not that “everything is about politics” it’s that “I want everything to be about politics”. The same happens to people who say “everything is public,” meaning “I want everything to be public since, therefore, I can be an opinionated ass who, instead of being an ass, is troubled by public issues”.
All-encompassing ideologies have always used this trick: They say everything is about X (class struggle, gender, politics, religion, etc.) and when someone says “No, not everything is about that” the other answers saying that this only proves his point, since that exactly what a person of a certain class, gender, political ideology or religion (Not the true one, of course) would say. What most people don’t realize is that this is not two competing descriptions of reality (“is or isn’t everything about X?”) but about one ass wanting his worldview imposed on everything for his personal intellectual narcissism, and the other trying to defend his personal space inside his own damn head.
Also, no, games are not about politics since gaming is antithetical to politics. A game is an abstracted reality, with formal rules and little or no relation to the real outside world. There is, and there can’t be, an ideological worldview informing a video game experience. There is no Theory of Evil about why things aren’t right in the video game world; they aren’t right because you still haven’t finished it. It’s a mental test, an exercise in playing, reading, thinking perhaps, and enjoyment. That’s it.
The reason gamers have reacted with such hostility when other media have succumbed to the politicizing pressures is because, instinctively, as a gut-reaction, gamers understand what I just explained. They understand that what they have in their hands is a distinct, separate realms, and that trying to transform it into something else by infusing politicizing and “concerning issues” is akin to ideological pedophilia. There are certain barriers that can’t and shouldn’t be broken, and the barrier between gaming, as a mindset and a behaviour, and real-world ideology is one.
Now, if books or movies become infected by this sort of ideological nonsense, the reaction is weaker since the medium already has many similarities. Both are narrative driven and passive experiences. The infection seems just a shift in content, so it slips under the radar, for some time at least. However, when someone tries to infect a video game, the move is obvious since you also need to change the medium into something else. The gaming part in the “video game” has to be sacrificed or, at least, weakened. Concern about “game narratives” and their relation to real-world ideological narratives has to be imposed, while at the same time hiding the ideology behind a mask of “real world concerns”. Shame for enjoying harmless virtual representation of aggression or human beauty (or erotica) has to be drilled until even basic females curves should be hidden. Concern about inclusivity and ideological purity has to be hammered at the expense of coherence, narration, common sense or even fun. In other words, the barriers between worlds, between gaming and ideology, has to be destroyed, and gamers feel like some pervert is touching their toys while shaming them for enjoying them. So, yes, it’s ideological pedophilia.