How to Use Cultivation Theory to Defend Violent Video Games - mnemosynekurai Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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How to Use Cultivation Theory to Defend Violent Video Games

Now that it's enjoyed the spotlight on my personal blog for a few days, I'd like to share with you all a piece I wrote on cultivation theory, a theory of communication studies, and how to use it to defend violent video games. I wrote it before the NRA's ridiculous press conference partially blaming games for gun violence in the United States, though you can easily see where their argument would fit into my piece.

-Cross-posted from No, I Am a Dog-

I’m not going to lie: I didn’t know the name of the Newtown killer before doing research for this piece. He was a very sick person and a murderer – that’s all I needed to know. I avoided clicking hyperlinks posted by Twitter friends because I didn’t want to be surprised by horribly sad pictures of dead kids, and more than anything, I didn’t want to feed the media frenzy that keeps Newtown residents from going out for groceries in fear they’ll be harassed by interviewers.

But then I started seeing the same old argument about the effects of violent media being thrown around by grown, “educated” people who should definitely know better, and I knew I couldn’t ignore it any longer, because I had something I finally needed to say. National outlets like The Washington Post pretended to approach the issue of Lanza’s mental (in)stability objectively while at the same time offering up platforms to people with bunk ideas about how media can and cannot affect an individual’s behaviors. In a December 16th article, they quoted a forensic psychiatrist who believes first-person shooters encourage players to “dehumanize” others and “unreservedly” considers violent video games a cause of real violent behaviors. ABC News recently ran an article titled, “Do Video Games Make Kids Violent?” It doesn’t matter that the article was actually relatively fair – the headline sets the “agenda,” as we like to say in communication studies, and the agenda is, “violent games are something we need to worry about.” The Atlantic published an article written by a parent now paranoid about giving her sons Halo 4 for Christmas. Fox News reported that the NRA is currently planning to attempt to shift the debate from gun control to how video games “teach young kids how to shoot heads.”


As a media studies scholar who researches deviant media like pornography (and yes, even hyper-violent video games), I’ve heard all these arguments and issues with media, and more – many times, from much more educated folks who hold doctorates and are responsible for curating future generations of critical thinkers – and I’ve had just about enough of it. Clearly, the people who write and administer national news outlets never paid attention during their college courses about media effects and persuasion. If you agree with me (and if you don’t now, I think you might by the end of this piece), then read on to learn how to defend against the pithy, uneducated, distracting arguments claiming violent media cause violent actions.

One of my favorite communication studies theories is called the “cultivation theory.” It began as a large-scale research project in the late 1970s, and a scholar by the name of George Gerbner is usually credited with its long-term development. The theory continues to be one of the most frequently cited and most popular theories in communication studies, media studies, cultural studies, and mass communication studies, and thus, it’s been both refuted and refined since its original conception. However, at its core, cultivation theory basically states these three things that are highly applicable to discussions about media effects:

One, media does not influence people’s actions. Instead, media tends to influence people’s beliefs about reality. For example, people do not watch shows like Jersey Shore and The O.C. and then go out and have a ton of unprotected sex and act like idiots. People watch shows like Jersey Shore and The O.C. and then go out into the world believing that there are exponentially more people like Snooki in the world than there actually are. Teenagers who watch a lot of reality shows or pretty rich kid dramas tend to believe that most of their peers lost their virginity at an early age, that most people their age are rich, and that to be beautiful, one must be flawless, and usually white.

Two, the less people consume of a certain type of media, the less their conceptions of reality are affected by it. That is, people who watch one hour of Unsolved Mysteries every week are much less likely to believe that kidnappings happen by the second than do people who watch several hours of mystery-drama television daily.

Three, media does affect people, but its most dangerous effects are on a cultural level. Watching Leave it to Beaver probably didn’t convince many women to quit their jobs to lead lives as devoted housewives, but it did encourage the belief that there is an ideal U.S. American household (married parents, two kids, white picket fence).

Cultivation theory works just as well when discussing the effects of violent media, especially video games, on individuals. Actually, the theory was originally developed to speak solely to violent media effects. Here’s how:

One, violent video games do not make people more violent. This is why 99.9% of little boys and girls who grow up playing things like GoldenEye (like I did) or Doom never commit egregious acts of aggression. Violent video games can encourage those little girls and boys to believe that the world is an inherently violent place, and that they are at-risk for becoming victims, but violent video games cannot, in most circumstances, convince people to actually commit acts of violence themselves.

Two, the more violent video games people play, the more they will believe that the world is a violent place. These are the types of people who stereotype all Black Americans as dangerous because the majority of the mugshots their local news station publishes are of ethnic minorities. There isn’t some magical threshold that, once crossed, turns people into killers – they simply become more paranoid.

Three, the real danger in violent video games that dehumanize victims and encourage killing sprees isn’t seen in the ways they affect individuals – it’s in the ways they affect a culture’s relationship to violence and masculinity. The U.S. is notoriously obsessed with war-mongering, gun rights, and rigid gender roles that force people of all gender identities to act aggressively in order to gain power. It’s only when a culture, like the U.S., doesn’t critically analyze how those unfavorable realities are manifested and reinforced through media saturation of those types of messages (war coverage, unnecessarily gendered advertising, incessant coverage of tragedies, excessive profiling of killers) that the really dangerous stuff like mass murders are legitimized and encouraged.

I’m sick and tired of hearing all this “science” reporting by national news outlets and politicians. Cultivation theory is one of the hallmark theories of communication studies – the primary field responsible for critical analysis of media, media effects, and audience studies. There are many other communication theories that deal appropriately and fairly with media effects, and I encourage you to do your own research as desired. In the meantime, be a voice of educated reason in a sea of mindless bodies who would rather repeat untenable nonsense “science” than critically analyze the real issues affecting and affected by U.S. obsessions with violence, masculinity, and aggression.

Additional reading
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). “The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11″, Journal of Communication, 30:3, 10-29.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Jackson-Beeck, M., Jeffries-Fox, S. & Signorielli, N. (1978). “Cultural indicators violence profile no. 9″. Journal of Communication, 28(3), 176-207.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1986). “Living with television: The dynamics of the cultivation process” in J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Perspectives on media effects (pp. 17–40). Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gerbner, G. (1998). “Cultivation analysis: An overview”. Mass Communication and Society, 3/4, 175-194.
Griffin, E. (2012). Communication Communication Communication. McGraw-Hill: New York, (8), 366-377.

Ali is a former Game Informer editorial intern and is currently a master's student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies games, virtual communities, manga, and other nerdy crap. Follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, or her personal blog.

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