On Violence as “Entertainment”

Grand Theft Auto 5, which involves cyber participation in all sorts of violence against humans, including homicide, torture, and rape (but maybe it’s “just” cannibalism), as well as nonhumans, has apparently become the fastest selling entertainment product in history.

When I made a Facebook comment criticizing the game, I had a horde of gamers become apoplectic at the mere suggestion that these sorts of “games” were encouraging us to become numb to violence. They insisted that we can separate the “game” from reality.

The violent imagery that we think of as “entertainment” may not be causing people in any direct sense to act in ways that they wouldn’t act otherwise, but it is, without doubt, causing a general coarsening of society; it is distorting our moral perception. It is making violent imagery something that no longer repulses us. And that is unquestionably significant.

Do you want to know why many “good” people did not object to race-based slavery in the U.S.? One reason is that they were surrounded by many others who supported slavery and regarded the ownership of Africans to be “normal.” They were numb to the violence of slavery because it surrounded them. It did not repulse them because it was part of the moral reality that they saw. When we are surrounded by, and wallow in, a culture of violence, we similarly become numb to violence. To deny that is beyond absurd. And that is why we stand around and record a violent episode we see on the street on our smartphones rather than intervene to help.

Years ago, the late feminist Andrea Dworkin argued that pornography depicting violence against women resulted in sexual assaults against women. Whether she was right about any causal link is beside the point; even if eroticizing violence against women cannot be linked directly with the sexual assault of a particular woman, that sort of “entertainment” necessarily makes us as a society more numb to violence against women. And that is, perhaps, what accounts for the epidemic of violence against women that currently exists.

So can we in one sense separate the “entertainment” from reality? Sure. But can we deny that by treating violent imagery involving humans and nonhumans as “entertainment” that we are numbing ourselves morally? No, we can’t. And it strains credulity to say otherwise.

I agree with those who say that our entertainment has always been violent. But is just silly to say that there is not a qualitative difference between Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula,” and films like “Saw” and “Hostel” and these video games that involve extreme, and, in the case of the games, “participatory” violence, against humans and animals.

One of the things that animated opposition to the war in Vietnam was the imagery of children being burned by napalm. After Vietnam, reporters were “embedded” so that they could no longer show that sort of imagery. But it would not matter anyway. We are so used to seeing things that make napalming look like a picnic that the image of an actual suffering child may trouble us but no longer has the emotional force it once had and it can no longer compel us to raise our voices in sustained protest.

Please understand: I am not arguing in favor of government censorship of films, video games, or anything else. Governments have a bad track record here. And I am not disputing that we can, on one level, separate the “entertainment” from reality in that not everyone who finds violence to be entertaining engages in violence.

I am, however, in favor of our asking ourselves why we find images of extreme violence against humans and nonhumans to not be repulsive and, indeed, to be entertaining.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2013 Gary L. Francione