A Killer Instinct

Violence in games and media

Violence is in our nature. It’s been around for millennia, and the recesses of your mind may subliminally crave it. Literature and entertainment has always been focussed on this base instinct, and this trend lives on today.

One of our oldest surviving works of literature ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is a story fixated on brutality. In this story, Gilgamesh, forces his subjects to compete in brutal blood-sports for his entertainment. A case of art imitating life.

As we know, this sort of gladiatorial combat was commonplace throughout history, going so far back there is no agreed date for its inception

This isn’t a culture specific obsession either, it’s global. Here in the UK, we publicly executed our last criminal in 1964. People once gathered in their droves to witness this morbid act of justice – even taking their children along to point at the pantomime villains as they hung, limply for their crimes.

Blood for entertainment is nothing new, but it has evolved across the generations, conforming to society’s sense of the ethically sound. Now we have Mixed Martial Arts and various other sports to satiate our bloodlust. 

Videogames have recently been under scrutiny about whether they influence acts of savagery. The debate started to gain momentum this month, with President Barack Obama proposing funding for research into the link.

I interviewed Max Skidmore, of Chao Praya: Muay Thai academy in Lincoln. A professional fighter for five years,  I wanted to understand what drove him to fight. “It’s the ultimate way to test yourself, and the adrenaline rush is like no other,” explains Max, “When I’m not in the ring, my thoughts are to test my abilities. When I’m in the ring, things change, the alpha-dog comes out and all I want to do is destroy my opponent. But with experience that feeling dulls a bit. I’d say the instinct is there for violence, but we’ve evolved to control it.” 

It’s interesting that his first answer is that he does it for the ‘rush’, as gamers can experience a similar euphoria when gaming.

A recent study sheds some light on why we may crave adrenaline, or violence itself: "Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory and food," said Craig Kennedy, professor of special education and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "We have found that the reward pathway in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved." 

Dopamine plays a large role in reward-driven learning, so it makes sense that if the brain increases dopamine levels when committing, or witnessing acts of aggression, that the human mind may crave it. The brain also emits dopamine when having sex, rewarding territory control and procreation.

Max admits that he craved violence in his pre-fight days, “Yeah, I did before I started Muay Thai, but [the sport] has given me boundaries, when alcohol isn’t involved at least.” The effects of alcohol on the brain are well documented to incite aggressive behaviour, yet there is no discussion on another prohibition, despite the cost to the police force and NHS. 

In fact, drinking establishments now open for longer hours. But, it’s perceived as an acceptable narcotic. And again, it’s a case of ‘the man’ deciding that some negative influences are socially acceptable.

After Max started Muay Thai, his need for aggression diminished. “I had little man syndrome…but now I don’t feel the need to prove anything.” Surely the same argument could be made for games? A way of venting frustration in an environment where nobody is adversely affected.