Violent Video Games and Movies, and the Virtue of Self-Knowledge

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: If imbibing violent media — or any media — acts upon us as an occasion of sin, then we are bound by the same obligation to avoid the occasion as we are to shun the sin.

‘Video Game’
‘Video Game’ (photo: Rangizzz / Shutterstock)

Q. Some Catholics oppose violent movies and video games altogether. They argue that lifelike violence should not be turned into entertainment. For example, video game players should not get any kind of satisfaction when killing virtual enemies. They make no distinction between games where the player is a heroic character or a criminal; for them, the same moral problem applies. Similarly, people enjoy watching violent media because it provides vicarious feelings of throwing punches or swinging and slashing swords at enemies, and those feelings are pleasurable. Other Catholics argue that these things aren’t problematic, because (1) the violence is virtual or fictional, and (2) frequently, it is performed for a heroic cause. Which of these perspectives would you say is more reflective of traditional Catholic moral thought? — Patrick

A. We must be careful to avoid extremes, on the one hand, an overly rigoristic opinion that says violent media should be shunned altogether, and on the other hand, an overly lax opinion that says, since it’s virtual, it poses no problem. Traditional Catholic moral thinking lies between the two.

The moral norm we should keep in mind is this: 

If imbibing violent media — or any media — acts upon us as an occasion of sin, then we are bound by the same obligation to avoid the occasion as we are to shun the sin: Qui tenetur ad finem, tenetur ad media (“he who is bound to reach a certain end is bound to employ the means to attain it”).

An occasion of sin is some circumstance that, given the common frailty of human nature or the weakness of some individual, serves as an enticement to sin. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church counsels “moderation and discipline” in the use of media, and the formation of “enlightened and correct consciences,” so we may more easily recognize and resist “unwholesome influences” (2496).

It is not always easy to recognize when something is an enticement to sin or an unwholesome influence on myself. Noxious influences can be cunning, subtle and slow. Consequently, in the assessment of our consumption of media, we need honesty and that hard-to-come-by virtue of self-knowledge.

Before commenting on the viewing of violence, I want to make a brief comment on sexualized media. I don’t think its influence is so difficult to identify, especially the viewing of frontal nudity and explicit sex acts. Their viewing affects our waking fantasies, our thoughts while falling asleep, our dreams, our imaginations, our feelings and our desires.  They affect the way we look at women and men to whom we are attracted, the way we think about sex more generally, and if we’re married, they affect our marital sex life. They stick in our memories like thorns. Given the common frailty of human nature, sexualized images ordinarily have an unwholesome influence on us.

But what about violence? 

St. Thomas Aquinas asks a question that might aid us in considering this. He asks what’s wrong with acts of cruelty against animals. We avoid animal cruelty, he says, to turn our minds away from the cruelty that might be used against other men, “lest a person through practicing cruelty on brutes might go on to do the same to men” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 112, 13). 

Can the same be said about enjoying virtual violence? Can it inure us — or worse, incline us — to actual violence?

It’s undeniable that common media has become more violent in recent decades, such that anyone who enjoys media frequently has had to become inured to images that 30 years ago would probably have bothered them. But it is also true that viewing violence affects people differently given the type of violence and the sensitivity of the person. 

Viewing violence in the cause of justice by Captain America is different from the violence depicted by Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers or John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (neither of which I watched because of the gratuitous killing). Likewise, violence against robots or monsters in video games is different from violence against people — and especially against innocent people. 

I have found that women are frequently more sensitive to violent images than men. This doesn’t mean men aren’t affected by them. They just might need more introspection about its longer-term effects. 

Does exposure to it contribute to irritation, anger or aggression? Have we become desensitized to the evil of real violence — on our streets, in our schools, in the world; to the crisis of violence against the unborn, against trafficked women and children, against religious minorities, especially Christians; against every innocent human being, no matter who, no matter where? 

If these instances of violence don’t bother us, or if we’re content to passively coexist with them, then we’d do well (among other things) to reassess our consumption of violent media.

But not just our consumption of violent media, because all media can have an unwholesome influence. Are we preoccupied with media even when we’re not viewing it? Are we unnecessarily glued to our smartphones? Do we obsessively look at our Facebook, Instagram, Twitter/X, Snapchat, Tumblr or TikTok accounts? 

Have we succumbed to that most boorish practice of checking our smartphones when we’re interacting with other people? Is virtual reality more interesting to us than what’s actually real? Does human interaction feel dull or threatening? Does a strong desire to watch or play cause us to skip prayer or Mass, or neglect duties to spouses or children or parents, or fail at other obligations? Some of these are straightforwardly sinful. But all can be seen as remote or proximate occasions of sin.

In general, I think we should not subject ourselves to media images of God’s commandments being broken without a iusta causa (good reason). Needed rest and relaxation can be a reason, as can the enjoyment of social interaction. But here’s the hard part. We should be honest enough to recognize when that exposure is unhealthy, and humble enough to see when we are tempted to succumb to rationalization and self-deception by defending inappropriate media.

Given the omnipresence of noxious media, Christians should soberly assess and reassess the role that media plays in their lives. They (we) should subject every show we watch and every game we play to the “unwholesome influence” test. It is hubris to think that intellectually drinking poisonous content will not affect us. 

Parents especially have a duty to monitor their children’s media consumption and to have conversations with them to help them make good choices. I heard Catholic youth proudly announce recently that they watched all seasons of Game of Thrones — without VidAngel. (VidAngel is a gem, and I highly recommend it.) I thought two things: These kids need to form “enlightened and correct” consciences; and, their parents are failing them.