Who mistakes fiction for reality?



It seems to be repost season around here. This time it's an article written seven and a half years ago, on 10 March 2012 (coincidentally, one year before My Opera closed down). I'm bringing it back now because it's referenced from another place that I'd forgotten about, but also because it somehow continues to be highly relevant after all this time. Doubly so as yet another mass shooting in the US of A is being blamed on videogames, even after multiple scientific studies have failed to spot any hint of a correlation. Think we'll ever be rid of this pernicious myth?

In the mean time, I wrote more about the way violence is misunderstood in western society. Game developers, you see, don't understand violence any better than the general public does. And violence in games (like in all fiction) is a statement, often of the political variety. It sends a message when you put a marine with an assault rifle in there to shoot at whomever the latest Hollywood blockbuster decided to paint as the bad guy of the month. You may not be causing violence, but you're contributing to the discourse, like it or not. Be aware of what you're saying.

Otherwise, the text holds up surprisingly well. People continue to grow more disconnected from the physical side of things, less understanding of each other's abilities and limitations. A growing movement has been pushing disability awareness, but outside of that? The assumption that all able-bodied people can do the same things in the same way still dominates, and it ruins lives. Doesn't help that we're obsessed with "fairness", by which we mean, "don't hand anyone a torn rag unless they've worked hard for it to prove worthy".

I'm veering off-topic by now. My point remains: a lot of people have little life experience, therefore a tenuous grip on reality, and that makes them easy to sway by fictional depictions that anyone who's done a thing or two can easily recognize as made up. So it's not that media have become more realistic in recent decades... but that life is increasingly experienced only through media.

Results are of course worryingly similar. Enjoy the original text... if you can.

In or out of touch with reality


I was reading this book on manga and anime recently, and came across a bit about how members of the Aum cult (the guys with the nerve gas attack at the Tokio subway in 1995) were influenced by apocalyptic scenarios in the titular media. Back then, various commenters opined that the increasing realism of visual arts made it ever more difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction. And that's a very interesting claim, because the modern human's grasp on reality is indeed weak. But the real cause is the exact opposite of what those commenters say it is.

Back when I was in a science-fiction club, we kept getting visitors who were interested in the paranormal. They just wouldn't understand that we were dealing with stories we knew were fictional. So not only they couldn't tell the difference between reality and fiction, they couln't even grasp the concept of intentionally created fiction. In their minds, we simply must have believed starships and aliens where real, just as they did! After all, why would someone seriously discuss stuff that doesn't (yet) exist? :P

I suspect the same question was on the minds of those who used to demonize Dungeons&Dragons back in the 1980s, thinking it was about real magical rituals. I guess it seemed too improbable that a game involving "just" books and dice could be so engrossing. It must have been serious business!

See, western public opinion doesn't seem so concerned with realism. Over time, they've demonized everything from rock and roll to Doom. Which begs the question, how could anyone think such a cartoonish game could be thought to have anything in common with real-life violence?

The answer is twofold: one, those who consider it evil have probably never seen the game, let alone played it; second, and most importantly, they don't know a thing about real life.

I won't tackle the issue of violence here; it's a big, sensitive topic that warrants another write-up. Suffice to say, the average Westerner has zero experience with physical violence, apart maybe from vague memories of being bullied in school; it's easy for such a person to believe violence is as easy, clean and effective as in Hollywood blockbusters. (Interestingly, European movies tend to portray violence much more realistically, and guess what, that doesn't make them less spectacular.)

But more generally, the average Westerner has no personal experience with many things that are otherwise a part of life, and as such is prone to make stuff up, or believe what others make up about them.

Don't believe me? Let's see. Have you ever...

  • ...climbed a tree?
  • ...picked up an apple from it...
  • ...and eaten it?
  • ...fallen from the tree...
  • ...and broken a limb?
  • ...cut firewood?
  • ...made a fire?
  • ...been close to a blaze?
  • ...built a bow and arrow?
  • ...fired it successfully?
  • ...been close to a cow?
  • ...beheaded a chicken?
  • ...cooked a meal?
  • ...assembled an Ikea desk...
  • ...let alone built a dog house?
  • ...made your own papercraft Chess set?
  • ...fixed a broken water tap?
  • ...how about a light switch?
  • ...been electrocuted?
  • ...nearly drowned?

I can tick about half the boxes on this list, and I made it on purpose. How many people do you know who can't even tick one? Of course such a person will be prone to thinking real life is more or less like in the movies. Not that I wish anyone to break a leg! But if you never have, then you don't know what it's like. And that wouldn't be any problem... except one day your own kid might climb a tree... and slip.

It's easy for desk clerks to demean trench diggers, saying "anyone can shovel dirt". It's equally easy for the trench diggers to demean desk clerks, saying "anyone can push paper". But hand a desk clerk a shovel and they won't even be able to drive it into the ground. Sit the trench digger at a desk, and they'll admit with a crooked smile that they never liked learning.

So much for imagining what it's like to be in somebody else's shoes.

We humans are judgemental, and we have to base our judgements on something. If we're out of touch with real life, then of course fiction will take its place in our minds. And we'll make laws based in fantasy, which real people will then have to follow.

Get acquainted with real life, for everybody's sake, including yours.


Tags: media, society, philosophy