Monday, December 14, 2009

Kamma via video

What do you feel when you gaze upon a Buddha statue? What becomes of your mind when looking at a Tangka? What happens to your body when you enter a temple? When I was visiting Thailand and going to the various temples, I asked my guide why were the temples so ornate, filled with golden images with an obvious intent at creating beauty? He replied that for the poor, coming to such beautiful temples filled their hearts with joy and put their minds at ease, because the temple was a place for spiritual sanctuary. The statues in and of themselves mean nothing, but provide a vehicle to pay homage to the Buddha’s teaching.

A plausible answer, and yet I wondered whether Buddhism, with its statues and images and artifacts, in some ways is similar to the Vatican. But that’s not why I raise this question. I ask this because I know that I have a biological and emotional response when I see a Buddha statue or the interior of even the simplest temples. I feel calm, at ease, as if all my burdens have been lifted.

When I see violence, I also have a biological and emotional response. I have it regardless of whether I am seeing this violence in real life or on a movie screen. It shocks me, causes me to feel empathy for the victim, even if the victim is fictional. And that is precisely the response sought by the screenwriter or the author.

I ask this because of a post at dhamma musings where Shravasti Dhammika responds to a question about whether it is wrong for someone to play violent video games. Is there a connection between a person’s enjoyment of such games and the likelihood of he or she becoming violent?

A commenter left the response that there is not a shred of evidence to support the conclusion that playing violent video games leads to violence, a dubious claim in my opinion because there is evidence. It may be scant evidence, but there is evidence. And the data I would agree leads more strongly toward a conclusion that violent content is not a single causal agent of violent behavior in others.

Shravasti Dhammika took the opposite tack as well, saying that the converse must be true; if violent content has no significant impact on our behavior, then viewing things of beauty – art, a natural scene – would also have no positive impact on our behavior. I find that conclusion dubious as well. But Shravasti Dhammika did say something I can agree with and understand: while playing violent video games is not necessarily morally wrong, it is unskillful.

Whether we are playing a violent video game or viewing pornography, we ought to keep in mind that we are creating kamma. When I play a video game like Halo, I have made a choice to play the game, knowing that to play this game I must destroy animated figures that represent human life. It is my intent to play the game. Kamma is intent.

My teacher used an example one time of a nephew of his. This nephew would play The Sims, a harmless enough game, right? But his nephew would put a decidedly sinister twist into the game. He would create characters and put them into a room with no doors, no windows, no plumbing nor a phone. He would then sit back and watch the animated figure suffer until it “died.”

This young man was creating kamma.

Now, this young man would probably never do something like that in real life – lock someone in a room without a toilet just to watch them defecate on the floor and then slowly die of dehydration and starvation. But doesn’t the fact that he would do this in a video game, in an “alternate reality,” say something about this person’s psychological makeup? I don’t know. I used to play Star Craft a lot, and that certainly involved killing other creatures, even humans should I decide to play as one of the creatures and select humans as my enemy. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I continue to have issues with anger. Does my enjoyment of a movie like “Kill Bill” play into that, even though I know the violence in such a movie is absurdly comic?

Right now my conclusion is enjoying a movie like “Kill Bill,” or a Sam Peckinpah movie like “The Wild Bunch,” is relatively harmless. But I no longer find enjoyment in video games that require developing skill in “killing” animated figures. And I certainly can’t stand to watch those real life cop shows, because the people suffering in those programs aren’t avatars or animated gifs – they are real people, and I find it abhorrent that such content is presented as “entertainment.”

“One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.” (Dhp X, 131)


  1. You said, "And I certainly can’t stand to watch those real life cop shows, because the people suffering in those programs aren’t avatars or animated gifs – they are real people, and I find it abhorrent that such content is presented as “entertainment.”


    I recently watched Steven Seagal's new series on A&E called "Lawman". I was appalled and all I could think of was the word "exploitative". Being a cop myself I was embarrassed at what I saw.

    I don't watch COPS for the same reason and it bothers me that people get their jollies from watching others suffer in the same way that people rubber neck at traffic accidents were the gorier the better.

  2. odd, my comment didnt show up

  3. @Kyle, post it again. I don't moderate comments, they are automatically approved and published.