Reflections on cultural osmosis

(I promise this post isn’t a post about children, but it is inspired by my kid so that’s where we’re going to start. But it’s still totally relevant to gaming, honest.)

My husband and I have differing philosophies when it comes to the problem of Santa and the question of whether we would teach the kid about Santa or not. Previous to this year, the question was more academic than anything. However, while my daughter isn’t quite old enough to understand all the trappings of Christmas, she’s now definitely of an age to be learning from this year what Christmas is about. So we found ourselves needing to reach some sort of detente.

Thankfully, my mother-in-law provided an elegant solution: never comment on the question of Santa’s existence. We need never confirm or deny the existence of Santa, because the culture at large will take care of the issue for us. If she believes, she believes – and vice versa. And this way the disagreement between my husband and I becomes something we can live with, because neither of us will be taking a course of action opposed to the philosophy of the other parent.

Watching the results of our experiment (children are living experiments, only there’s no way to prove the hypothesis until it’s way too late to affect the outcome) has been interesting. Despite the fact that we have not provided any sort of instruction in the Santa myth, my daughter can now point to the Santa ornaments on our tree and identify them as Santa. She can also identify reindeer, though it’s unclear whether this is a result of Santification or just her obsession with learning to identify animals. And she has come home with a few Santa-related crafts made at the daycare, which tells me there must be at least a small amount of Santa lore being delivered there.

Of course, this process has also been a bit unsettling as well. Because here is proof that even at the age of two and a half, the simple act of failing to talk about a cultural idea with our daughter means that she is slowly absorbing the cultural default through contact with the culture as a whole. And sure, it’s true that if we cared to we could educate her from day one about how Santa is a myth and etc etc etc, we’d probably have a kid that didn’t believe in Santa at all. But even then, she’s still going to perceive Santa/Christmas as the default cultural event of the season until she’s old enough to learn about different traditions, because that’s just how cultural background radiation works.

So what does this have to do with games already?

In my last post, I talked about (among other things) Valve/Steam’s handling of indie shooter game Hatred – a game in which you play a white man going on a violent rampage where the goal is to cause as much carnage as possible before being killed by law enforcement. One particular point that I made was the harm that Hatred commits in helping perpetuate a harmful cultural narrative:

I mean, it’s not like mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released (1997 and 2003 respectively). And, you know, who needs to be concerned about promoting a cultural narrative that glorifies mass violence when there have been 278 American mass shootings up to this point in 2014? I’m sure that can’t possibly have any negative repercussions.

Predictably some people got super upset about this. How dare I say that video games cause violence! Didn’t I know there was all kinds of science proving that false? Clearly I’m just some sort of science-hating feminazi! And on and on, you get the idea. The only problem is: that isn’t what I was saying at all. Saying that I was seriously arguing that violent video games directly cause violence is a gross over-simplification to the point of straw-manning what I was actually saying. Which is that cultural narratives matter, and that mindlessly contributing to harmful cultural narratives is harmful.

In much the same way that my daughter is learning about Santa through passive cultural osmosis, other children are absorbing the dominant cultural narrative that glorifies rugged individualism and violent hypermasculinity because that’s how cultural osmosis fucking works. Games like Hatred that mindlessly replicate depictions of hypermasculine violence without making even the smallest effort to be critical of that violence are contributing to the cultural background radiation that informs our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREEEEENNNN here.


Far from it! I’m actually pretty excited for the time, not too distant from now, when I can start playing games with my daughter and introducing her to the best parts of what gaming can be.

BUT. I’m also going to be careful to have truthful, critical conversations with her about the harmful elements of culture that she’ll encounter through games. Because the ugly reality of being a child-haver is that you can’t protect children from the harmful elements of cultural background radiation, no matter how hard you try. The best you can hope for is to give them tools that will allow them to remain critical and to actively resist accepting kyriarchy as the norm.

I know that despite my best efforts, I’m going to fail at some things. Because the same harmful ideas I’m attempting to teach my kid to resist are the same ones that I absorbed through passive cultural osmosis myself. Growing up, none of the adults in my life ever said anything overtly racist. But that didn’t stop me from growing up with unconscious racist attitudes, or from saying embarrassingly racist shit when I was in University. (That’s not to say that I’m perfect now, but I’d certainly like to think that I’ve gotten better.)

It also didn’t protect me from all of the unspoken sexism that I internalized. No one ever said that women were inferior. Indeed, the opposite was frequently articulated. Women are equal to men! Sexism is an outdated ideal! Women deserve equal rights and equal pay! But that message didn’t align with the reality of the social stigma for being outspoken, not conforming to traditional standards of femininity, and not confining my life aspirations to traditionally “female” career paths. So is it any wonder that as an adult, what I struggle with more than anything is allowing myself to feel as if I have worth? As if I am allowed to occupy space and want not-traditionally-feminine things?

And let’s not forget that it’s not only children who are susceptible to the harmful influence of our culture. There is a wealth of scientific data about the myriad negative effects that women suffer from being surrounded by a culture of sexism. There is also a growing body of evidence about the deleterious effects of sexist media on men, not the least of which is that men who consume sexist media display higher rates of sexist attitudes. Much as we like to delude ourselves that we’re too smart to be affected by the media we consume, scientifically speaking – that is demonstrably not the case.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on cultural osmosis

  1. I’m sympathetic to the points you’re making, but I think people’s objections are grounded in a miscommunication in your earlier post.

    You say in your current post: “Saying that I was seriously arguing that violent video games directly cause violence is a gross over-simplification”.

    But I think people (including me) read this sentence from your earlier post as exactly such a statement: “I mean, it’s not like mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released (1997 and 2003 respectively).”

    I take it from your current post that the quoted sentence wasn’t intended to sarcastically imply that “mass shootings have exploded as a phenomenon since Postal and Manhunt were first released” AS A RESULT OF those games (i.e., that “violent video games directly cause violence”, a position you now repudiate). But surely you can see how it reads that way.

    • See, that’s something that anyone who spent more than 5 minutes reading my blog would be able to understand, though. I get frustrated with people hate-sharing links, dropping in and reading one piece, and thinking that they know everything that I think about games.

      I write about playing games like Mass Effect A LOT. I write about really enjoying combat and about how I find slow-mo headshots REALLY SATISFYING. So it’s really frustrated expressing a complex, nuanced opinion about a subject and having it reduced to a talking point that’s actually the OPPOSITE of what I think, simply because I happened to use sarcasm.

  2. One of the most important things my family taught me growing up is that I can be whoever and whatever I choose to be if I work hard enough at it. I’ve internalized this and it has helped me function in times when the cultural background radiation was against my own nature.

    The only way you can resist bad ideas is to know why they are bad and be able to negate them when they start creeping into your head (again and again) because of cultural osmosis.

  3. On the topic of Santa — My wife and I both agreed to teach our kids that Santa was a character, not unlike the other cartoon characters they see on TV, and occasionally meet at theme parks. This was working great until this year (oldest is 4) in pre-school. In October, when Santa first started appearing, she would consistently answer that Santa was not real, like Perry the platypus (her favorite character).

    Now, however, when we ask her if Santa is real in response to her talking about Santa it’s about 80% he is real and 20% he is pretend. It appears that the strength of peer pressure from her pre-school classmates who do believe outweighs our assertions that he is not real.

    I’d wager in your families case you’re running into something similar. I don’t know which side of the issue you are on and which side your husband is on, it really doesn’t matter because there’s pros and cons of both sides, but on a certain level it seems inevitable in our culture that a belief in Santa will come for kids, unless they are isolated form the “Christmas experience” entirely.

  4. The problem isn’t just that these things exist, but that they exist at the forefront of pop-culture. It would be like if the exploitation film genres of the 60s and 70s were ubiquitous and out in front of everyone, whether they wanted anything to do with them or not. I’m not saying “Hurf blurf, parental responsibility”, because in my estimation no one has ever been significantly more or less responsible and informed in their parenting than at any other time, but rather while the mothers and fathers of yesteryear may have been unaware of the Cannibal Holocausts and whatnots that were Hatreds and GTAs of their day, an insipid nightmare, blood and tragedy-loving media culture wasn’t shoving them in front of everyone’s face the way movies and video games are nowadays. Jack Thompson was right (on a few things); it would make sense to treat M-rated video games the way that other adult media is treated (except that other adult media is treated pretty lax these days too).

    • As an addendum, like how you would not see a trailer for an R-rated movie at the latest Disney saccharine-fest, maybe it was inappropriate for target to advertise GTA V next to barbies and teddy bears on their “Holiday Toys” ad.

  5. We’ve never lied to our girls (6 and 2.5) about Santa, but we’ve never made a big deal about it, either. The 6-year-old knows he’s not real, but we give her the choice every year about whether our family should play pretend like the rest of the world does. So far she’s about 50-50 whether she wants to hang stockings and put out milk and cookies or not. The big benefit, though, is that when other kids her age believe, she doesn’t contradict them – because she still assumes they’re just playing pretend 😛

    Oh, and a gaming suggestion, because when you’re a parent you can’t help but give suggestions: iPad (or other tablet) games are a fantastic way for kids to get into gaming. There are a ton of educational games out there, most of which are very intuitive for even young toddlers to learn, and it’s not a big leap from there to “kid” games on other platforms. I highly recommend “Endless Alphabet” and “Bugs and Bubbles” if you have an iPad 🙂

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