if exposure to violent media influences violence in real life, why isn’t Comic-Con a bloodbath?

Thor’s hammer would not pass Comic-Con’s weapons check
Thor’s hammer would not pass Comic-Con’s weapons check

As San Diego Comic-Con, that annual celebration of people with superpowers beating the crap outta one another, winds down for another year, The New York Times presents an interesting conundrum:

SAN DIEGO — Bursts of machine-gun noise sputtered in a hall where prop assault weapons, slightly used by professional killers in “The Expendables 3,” were for sale. The Suicide Girls, a tribe of tattooed models, were promoting the film “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” Among the panel discussions: “101 Ways to Kill a Man.”

Welcome to Comic-Con International, the annual pop entertainment convention here where film, television, comic book and video game producers exhibit their offerings to passionate fans in outrageous costumes.

Many of the 130,000 attendees are dressed to kill, with fake axes, machetes, grenade launchers, hunting bows and real-looking guns. Organizers run a “weapons check” to make sure the arms are not deadly.

Nowhere is violence in entertainment more prominently on display than at Comic-Con. And yet, historically, all of the attendees have been strikingly well behaved.

“They are rule followers,” Lt. Marshall White, a San Diego police officer, said of the Comic-Con masses. Lieutenant White, who oversees patrols at the convention, added, “To them, the police are superheroes.”

This is the Comic-Con mystery — and it highlights the question at the heart of a prickly debate over violence in entertainment: Is violent behavior in real life influenced by the mayhem that viewers consume on screens big and small?

The piece then goes on to discuss the various studies that have, and have not, found causal connections between exposure to violent entertainment — movies, videogames, and the like — and tendency to get violent in reality. And also the incredible intricacy with which fictional violence figures into Comic-Con and the entertainment it embraces.

And as all that is going on:

As for Lieutenant White and his crew, they remained on guard for real trouble — some of them operating undercover. (Though not in costume, he later explained.) But, he said, they were expecting nothing worse than the handful of petty incidents that marred last year’s gathering.

“We caught two ticket scalpers,” he noted of the incident reports from last year.

To me, this speaks to the matter being one of culture, or in this case, subculture. As I know I have said in real life, and probably elsewhere on this site, the entire planet enjoys Hollywood’s violent fare (as well as plenty of its own homegrown violent fare), yet no industrialized or postindustrial nation has levels of interpersonal violence like the United States has. Part of that is access to weapons, but some other nations have relatively high levels of gun ownership per capita (though nowhere near the level of the U.S., which is far and away the highest on Earth) yet don’t have commensurate levels of violence. (Switzerland, for example has about half as many guns per capita as the U.S., and that number may actually be much higher — ie, closer to the U.S. figure — but its murder rate is far, far less than half the U.S. rate.)

But part of it has got to be cultural. Something about living in the U.S. makes people want to hurt other people more than in other nations. Not all people, obviously, or else things would be even worse than they are. Is there something about fandom that attracts the people who are less likely to want to hurt other people? (Maybe they’re all channeling their desire to do violence into sexual harassment?) Maybe it’s a difference between being able to see entertainment violence as fantasy that doesn’t actually connect to real life, and seeing entertainment violence as a guidebook to how to behave in reality? Maybe it’s a difference between entertainment violence serving as a satisfying outlet for whatever violent impulses one might have, and entertainment violence failing to be satisfactory on that level?

I don’t know.

I do know that Lieutenant White calling geeks “rule followers” is unfair: It suggests that geeks would like to engage in violent behavior and hold back only because they don’t want to get into trouble. Masses of fans can be creepy — sexual harassment at cons is no joke — but, at least in my experience, never in a dangerous way, just an annoying one. (Also, Lieutenant White, I can certainly see plenty of geeks engaging in a lively conversation about all the real-life ways in which cops can fail to be superheroes. We’re not stupid.)

Whatever the reason, we might expect that any event that draws well over 100,000 people would be scene to more than just a handful of petty crimes. And that doesn’t seem to happen. Any ideas why?

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