Those with Showtime can check out tonight’s episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! at 10:00pm Eastern/Pacific. In this one, the duo of corpulent and silent will go out of their way to ridicule anti-game activists (including the disbarred but not forgotten Jack Thompson) convinced that videogames cause violence. The clip above was snagged from GamePolitics, once (rightly) described as “one of the few sites you must visit every day if you consider yourself serious about the games business.” I may make fun of GP owner Dennis McCauley’s use of the word “horrific,” but he’s contributed more to the medium than most ever will. Plus he’s a really nice guy, I did a two part podcast with him once.
You know, I’ve been fighting against the videogames-cause-violence thing for almost a decade now, and frankly I’m running out of synonyms for “they don’t.” At the same time, though, a recent conversation with a friend of mine in the industry – future Celebrity Guest Editor Ben Hoyt of Paramount – has subtly changed my view.
One argument is that violent games “desensitize” people to violence. The thing is, they’ve twisted the meaning of that phrase. Nowadays the implication of desensitization is that desensitized people are more violence-prone – but that’s not the actual meaning. Being desensitized just means you’re less affected by it. And that may be true. Here’s what Ben said:
Personally, I think that games are going to become extremely, disturbingly, graphically powerful when it comes to killing. While I’m not sure that the author is correct that this will lead to people wanting to kill more in real life, I do think it will definitely lead to more desensitization on the subject. Will I want to run out and kill someone? No. Will I be less likely to throw up or pass out the next time I see a dead body? Probably. If this is true, I’m curious about what it will mean for our basic level of empathy for other people in real life. If we have just left a realistic, bloody, massacre in a video game, will we be as moved and upset when we see a young Iranian woman shot in a grainy cell phone video?
BUT, the fact remains that games are a long way from that level of realism. Oh, we may see visually photorealistic violence in the next few generations, but game developers tend to lack subtlety. Very few games translate the actual, visceral sum total of violence – the screaming, the begging, the long seconds of dying that come before the death, the sudden realization of the enormity of the act. A spray of gore is at best a cheap representation of violence. There’s much more to it, and thus much more required to fully desensitize people, than just blood.
Desensitization is a possibility… but there’s a big difference between being less sensitive to violence and being more inclined to commit it. I’ve been playing Prototype for two weeks now. If videogames truly impaired the soul, mine would be an eldritch vortex of swirling malevolence.
Clever anti-gamers are realizing that they can’t win with the violence argument, so they’re moving on to sex. BioWare’s barely-there hot alien lesbian sex in Mass Effect got a ton of attention from the mainstream press despite the fact that it was tastefully done and less revealing than something you’d see on prime time network TV. Still, sex makes people uncomfortable, so there’s an angle of attack there that might work where the violence claims did not.
Maybe they’ll say that sex scenes in videogames make kids have sex. We wouldn’t want that!