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!
I have to say that I disagre with Ben’s statement. Like pretty much everyone here, I have been playing video games since I was a wee lad. So, I’d say the last 30 years or so. Granted, most of the games back in the day weren’t at all realsitic or really all that violent, but I have played my share of the more violent/realistic type games, though not some of the more extreme examples like, say, the Manhunt games. I have seen all sorts of violent movies as well.
That being said, they few times I have seen actual, real violence up close in life — and I’m not talking about people dying, just something as a street fight between two drunks — it’s totally different experience. They way people move, the desperation, the anger, all of it is so far removed from anything I’ve ever experienced in a game that I can’t imagine I’ve been desensitized. It makes your head swim and stomach turn.
Another comparison would be the difference in moving through the carnage of bodies in any video game and then looking at a book on autopsies. I had to do that once while I was working for the DC Public Defender one summer. There was something so real and stark about those photos that I did my best not to look at them and only go to the section I needed to look at (on bite marks).
The same goes for the cell phone video of that Iranian woman who was shot to death. I haven’t seen the video (because I know it will affect me), but I have seen a still of it and, again, the reality of it, seeing that look in the woman’s eyes as she was dying, was so completely different form anything I’ve ever experienced in a video game that it’s not even in the same realm.
Granted, this is all from personal experience, but I can safely say that nothing over the 30 years of video games I have played, has desensitized me on the subject of violence.
I highly recommend the P&T BS! episode. This is one of my favorite shows, and I’m sure it’s going to be funny and entertaining, as well as informative. (Note that the show is rated M for nudity, language, and adult topics.)
With regard to desensitizing: Movies have been desensitizing moviegoers for much longer than games have been desensitizing gamers. Have we become desensitized to their desensitization? Or is it just not that big a deal? I propose the latter. To compare, my brother is an EMT, and my sister-in-law is a nurse. Even though they’re still young in their careers, they’ve already been exposed to tragedy and the aftermath of violence. They’ve learned that as professionals, they need to distance themselves from it, in order to do their jobs. And they’re becoming desensitized to the sights they witness. Does that make them lesser people? Does that make them care less? Does that mean the reasons they went into their lines of work, in order to help people in those situations, no longer matters? On the contrary: being “desensitized” just means you have learned to control your emotional reactions, and that makes you a better person.
BTW, Penn (on Twitter) says, “Thurs Night 10PM Showtime – Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Video Game Violence, this is one of the best of the year. The ending is tear-jerking.” (http://twitter.com/pennjillette/statuses/2538748644)
So, it sounds like you’re pretty-much agreeing with me. After all, I’m not making any value judgments about the desensitizing effects that these games can have. I’m simply saying that it probably WILL happen, increasingly, as the games get more realistic.
While I agree that this I a necessary and important thing for many people’s careers, I would wonder if THEY would say it’s a good thing or a bad thing in general? Do they advocate exposing everyone to the things that they have to see, for the betterment of society? Or do they think that they are making a sacrifice for the rest of us that we are better off not being exposed to?
If we can all agree that the desensitization DOES occur, at least then we can move on to a conversation about the pros and cons of its effects…
I actually don’t know whether or not it occurs. What I do know is that healthy people instinctively distinguish fantasy from reality, play from survival. And that desensitizing—if it does occur—is probably not worth getting bent out of shape over.
Let’s see what P&T’s crack research team have dug up. They usually come up with at least one factoid I’d never heard before. Maybe they’ll even perform another famous BS! experiment, where they subject unsuspecting test subjects to all sorts of cruel jokes in the name of science… or at least in the name of making a point.
I’ve never understood the videogames-cause-violence argument since history is littered with abhorrent violence stretching back to the beginning of time. What videogame desensitized Harry Truman to the German and Japanese civilians he incinerated? What videogame prompted Cromwell to be so beastly to the Irish? Did playing Donkey Kong cause Scipio to raze Carthage?
A videogames cause sex argument would be just as ludicrous. Sex and violence interest people and are incorporated into the entertainment mediums of the day. Arguing the reverse is like claiming that wet sidewalks cause rain!
Maybe people blame the medium because it reveals truths of life that they’re uncomfortable with. People also blame meteorologists for the bad weather, even though anyone with a single brain cell can tell that there’s nothing they can do about it, because it’s human nature to blame the messenger. And in this case, maybe the causal link (or lack thereof) between messenger and message is fuzzy enough to allow the natural fear instinct to take over, despite the lack of evidence to support it.
BTW, while I was watching this episode of BS!, my 10-year-old daughter was also in the room. (Yes, I let them watch P&T: BS!, as long as we do it together, so that I can answer any questions that come up.) Anyhow, every so often, she would just up and exclaim, “But it’s only a video game! How can it hurt anybody?!”
Good, smart girl!
I don’t know. There have been a lot of studies of pornography that have shown an impact on empathy from just viewing regular mainstream pornography (not any of that crazy BDSM stuff). Its easy to think that we are able to just ignore messages we disagree with but images we receive from culture are deep and multilayered, we may not even realize the message we are receiving in order to ignore it. While I don’t think that any of this implies that people will be more violent from violent videogames I can see it creating distance between people. Even if it doesn’t many of the ultra-violent videogames reinforce unfortunate stereotypes of masculinity and race. But those issues are less about the violence itself and more about the strong white man or skimpily clad white lady shooting up all the brown people.
That’s a very good point, Chaosgasket (welcome to the site, by the way), and one that I can’t really argue with. However, it could be posited that pornography is “real,” i.e., involving real people (usually), and as such the brain recognizes it as real in a way that it wouldn’t recognize game content as real, no matter how photorealistic the graphics get.
I think we’re in for a very odd generation of young people who are just coming of age now. The ready access to pornography, much of it far from mainstream, will certainly have affected their collective psyche, and not for the better, I fear.