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Opinion: Can Games Become 'Virtual Murder?'
Opinion: Can Games Become 'Virtual Murder?'
June 30, 2009 | By Benj Edwards

June 30, 2009 | By Benj Edwards
More: Console/PC

[In a thought-provoking, charged opinion piece, writer Benj Edwards asks if advances in video game technology toward photorealistic gaming experiences make virtual killing more and more disturbing.]

You know, I used to laugh at the term "murder simulator" when it was bandied about by knee-jerk opponents of video game violence some years ago. Preposterous, I said: video games are video games -- easily distinguishable from reality, and reasonable people know the difference between fantasy and reality. That was in the Mortal Kombat and Doom era, where the violence seemed cartoonish. And I love those games.

Then I played BioShock. For the first time, hell started to freeze over, and I found myself beginning to understand the critics' point of view. As real-time computer graphics inch ever closer to absolute photorealism (which some industry professionals believe to be no more than 10-15 years away), violent video game critics' arguments are slowly beginning to look more sane. And yes, you're reading this from a life-long video game fan who staunchly opposes institutional artistic censorship.

But censorship is peanuts compared to the conundrums we'll be facing in the future with our favorite hobby. Once our computer simulations of the real world (still called, somewhat quaintly, "video games") begin to effectively duplicate reality, the issue of video game violence won't be a matter of artistic merit or censorship anymore. It will quickly become a matter of morality, ethics, and law.

The coming storm is inevitable: turn one way, and you'll see ever-more realistic portrayals of graphic, gratuitous human violence in games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto 4, and Fallout 3. Then turn the other and observe the exponential explosion of computing power and graphics rendering potential driven my Moore's law. Put two and two together, and you've got quite a mess brewing.

Welcome to the Slippery Slope

Within the next 10-20 years, your virtual victims in Grand Theft Auto 6 could look, sound, and behave exactly like a real human would if you stabbed him in the neck or shot him in the gut. There'd be plenty of blood, screaming, and carnage to go around. You could watch as they bleed to death in agony.

The funny thing is -- and I'm just guessing -- you wouldn't want to do that in real life to a real human, so why would you want to do that in a video game? The violent scenario above seems silly now, but the stunningly realistic, PS3-era violent games we play today would have seemed unthinkably graphic just fifteen years ago.

At the moment, we rationalize our simulated violence with statements like: "It's just a game. It's not real. The people don't suffer." All this is true (at the moment); but as the experience of virtual murder becomes ever more realistic, I believe that we as players will begin to suffer emotionally every time we cause realistic suffering to any virtual person, just as if we caused suffering to real living creatures.

With each act of violence, a piece of us grows cold, calloused, and uncaring towards the well being of others. Repeat that, and we become slowly desensitized to pain and suffering.

As gamers, we've already begun desensitizing ourselves to simulated murder, or else we wouldn't be able to play the violent games we have now. Games featuring endless killing for points are nearly as old as video games themselves, with Space Invaders, (1978) probably being the most influential. Back in 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was the most graphically realistic simulation of murder you could find in a video game. It shocked people (including the author) at first.

But as the body count racked up, each Nazi became easier to kill until we no longer had a second thought about the act. The same desensitizing effect stretches back to every violent video game that pushed the limits of realism -- all the way back the early arcade title Death Race (1976), where players mowed down human-like "gremlins" with a car.

Today, we see older violent games like Wolfenstein 3D as primitive and cartoonish, but technology didn't stop there. As the years went by, graphical realism in violent games continued to ratchet up as each generation of software took advantage of the increased computing power available to it.

As violent graphics have grown more convincing, we as a gaming populace continued to de-sensitize in tandem. Despite leaps and bounds in graphical rendering power, Death Race's kill-everything gameplay stayed the same. We're still killing those gremlins and Nazis, but today they look a lot more like people you'd find on the street.

In fact, due to our continued cultural desensitization toward violence in video games, certain game developers kept pushing the limits culturally thematically with ever more violent, gory, and shocking gameplay than before -- what was once forbidden was forbidden no longer, so it took a greater controversy to get attention. Thankfully, this quest for controversial violence is not a universal goal of the industry, but there are always the standouts who effectively "push culture forward" by testing the boundaries of what we consider acceptable.

So, for the moment, we're ok, right? Photorealistic graphics aren't here yet, and we continue to justify our violent entertainment by saying "it's not real." But if we're not careful, we'll be justifying our consumption of violent games all the way to, say, 2030 when, thanks to photorealistic graphics and improved mind-machine interfaces, the experience of virtual murder may be nigh-but-indistinguishable from reality.

As technology improves, the well-defined boundary between reality and fantasy provided by a TV set and hand controller might evaporate, making the gaming experience less like a game console and more like Star Trek's holodeck. (And we needn't wait two decades for that boundary to start blurring: with Microsoft's Project Natal -- a camera that captures motion with no other peripherals required -- the line between real and virtual is already disappearing.)

If, in this hypothetical future, we're capable of stripping away our empathy and compassion to murder a 99% realistic virtual human (and maybe even enjoy it), will we be psychologically any different from people who actually murder those of flesh and blood? Having perhaps unintentionally trained ourselves to become cold-blooded killers through systematic desensitization, will we be emotionally capable of doing the same thing in waking life?

With that kind of realism, we're not talking Pac-Man blip-bloop video games any more: to give you an idea of what we're really in for, imagine walking up to someone on the street outside your house and shooting them in the head. By 2030, the video game experience of murder could be exactly that realistic -- if we choose to make it that way.

As Common as Murder

In our modern western society, death is a relatively rare event. One can live 50 years and know only of a handful of personal friends or family members dying. Those deaths usually result from an illness that strikes in the later years of life, or occasionally from accident or suicide. But how many murders have you personally witnessed in your lifetime? How many people have you killed?

When someone kills one real live human, it's a terrible tragedy that makes the local news. They usually go to prison for life. When a crazed gunman shoots down eight of his coworkers, it's called a massacre, and it stays in the national headlines for months.

Last year, a grand total of 31 real live humans were murdered in Raleigh, NC, my city of 380,000 people. But that figure is chump change for a video game: just the other day, I murdered 40 virtual people in one BioShock session. If eight is massacre, then what's 40? Wholesale slaughter? Systematic genocide?

Every real murder has far-reaching effects that ripple through the fabric of society, tearing apart the lives of both the murderer himself and the victim's friends and family. Each murder influences the practice of law and law enforcement and compels people to feel a little less safe and a little more paranoid about their neighbors. But we simulate the act all the time. For fun.

Speaking of BioShock, it's not like murder is incidental to the main premise of the game. The developers have specifically created a virtual world where you are forced to kill realistic humans to succeed. The fact that you're inflicting suffering and death upon very realistic humans is a key game mechanic. That's a very large part of why it's supposed to be fun. Take away that, and you take away the game.

These BioShock victims aren't like cartoonish Doom monsters anymore. They're definitely humans, and they look very real. They talk and rummage about, then run at me and attack. If I bludgeon them with my wrench, they scream in agony and blood gushes forth until his/her limp body falls to the ground like a rag doll.

To maintain the persistence of reality, that bloody, lifeless body stays where it is on the floor, able to be trampled, pushed, and even bludgeoned further if so desired. BioShock's designers have put a lot of thought into making the experience as realistic as is practical on today's hardware. And they should be commended for this technical feat -- BioShock is an incredible work of art. But dagnabbit, it really is one of those once-mythical "murder simulators" we've been hearing about for years.

This sort of interactive death-as-entertainment is very mainstream (BioShocksold over three million copies, including one to me) -- but only in the video game world. Show BioShock to a non-gamer -- someone who hasn't been desensitized to killing virtual people -- and watch their reaction. Show them how you bludgeon people to death with a pipe wrench. If they don't wince and express some form of shock at what's taking place on the screen, they're either seriously disturbed or they're a seasoned gamer.

Industry Ethics

Ethics and morals vary by region. They vary by culture and religion, and they vary from person to person. Dare I say it, but ethics and morals can be downright arbitrary. Despite this fact, and despite the wide spectrum of opinion on what is right and wrong, there's one moral I think most of us can agree with: killing humans is usually bad. World legal systems made that judgement long ago and codified it in law. In spite of this, if many popular mainstream video games were your guide, killing humans is also incredibly fun.

Then again, many video games are fun because they let us do many things that are impossible and/or illegal in real life. But the fact that murder has become a ho-hum event in mainstream video games is something that should make us re-evaluate our hobby.

As a card-carrying member of the human race (one of those things you're pretending to kill), I can't help but feel that such a profound and tragic event as human murder or even "justified" human killing should be a rare and powerful statement in games, not a common theme. With the ever-increasing power developers have in their hands to rip apart virtual lives, I think it's time to re-examine the use of death and killing as a core game mechanic.

Perhaps the public is already beginning to tire of wantonly violent gameplay with its enthusiastic embrace of both casual games and the Nintendo Wii's lighter fare. Many players are flocking to innovative, less intense games that make the "hardcore" (read: "mostly violent and/or realistic") gaming world shudder.

If the video and computer game industry doesn't begin to show concern over widespread and flippant depictions of realistic human violence, game publishers will soon be asking players to regularly murder scores of astoundingly realistic virtual people, enjoy it, and defend the practice from critics of the art form. (Actually, they already do, but I digress.)

But the industry shouldn't be asking this of its loyal fans and customers. This is not just a financial issue between publishers and their wallets; it's an ethical issue that will increasingly affect our laws, culture, and society on a deep level.

But make no mistake: not all violence in video games is bad. After all, I love Doom, and Monolith's Blood (1997) is one of my favorite games. I alone have been responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of residents of the Mushroom Kingdom over the past two decades.

Despite this, I am reasonably confident in saying that my violent video game escapades have left no lasting damage on my psyche. Nor do I feel that any violent game play necessarily hurts any of us at this moment. But if things get as realistic as what I've mentioned above, they very well might harm us in the future. My concern centers solely on gratuitous and graphic violence against ultra-realistic virtual humans -- the kind you'll be seeing more and more of in video games over the next decade.

Some violence will always be necessary in games that portray the human condition. There are many times when very decent people in our real world have been forced to kill to survive. It would be a disservice for the exquisite and singular art form that is video games to restrict portrayals of violence or human suffering outright.

If handled properly and sensitively, violence and even murder can be a powerful political, ethical, or artistic statement. But the use of gratuitous, gory violence against realistic humans as the main point of any game needs reconsideration.

We should start rethinking these issues now before we all slide down the slope together and can't pull ourselves back up again. Or, even worse, before governments step in and dictate what can and can't be depicted or simulated in video games via legislation. But then again, if things get as realistic as I'm predicting, there might not be anything we can do about it.

A Legal Quagmire

All this brings us to the question of what we can do -- or what we'll have to do -- as a society about this fast-approaching issue. If, as I have postulated, certain video games eventually become so realistic that they convincingly mimic reality, then no self-imposed rating system like the ESRB will cure the problem (i.e. It doesn't matter if it's an "adults only" game -- even adults shouldn't murder realistic virtual people).

In 2040, the only difference between killing a virtual human and a real one might be whether you're linked to a computer when you do it. And the virtual humans you kill might very well be representations of real people in a massively multiplayer online world like Second Life, leading to all kinds of confusion between what's "real" and not. And we're not even scratching the surface when it comes to AI that could be close to human-level sentience by then.

As a result, governments might have no choice but to step in and define a legal ethical limit to virtual killing and simulated suffering, opening up a can of worms that will only be untangled through years of difficult deliberation and hand-wringing.

If we come to that, should it be illegal to simulate player imposed suffering of photorealistic humans in video games? If so, where do we draw the line with regards to realism? For example, BioShock is "OK" now, but how much more realistic will the virtual human's appearance and behavior have to get before virtual murder is considered genuinely and irreversibly harmful for the player?

Will it matter if it's done "by hand and knife" in a holodeck-style brain-machine interface, or if it's executed through a 10-button game controller? Will it matter if it's a quick death or a slow, drawn-out one? Will it matter if the human-killing enacted by the player fits the legal definition of murder or if it is done in self-defense?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that they won't come easy, especially if the game industry fights back against government regulation. As we grow ever closer to 100% graphical and situational realism in games, hopefully game publishers will decline to encourage the stunningly accurate simulation of gratuitous human suffering.

My concern is not that these violent simulations described will happen; they probably will at some point. I'm concerned that we as an audience will continue to consider gratuitous virtual murder a form of mainstream entertainment. The kind of violence I'm describing should be relegated to the bottom, back-corner shelf of any game store -- not by law or punishment, but by consumer demand.

Forget the Kids

Contemporary opponents of video game violence inevitably mention "the children" and how we need to shield them from evil media like video games. Yes, 100% photorealistic violent video games of the future would have a profound impact on children. But you know what? It's not the kids I'm worried about. It's the adults.

After all, reasonable parents can protect their children from exposure to harmful media, as they (ahem) have been doing for decades with movies and TV. But when adults -- the supposedly responsible people of our world -- find it morally acceptable to enjoy the realistic suffering of others as mainstream entertainment, we have a real problem on our hands.

Obviously, what makes an acceptable game play experience for each player is a personal choice that should be judged on a person-by-person basis (or on a parent to child basis), and I believe it should stay that way. As for me, I'm already drawing the line at BioShock -- I can barely stomach the game as it is.

Sure, I could play it more and desensitize myself, but I don't want to. And that's just me. It's up to you and a million other adult gamers to decide what's best for yourselves and to draw the line on virtual violence where you feel most comfortable. And it's up to the video game industry to recognize exactly where they're taking us, because quite frankly, it isn't looking good.

The next time you load up your latest, greatest super-gory shooter, stop and think about what you're doing. If you weren't already steeped in the video game culture of thematic violence that stretches back to the 1970s, would realistic simulations of human murder like BioShock seem acceptable?

In case you've forgotten how a non-gamer thinks, show these violent games to your grandparents, or better yet, a WWII veteran. You'll get a better look at the moral compass of people born before the video game generation, and it might make you take a second look at that long, steep slope you're already sliding down. Because, honestly, we don't know how deep it goes.

[Benj Edwards is a freelance writer who specializes in video game and computer history articles for publications like PC World, Gamasutra, Ars Technica, and 1UP. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to vintage technology.]

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Tom Newman
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As long as games have a narrative that appeals to adults, there will always be murder in gaming, as there will always be murder in literature and movies. Even one of the first (non-video) arcade games was a rifle game. As technology improves, the games will become more realistic. The question is not weather this is good or bad, but how we can handle it in a mature way.

Good article!

Julian Spillane
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Please stop empowering media. The act of murder is solely the responsibility of the individual who performs it. Blaming a medium (whether it's film, video games, or rock and roll) normalizes what is normally an abhorrent and horrendous crime. It says: "We are all horrible murderers below the surface and all we need are a few photorealistic violent video games to desensitize us and push us over the edge."

It is armchair psychologists like yourself that cause uninformed and baseless media panic. You are obviously entitled to your opinion, and you do make some points that, when isolated have validity. However you present no evidence that your thesis ("the closer we approach photorealism the more violent games will negatively affect us") has any proven merit.

Uneducated people, already spurred on by an already existing moral panic, may read this article and be themselves negatively influenced by your unverified and sensationalized claims.

Matthew Tatum
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I think that for most people there is always a well defined line between reality and fiction. I find that the true horror of murder/war/violence is in the consequences of the act rather than the act itself. The suffering and pain that it causes is far worse than the graphic portrayal to me.

The most upsetting thing I have seen in a video game is the archive footage they show of WWII in Call of Duty World at War depicting executions etc. This is simply because they were REAL people who's life was cruelly taken from them. Movies show realistic depictions of horrific violence all the time yet it doesn't cause most people to lose morality.

You make some interesting points but I don't buy the whole "Slippery Slope" argument.

John Hahn
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You say you are mostly concerned about games that have gratuitous violence as a central theme. What about military games or spy games where you are a soldier fighting against an enemy for your country? Is it morally acceptable to kill people if there is an undercurrent of patriotism in the game? Is it more acceptable if the game is historical fiction like the Call of Duty series?

Even if your central thesis is correct (and I'm not sure it is), then I still don't think you can make a blanket statement that all simulated murder will negatively affect people. If, in 2040, someone plays a game where they get to pretend to be James Bond and kill all the terrorist bad guys and save the girl, I don't see what the big deal is.... I mean, who doesn't want to do that?

Alfe Clemencio
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Think about multiplayer FPSes for a moment. How quickly do you die in those games? Like 15 seconds if you're an average player. While it's good and fun in a game because you get to respawn, do you think these same people would really want to do the same thing in real life? Shoot guns that kill at other people for 15 seconds before dying?

Multiplayer FPSes teach you one thing, you can die pretty fast.

Leo Gura
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"But when adults ... find it morally acceptable to enjoy the realistic suffering of others as mainstream entertainment, we have a real problem on our hands."

Really?! Then why hasn't the world come to an end already? Walking down the Blockbuster aisle I see nothing but sadistic, violent movies: four or five iterations on Saw, My Bloody Valentine 3D, etc. The fact is, human beings DO enjoy suffering, that's why drama works. For your argument to hold, you must prove a FUNDAMENTAL distinction between merely watching scenes of violence for pleasure and directing them via a digital input device. I see no fundamental difference there. When I watch a film, deep down I assume the character's place and perform the act with him/her -- no different than in a game.

That said, I think the larger point about excessive violence in games of the future is valid. Physical suffering is the easiest form to render and game developers are just starting to reach the point where other emotions come into play. In 10-20 years violence in games will still exist, but the meaningless violence of today will be perceived as melodramatic and shallow. At least I hope that's where we're headed :)

Yannick Boucher
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Most of you seem to be missing the point. He's not talking about "violence in video games", or "violence in media". He's not talking about killing other people in a multiplayer game of Call of Duty. He's talking about the effect of depicting (and CONTROLLING!) the act of murder COUPLED with the fact that technology constantly facilitating more and more realistic and photorealistic depictions of it. And on that, he has an perfectly valid point. When games become practically "virtual reality" (!) and our technology becomes so advanced that the act and depiction will be rendered and will make us feel exactly as if we had done it for real... where will that leave us ?!

Christopher Braithwaite
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Great article!

I agree that there is a valid concern about the increasing realism of games and their impact on violence and I have a couple thoughts to add. On the game side, increased realism in virtual humans implies increased interaction with those humans. Currently, the most players can do is press a button or pull a trigger which usually results in a conversation option or an attack. For those virtual humans to have greater meaning, there must be a wider range of interaction with them available to the player. Without that interaction, even very realistic looking humans are no more "human" to players than the legion of cannon fodder Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie. I don't think people will be confused by that. If greater interaction with these characters is available, then there will be a host of more interesting things to do with those people than kill them. I would really love to play a Fallout game that provided more context to the violence in that world, that way less killing would need to take place in order for the game to be entertaining.

On the player side, maybe we can look to sports and theater for a model of how to deal with situations in which people perform violent acts against real humans. When playing a sport or acting in a play a certain mindset is expected of the participants in order to differentiate the game from real life. There is no real death or harm involved (intentionally anyway), just as in a videogame, but the experience of committing violence is certainly real. What if we think of characters in the game as a kind of digital actor on a stage in which the player is the star? After all, no matter how many times I "murder" a raider in Fallout, she isn't really dead, she's only pretending to be dead. In 10 minutes or so she'll come running through another door and try to kill me again. Perhaps a "Playbill" of sorts for videogames would help? Being able to see pictures of the voice actors, mo-cap artists etc and their bios might help in reinforcing the distinction between the game world and the real world. I remember EA tried something like this many years ago that didn't quite work out but maybe it's time to revisit that idea again.

Andre Zorzo
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Great article.

I think you gave a bad example with Bioshock. I didn't finish the game, but in that situation, you are trapped in the city being attacked by people who didn't talk before shooting, that's self defense. I don't see free violence in that. If the enemy dies in a realistic way and cries for help, it is a realistic death, but if the situation was not about a free murder, I think it's part of the atmosphere the game is creating. Sure the game could have other ways to progress, by adding more interaction, like Christopher said above, but that would make killing even more violent and brutal, you would be much more responsible, since you chose to do it.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Eric Carr
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A Slippery Slope is a kind of fallacy. It assumes that certain things will go a certain way because the outcome is convenient to the argument being made. Unlike inductive reasoning which draws conclusions based on available data. In that case, I don't see the available data supporting the argument.

Play violence has been a part of entertainment for a long time. Plays, shows, ritual tribal dances, all of them preceed moves and video games and we haven't all devolved into inhuman killers yet. Granted, the specific methods of showing the violence are new and different, but I have to assume that this, like everything before it, will be considered on its own merits and won't cause the downfall of civilization.

Derek Bentham
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^Really? I don't think, personally, I've ever watched a movie and actually "assumed the characters place". But I don't know, maybe I'm an exception. Of course, for obvious reasons, I always take on the role of the main character in a video game. So, to me there is a great difference between a movie and video game.

But to the main point of the article... to me, it goes even beyond a question of morality. Playing games for as long as I have, it starts to become a question of boredom. I mean, it's the same tired mechanics that I've experienced countless times before. Time for something new... something that's not a gimmick.

Sometimes I think, you know, I grew-up with games, but the games have not grown up with me. But why not? Video games do have the potential to truly be sophisticated expressions of human capability. But I suppose it's just a matter of *when* it'll happen, not *if*.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Derek, what makes you think it's a question of "when"? Like you, I grew up playing videogames and was ready for more mature games than we have today 10 years ago, but we're still largely getting Doom clones. Things are better than the mid-90's when a videogame ad wasn't complete without a severed limb or two, but I have no faith that truly grown-up videogames are an inevitability.

Joshua Sterns
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The article is interesting, but I personally don't believe this issue is very important. People will carry out violent acts regardless of popular entertainment. Many historical events can be denoted to prove this point--some of which have been illustrated in the comments above.

If, and this is a big if, people begin to feel the after effects of real violent acts from video games, then maybe this will be an issue. I just can't imagine someone suffering from post tramatic stress or shell shock from a video game. Even if games get to the holodeck like quality, players will still have a level of disconnect between themselves and the game.

My cynical side thinks, "Until I have to actually dispose of the body, virtual murder does not exist."

Joseph Cassano
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Although I disagree with the argument presented in the article, I can understand where it's coming from. But I think this whole ordeal just underscores a fundamental game design problem: that death of an enemy is the only solution. Why can't more games incorporate incapacitation of an enemy that is not fatal? The Metal Gear Solid series, for example, gives you the option to tranquilize your foes (even bosses), thus resulting in non-fatal means of incapacitation. In my opinion, more games should offer the choice between killing a foe or rendering them immobile/unconcious/etc. The way things are now, in most cases, the player is forced into one path. We (as the gaming community) always talk about branching narratives and the multiple ways to achieve objectives, but frankly, I think the issue of killing as the only way to proceed is vastly overlooked.

I realize my above paragraph is a tad off-track, but in a hypothetical photorealistic game, having the option of non-fatal (or even non-harmful) incapacitation of enemies may be one of the ways to overcome the issue presented in the article.

Lance Rund
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Photorealism, like any other technology, is a neutral tool. It can be used for good, for evil, or for awesome.

Hyper-realistic murder: "but as the experience of virtual murder becomes ever more realistic, I believe that we as players will begin to suffer emotionally every time we cause realistic suffering to any virtual person, just as if we caused suffering to real living creatures." -- It's a choice. If you don't want to suffer, DON'T DO IT. A teaching opportunity. A good use of photorealistic simulated murder: teaching empathy.

Awesome? Just wait til you see the "adult'only boom-chikka-wow!" titles that will be coming out!

But... remember that one part of jihadist/clinic bombing/Krystallsnacht training is desensitization. Convincing your disposable operatives that the people they are being asked to kill aren't people at all. Photorealistic simulated murder is in that situation evil.

Then there's the issue that you will never be able to admit video tape as evidence ever again (especially when that evidence goes for or against any organization, governmental or corporate or whatever, with sufficient resources to make use of this technology), but that's a separate problem.

It's a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. Like guns, speech, cars and sex appeal. The questions will be "to what extent CAN it be regulated, to what extent SHOULD it be regulated, and to what extent do we simply have to deal with the (good and evil) consequences simply as the price of the fact that it exists?" I'm certain that the Commonwealth will have a different viewpoint than the United States which will be different than mainland China.

All of this is tangental to one other point I will raise: desensitization in my armchair-psychology opinion comes far, far more from isolation than from gaming, regardless of the content of the game. Just look at the monsters people become on the Internet when there is anonymity and lack of face-to-face contact, regardless of whether the trolls/griefers/haters have ever played a video game. We've already fully dehumanized others, and we've done it by sitting on our butts in front of the screen instead of basics like "what is my neighbor's name?". We're doing it right now (myself included, and yeah I can see the effect it's had). I would worry far more about lack of empathy due to locking myself in the holodeck (regardless of whether there was violence involved) than the effects of any lurid slasher game.

Lance Rund
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So. How do we deal with this?

Vote with your dollars and with your voice, not your laws and your ballots. Ostracize, not regulate. Criticize, not incarcerate. (Hey, I'm getting poetic here!) "Punish" kill-porn by denying the makers their games unprofitable, not by forbidding their existence in the first place.

But if there MUST be a law, try this one: "No provider of media content which is not otherwise illegal shall be held liable, either in civil or criminal court, for the actions of persons who have viewed or used said content." Ultimately, the fault must lie upon the shoulders of the person who pulled the trigger, not the one who made the gun. To do otherwise is to put an end to personal responsibility and with it, put an end to personal freedom.

Lance Rund
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wow. "deny the makers their games unprofitable." Shoulda been "denying the makers a profitable game". I'm good.

Alfe Clemencio
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I think games that teach the various meanings of death and killing are more valuable than sidestepping the whole death issue. If it gets the players thinking about what they are doing then I believe that's a good thing.

If the claim is that if video games can desensitize pain and suffering then they can also do the reverse. In the same game as well.

John Trauger
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Soulds like someone was resting entirely on the "cartoon" natuire of early FPS games to differenitate reality from unreality. Or thinks many customers do.

It makes it easy to be sure. I remember the 70s fears of Warner brothers cartoon violence (and seeing my favorite Bugs Bunny shorts hacked to pieces by well meaning simpletons). Now we know that children can differenitate cartoon violence from the real world.

Somehow I don't buy that I become calloused by participating in even 100% photorealitic violence. If that were true, decades of action movies have already done the damage by encouraging me to applaud the unnumbered violent deaths inflicted by the Good Guys (and occasionally Good Girl to be fair).

There is a difference between murder and shoot 'em up. If one did a perfectly realistic serial-killer sim, then Edwards starts to have a point.

I am not sure Edwards knows what he talking about. He writes,

"As a result, governments might have no choice but to step in and define a legal ethical limit to virtual killing and simulated suffering, opening up a can of worms that will only be untangled through years of difficult deliberation and hand-wringing. "

Governments *can't* define an "ethical" structure for anything. That's giving governments too much of the wrong kind of credit. Governments can only define a "legal" structure. Which amounts to censorship.

I don't buy this guys gamer-cred. I think he's a guy who played Doom as a kid, grew up, then came back to look at games as a humorless adult. The guy looks at Bioshock as an example of the problem entirely igonorant of the fact that Bioshock is one of the few games that actually forces the player to make moral choices...and changes the ending as a result.

Eddie Vertigo
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Steven Spielburg has made many movies in his career. Some of his movies are for the entire family, while others are for mature audiences only. Do you feel he balances out the ratio in a healthy way? Spielberg has publicly stated that he enjoys playing all kinds of games, and even had Shia LaBeouf help him with a section he was stuck on in BioShock, a game he found fascinating in terms of story, philosophy, and gameplay. This same man also loves to play Wii games with his family, and even went on to help create Boom Blox.

My main point is sometimes it's about balance; to abolish or deny completely a part of yourself is just as harmful as wallowing in that same part of yourself to the point of exclusion of all other facets of life. While I appreciate you trying to help out society, I find your bias to be a bit too heavy handed, lacking too many facts to support your argument.

Adam Bishop
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Really interesting article, and it touches of some of the issues I've been dealing with in my own blog. I think one of the reasons that it's so easy to kill people in video games right now is because AI (and to a lesser extent, animation) is still not really very good. The people we're killing in games aren't anything like the people we know in real life for two main reasons - they have no emotional depth, and they're completely predictable. But if we ever do get to a point where AI characters respond in a way that we would associate with real people, I do wonder if we would be able to kill them in the same way.

I agree that this is something that could potentially be an issue. Not an issue for law enforcement, because I don't think this is a legal issue, but something for us to consider as people who live in human communities. The example I give is from board game Puerto Rico. In it, you have slaves who work your plantations for you. However, they're just little brown chips that you place on a rectangle on the board. That's the full extent of your interactions with them. But what if Puerto Rico was run in Crytek's engine? Then you would have to hit a button to whip your slaves to get them to produce more, or something like that. And I think that's an entirely different thing. It goes from being pretty inoffensive when you're using inert cardboard chips to being pretty troubling when it's an interactive 3D model.

I'm quite interested to see where games go in the future. More realistic technology carries with it the posibility of increased empathy, but it also carries with it the possibility of decreased empathy. Are we going to use that technology to make characters who feel human, who we care for and can relate to, or are we going to use the technology to create characters whose bodies deform realistically to ballistic impacts?

As someone else has said, it's largely a question of what do we find value in. A lot of games these days keep track of how many people you've killed in them. At one point I was looking that info up in Fable II and saw that I had killed literally hundreds of (animated) human benigs. And that kind of makes you stop and think, "Why did I just spend 15-20 hours of my life doing this? Is this what I want to spend my incredibly scarce free time experiencing - virtual massacres?" It's an interesting question, and one that I've thought about a lot lately.

Mickey Mullasan
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I think the movie "A.I." has already touched on this subject, although I think even it could not come to a conclusion. In science fiction, synthetic life vs. real life is a common theme and there have been several authors to examine the subject. From synthetic life rights, to murderous inhuman computers, there is a wide spectrum of moral issues that stem from our the fear of our own death and the death of others. It is a part of our consciousness to try understand our untimely ends, and in doing so we've created simulation both in our thoughts and in our expressions.

A simulation is just a more vibrant contemplative form of imagination, and should we refrain from thinking, imagining, or communicating the desperate acts of others? What understanding will we come to by trying to silence the big question, instead of asking it directly?

Derek Bentham
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Christopher, I think it's an inevitability because I can see the undercurrent need for more mature games. I come to a site like Gamasutra and I see so much intellectual discussion about games, or I listen to the lectures of Jon Blow, or I read comments like yours, from people who are starved for a certain kind of experience.

The thing is, it's not going to come from the "big guys". They've got too much to lose, and in a very real way, they are trapped by the position they're in. As more and more resources are made accessible to the indie developer, that need for truly mature content will have a much more viable outlet.

Daniel Boy
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First of all: In BioShock you normally don't commit murder. Legally speaking your killings are mostly in self-defense.

Acts in games and in "real life" always occurs in contexts (social, legal, cultural). This is really important for your argument.

Let me give you two examples:

1. A martial arts practitioner fights real people in real life in a ritualized context. He hits the opponent, he hurts him.

2. After WWII millions of people with combat experience came home. Many not only hurt opponents, they had killed them. How did societies -- especially Germany (7 years of war, most of the men were soldiers, many committed war crimes) -- look like? Extremely violent?

Humans only act in context. Not the realism is dangerous, but the suppression of context, forgetting or ignoring that you are not in the ring anymore, that the war is over or that you are not playing a game.

Jeff Beaudoin
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This article is basically nonsense.

It would have been more convincing if you had supported your ideas with actual facts and legitimate arguments. Instead, you simply start from the assumption that depictions of realism have negative effects on viewers/players and that violence performed in games carries the same weight as violence performed in real life (or will one day).

You also misrepresent the games you are reviling, by portraying them as containing violence for the sole purpose of simulating violent acts. This is, like most of the rest of your post, utter nonsense. In your example of Bioshock (and most games), enemies are obstacles that you must defeat to complete your goal of advancing the story/gameplay. There is a big difference between this and a game where the player's goal is simply to perform violent acts. Death in Bioshock is simulated, but the game is not a death simulator, this is a major difference that you ignore to support your point.

I really wish I had gone with my instinct and stopped reading after the first section, but I thought you might actually come around to a worthwhile point.

Brice Gilbert
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Oh man I can't believe i'm seeing this article. After watching Ron. Moore's (Battlestar Galactica) new show Virtuality on Fox a couple days ago and it's awesome to see the very same ideas discussed here. It's too bad so few people actually watched it and will probably not get picked up. But the ideas about while it's not murder or rape since the character it is happening to isn't real what about yourself? Are the things you are doing feel real enough to change who you are? What if you were rapped mentally? Would it be the same as if you were in real life? It's an interesting discussion that leads into many other ideas about what technology can do to us. Both good and bad.

Christopher Wragg
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Hrm, There's a problem with the entire, "games desensitise us to violence" shtick. Desensitization is caused when an emotion is evoked to an action unnecessarily (repeatedly). Then in future when that action is repeated, the emotion has become disassociated with the action and no longer occurs. What emotions have you ever associated with murder in video games. Perhaps the game occasionally evokes horror or empathy, but not very often. The reason it has trouble doing so, is that for a person to engage in a game and become immersed, they have to willingly suspend their disbelief. What this means is that unless the game can make a person believe it's real, then it cannot cause an emotional impact. For desensitization to occur, it would then have to be done repeatedly, and then the action trigger would have to be the SAME (or very close to) in reality as it was in the game.

So perhaps greater photo-realism is a valid concern to some extent, but it's only the first step in both aiding the player's immersion, and making that action trigger the same. But to fill the picture you would have to add the rest of the senses. The player would need to be able to smell, and touch as well (perhaps to some extent taste). Without the full sensory immersion the action trigger is going to be considerably different in real life and thus still provoke those emotions associated with it.

The other thing is this doesn't touch upon motive, an important factor in the development of an action trigger. Someone who is afraid of open spaces, might break this fear to save someone close to them in trouble. Now this is unlikely to cause desensitization due to the motive, and how often it's likely to occur. If a game teaches us to kill the enemy when your a soldier, then it's unlikely you'll lose that emotional link unless you were indeed a soldier. Killing a civilian would still have a completely different emotional impact. Random violence though, as demonstrated by games like GTA, which depicts violence often for the sake of violence, could probably cause desensitization far more easily than something with an actual reason behind it. To be honest that's where taste and developer/community responsibility comes into play. If people find themselves capable of building a game where every sense is tuned in and the killing is completely random, and done for the sake of it, perhaps they ought to take a long look at themselves. If they do justify it and produce it anyway (perhaps random violence is required to construct some deeper meaning?), then perhaps the people playing it ought to take a long hard look at themselves and work out the reasons they're doing so.

Reid Kimball
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Benj has a point. It's a fact that violence in games is being portrayed in more realistic fidelity as the graphics technologies progress. There will be a day when it's so real we can't distinguish it from photos or video. I think it will happen within 10 years.

I never looked at photos of dead people until I started paying attention to wars. Before I was extremely squeamish about looking at a photo. Sometimes I still am, other times it doesn't bother me so much. The point is, by looking at photos, I HAVE become desensitized.

I agree with Benj, this industry is heading down a very dangerous path. The content we put into games needs to be created with more responsibility and respect.

c c
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Something equally simple to point out...

...It's called 'pretend'. ;)

And remember, games haven't equaled our imagination yet, which usually plays far more exciting and adventurous trials and tribulations within our lives.

As with anything in life, it can be purposed for good or something else.

Everything in moderation.

Germain Couët
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I feel this article has valid points, but they were just demonstrated and explained in a very naïve fashion. I play violent games, and i'm also very squeamish about dead bodies... does that make sense? Yes it actually does because a virtual reperesentation of an event or thing is very far from the thing itself. I can't remember which greek pholosopher said this but a drawing of a chair is twice removed from the real chair. First, the idea of a chair is removed from the actual chair, and then the visual representation of the chair is removed from the idea. Same thing for in-game "murder".

I'm someone who gives a lot of thought and attention to dreams. And I (and a lot of people I've asked), have experienced nightmares where I murdered someone. Every single person who has had those dreams can testify being very disturbed about it. dreams being the closest thing to actually living an event, it would take a genuinely disturbed person to live such a dream without any kind of empathy.

I think when games finally become realistic enough (they will, i'm not denying it), people will put a barrier natually, like they did for the highly controvesial japanese "rape" simulators.

So finally, this article was pretty naïve, but the reaction it inspired made it all worthwhile. I can finally rest in peace knowing that a lot of people can make sense of this sensitive subject. Kudos to most comments for some very good and sensible arguments!


Amir Sharar
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I did an essay on this topic back in high school ('96). The crux of my essay was that videogames were getting a lot of attention now due to the photorealism seen in the visuals. The perception prior to games like Mortal Kombat was that these games depicted cartoon violence. Once the Pit Fighters, MKs, and Mad Dog McCrees came out, the exact same depictions of violence that you saw in previous games had more gravitas to them. Sure, some of these games pushed violence into a new direction, but the great majority of the violence consisted of elements that gamers were quite familiar with for years prior.

But I think the article touches on something that I didn't consider, that the purpose of the violence can change in future games. In MK you were simply beating your player controlled opponent, just like countless other fighting games. In GTA on the other hand, you have NPCs not related to the goal whatsoever, completely innocent in all respects, possibly being targeted by gamers. In future games, such actions could be rewarded.

Two comments here really hit the point home (though one aims to disagree with Mr. Edwards) as to how morality now plays a large part in the issue of realistic depictions of violence:

Lance Rudd said: "But... remember that one part of jihadist/clinic bombing/Krystallsnacht training is desensitization."

The same applies to the militaries of developed nations as well. An Israeli refusenik commented that they are told to view Palestinians as "targets". She was horrified to find out later they were responsible for a staggeringly high percentage of civilian casualties. Morality plays little part when you are to carry out an "objective". There is little "decision making". There is only "execution". She didn't think that "we are firing heavy weapons in a heavily populated residential area", she thought "we must hit X target at Y coordinates".

Videogames at this point are simply putting us into a location, which we call the "level" and are telling us to complete objectives to "beat" the level. Most games are too linear to make us think about what exactly we are doing. We don't think "why" we are doing those particular actions on an individual basis because we are focused on a larger goal (whether it's just to be challenged and to beat the game or to enjoy the story or what have you).

Games like Bioshock are a bit different in the sense that the goal is ultimately "survival", and we aren't told the best way to achieve that. In a survival-exploration games like Metroid, it was clear that baddies are expendable whereas Bioshock had enemies that were once normal people. When it came to dealing with Little Sisters, people had to deal with a completely vulnerable and innocent NPC. It made people think about that particular action a bit more than we thought about how we were to deal with say, Imps in DOOM.

When you add the dimension of morality to an FPS, it (like photorealistic visuals) adds gravitas to your actions. Suddenly a death by your character's hands is much more meaningful.

Jeff Beaudoin said: "There is a big difference between this and a game where the player's goal is simply to perform violent acts. Death in Bioshock is simulated, but the game is not a death simulator, this is a major difference that you ignore to support your point."

You are generally right but I'd argue you think about your actions more in Bioshock than in most games. Though perhaps GTA or Saint's Row is a better example, because NPCs are much easier to avoid. Allowing a person to go up to a completely innocent person and to kill them (say with a chainsaw in the case of Saint's Row 2) allows the game to potentially become a "murder simulator".

You are right that it all depends on the goal. The goal in a game like Bioshock is survival (sometimes at extreme costs). In a game like GTA though, while not made an explicit goal, a player could make murdering innocent people their own goal.

Note that games like GTA or SR do not have children in them. Clearly someone (whether the ratings boards or devs/pubs themselves) has put boundaries and I don't think such a boundary would be crossed any time soon.

Back to my point...while 15 years ago the debate was spurred due to the increasingly photorealistic nature of the seems now there is a need for debate because games are allowing for more freeflowing objectives...allowing the player to dictate what they can or can't do.

I'd argue that if Sims allowed you to kill other people, that it would be a bit more "violent" than a WW2 game where the objectives were relegated to "kill the bad guys" because the motives are drastically different. Motives and intent play a large part in the punishment of criminals, so I don't think this view would be too controversial.

steve roger
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This comment of mine is going to be buried in this long list. But I have been thinking about an MMO that features the ability to confer the power of murder to it's players. Sort of like becoming a Jedi in the first iteration of SWG. If you had photo realistic graphics this could be an outstanding game.

Imagine a real world environment and a serial killer running amok. Or you get to be a rage killer for a short time. Or you get to be a robber in a gang and a party to an unexpected felony murder.

Sure, the game would be odd because everybody would be hoping to get the call of duty as the killer of the day, month, week, or hour. And what would be the draw to playing it? I guess if the Sims can do it so could another game.

Imagine a photo realistic The Sims with a Serial Killer add on pack that is an MMO.

I think it would sell like hot cakes.

Charles Jones
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Blasphemy! Video games require violence in them!

I don't think the criticism from the mainstream is being caused by hyper-realistic violence or even the fact that players create said violence, but more that it is actually too UNrealistic. I fail to see what is so realistic about going into a building with five machine guns and a bazooka to then walk out without a scratch or even a stubbed toe. I read people complaining about violence saying that it's at OK levels, too little or too much, but that's not the problem. Violence can be a terrific vehicle for story-telling and discussing crucial themes in a story, but I don't see that in video games.

It's funny that you mention BioShock, because one of the themes of BioShock was dehumanization with uncontrolled technology and the savagery of pure individuality. Yet, as the main character, you use that same technology to mow down Splicers and take down Big Daddies, and that pure sense of individuality to kill those enemies, and that same theme isn't carried to the player. When playing the game, I never felt once that my actions were wrong or that I was setting a double standard, I felt it was expected for me to do that so I can simply progress the story. I only saw tidbits of that theme in the brief segments with Little Sisters when you chose whether or not to save them.

I think this 4th wall that exists between the player and the game is what makes violence seem so unappealing. Violence isn't an act, it's just an image that is being displayed. We should go beyond rewarding a player with images and instead reward with emotion. Then again, as most people have been saying, they're just GAMES.

I think violence will always be video games and there will always be ridiculously violent games, and frankly, that's fine. It's when we are saturated with hyper-violent games where NPC's are only put in there to be blown to bits with little to no thematic consequence that we fall into trouble.

Steffen Itterheim
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A long opinion piece with doubtful speculations about the future and a flawed line of argumentation that doesn't consider that television and cinema are already as realistic as it can be, yet games are just starting to go there. So what does that tell us about games? Are games inherently worse when it comes to violence, because we participate in them, because we interact with the game's world? Because the violence is often a means to an end and after a while i get "desensitized" and it doesn't bother me anymore - that is bad? Seriously? No, it completely misses the point what a game is and what it is all about: mechanics. Portrayed violence, yes. Empathy, no.

I haven't read all of it yet, and right now i don't have the time to make an appreciative comment. I will get back to it though because i can't leave it standing like this.

Ben Raybuck
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Either "seriously disturbed" or a "seasoned gamer"? What a fun but still completely fallacious false dilemma. Perhaps the person in question has simply rented a movie recently, eh?

Taras M
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Very good article and I am glad that you bring the topic. But I agree with you in one point - what we do in real life and games is our own choice. And realism in games should help us to see who we really are, and in some cases make us better. Where I am going with this?

First of all let me ask everyone a question - did you kill anyone in RL? In not, do you have any friends who did? If yes, try to talk to them about that! You will see what I mean.

About myself, I love computer games and realism. And I enjoy well placed sniper 'head-shot' as much as most who read this thread. But in RL I was trained for real combat (almost 20 years ago) when in military and would probably still conduct a necessary action if rules of engagement justify it. And this is my point - only you and nobody else ultimately decide what you do both in RL and games. This is what makes a difference between the crime and duty. May be this is why I always chose cautions game-stile and avoid killing unnecessary and minimize collateral damage, even although it is all just a game. I do not like senseless carnage in games and enjoy the storyline and immersion in environment. My kids laugh at me when I am walking around on a beach in Crysis and watching fish and turtles... you get an idea... But I still think games help us see who we really are underneath.

One optimistic thought at the end, may be it can be used by someone - society can and probably should use games to detect mentally ill or disturbed people and give them timely help. :-)

Good luck to all,


george ash
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Anyone who says there is no basis to the desensitization argument is ignoring human history. Throughout history a seasoned warrior is one who has experienced combat and had become desensitized to the point of viewing the battlefield as a normal environment in which they could operate very effectively untouched by what is going on around them. We cirrently use simulation training and images to desensitize EMT and doctors and other emergency response personnel to the blood and gore of traumatic injury so that they can operate in those situations in the same manner. Video game technology is currently being used by the modern military forces to train and desensitize soldiers to prepare them for combat.

As the realism increases the fourth wall decreases and although I can't prove it (without doing a major research lit review) I do believe that the simulation is more effective. The vast majority of people probably able to compartmentalize and recognize internally the difference between a photo realistic game and reality but the closer the simulation gets to reality the more people that wont be able to maintain that separation. Even if that is a very very small percent of the gaming population the impact could be very significant. When that small percentage hits a yet unknown threshold the likelihood of an increase of cross over violence goes way up.

In the example of BioShock if just one hundreth of one percent could not maintain that separation that would be 300 people and that is just one title. Considering just one person going on a killing spree like ones we have had in recent years can you imagine the impact of 30 or 300 or 3000.

This isn't to say a game would be the cause of a rampage. That is still most likely going depend on the biology and the psychology of the person. That said games could very well create an experience that moves that predisposed person forward to such an act, desensitize them to a point to be more likely to cross over and act in reality. On the otherside it could provide an outlet for people prone to violence that could prevent someone from acting in the real world. We don't have the data to say either way.

Other aspects of hyper real games could be just as important as desensitization. Take flight sims for example can train a human being how to fly and land an airplane exclusively in a simulator. Currently gamers are being trained in advanced squad tactics and urban warfare in games everyday. Give that same training and desensitization to someone with undiagnosed mental health issues and a warning sticker isn't going to cut it.

We aren't to the point where I think games are to a point where they are desensitizing and dissociating people to a point where they can commit horrible acts in real life. To deny the possibility that we are approaching a technological threshold where they can do that is reckless.

I don't have answer to what the solution to the situation is and neither does the author. Having the conversation, doing research and trying to be prepared is a thoughtful and responsible approach. In the end it does come down to the individual who commits the act in real life but it is callous and irresponsible of the industry to ignore the issue to protect a lucrative genre. At some point the gaming industry could be in the same situation as the tobacco companies and be legally responsbile for minimizing and/or ignoring dangers of their product.

Jeff Beaudoin
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@Amir Sharar

To your point about GTA/Saint's Row:

On its face, it seems like this is a valid comparison, but I would argue that even when the player of these games decides to just go around causing havoc the goal is still not murder. Everyone I have ever seen play this type of open world game has the goal of causing destruction, getting in ridiculous car chases, or whatever. "Murder" is a byproduct of this playstyle, but is not the goal. Which, again, is an important distinction.

Maybe you are referring specifically to the (rare) player that chooses to play GTA with the goal of murdering the virtual inhabitants. This is something else entirely and, not really something that is in the purview of the creator of a title like GTA. Making a game where this is possible and making a game where this is the goal are two very different things.

You can't stop people from watching Die Hard specifically for the graphic death scenes, but the fact that they exist does not make the purpose of the movie the same as Faces of Death.

Kevin Baba
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I'm a little surprised, here. I just read (well, in some cases skimmed) all the comments on this thread and one thing seems to stand out: GAMES DON'T CAUSE VIOLENCE STOP ACCUSING MY HOBBY.

Chill the #@$ out, people. The author didn't even say that [photorealistic] violence in games was inherently bad, or that it caused real life violence. He said that "hey, it might have some unhealthy aspects," and that we, as an industry, need to start being a bit more responsible about what we put in our games. He's saying that games that glorify or mandate wanton violence should be curbed. Because the more realistic games become, the closer the act of playing a game will become to engaging in its activities in real life.

A player's suspension of disbelief doesn't really have anything to do with it, and claiming that his knowledge of the game as fictional is a magic bullet to dispel desensitization or the moral implications of his activities is ridiculous. The whole point of having more realistic media (video, audio, and probably others fairly soon) is to increase immersion, and immersion is all about suspension of disbelief. There's no reason to increase the 'realism' in a game if the player is going to spend his whole time remaining detached from its virtual reality.

Tabletop RPGs have been accused of many of the same things video games have. The prototypical RPG adventurer kills sometimes sentient monsters wantonly, which is ok because they're evil, like goblins or dragons or demons or whatever. Making "monsters" more human (sentient, caring within - or without - their own race, and all around not-monolithically-evil) is an interesting angle to take and allows the players (and GM) to explore interesting concepts. And maybe I'm just a wuss, but I'm not comfortable with killing innocents in a setting like that; there's a big difference to clearing out the orc lair when there is a pregnant she-orc reading "Goodnight, Moon" to her children in one of the caves. A video game *is* different, if in no other way than that save/load/restart mechanics take the permanence out of death; I could steal little Susie's ice cream cone, then cut off her head and throw it at her mother -- and then reload the game and it's as if it never happened. Heck, in a really realistic game, I could even sexually violate the little tyke before and/or after her decapitation, and after a reload NO HARM NO FOUL. Right?

Except, of course, for the real question: what would motivate me to do such a thing to begin with? Morbid curiosity, for one, I guess, but there is an audience that would think it was kinda cool. Even then, the game is still just a tool. It's a device for simulating... whatever the player wants, and the developer supports. So the question is: what is "fun"? And should there be a limit?

The main drive of this article, which it seems people have been missing, is that the authors of games should either be cautious about writing games capable of supporting such behavior, or at least not write games in which the game mechanics not only support but encourage it. Games have become more graphically violent over time, because there have been advancement in both computer graphics and player demand for violence. As time goes on, players want more eye candy, and they also want (and are willing to stomach) more violence. It's rather hard to deny this point.

The question becomes: how far is too far? At what point does a developer say "No, a game that rewards a player for engaging in a realistic simulation of atrocities is simply too much; I won't make such a game?" Virtual deaths may not be "real" (though the author proposes some future scenarios where it might; permadeath in a virtual world as meaningful as the real one, abuse of sentient artificial intelligence), but desensitization and player sadism are, and that's what this is a call to: not writing games that encourage sadism or are likely to push desensitization "too far."

If genuine "murder simulators" become both technologically feasible and economically attractive enough to develop a niche, it is very likely that public outcry will eventually lead to an attempt at legislation, and if that ever happens the result will be a huge mess unlikely to find a conclusion to satisfy anybody.

Christopher Wragg
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I tire of people who talk about desensitization but don't understand it.

"A player's suspension of disbelief doesn't really have anything to do with it, and claiming that his knowledge of the game as fictional is a magic bullet to dispel desensitization or the moral implications of his activities is ridiculous"

No, no it's really not. Knowing something is real, and knowing something is not, opens the door to some greatly varied action triggers. If you know something isn't real your far more likely to engage in exploratory play, and to set aside real emotion. To become desensitised you need to feel the same emotion to the same trigger repeatedly. If a) you don't feel emotion in the first place, then the emotion is going to be different when committing the real act (nullifying the desensitisation argument), b) if you feel an emotion that is based on the fact that you KNOW IT ISN'T REAL, then again, the emotion will be different when evoked in real life. Now as for the suspension of disbelief. You talk about immersion as though games can already obtain it, when all they manage is a poor mimicry. We're talking TOTAL immersion, absolute belief that what you are doing is real and that it is in fact YOU doing it, not your character. Total immersion requires more than 2 senses, it needs touch, smell, and taste. It also requires you to feel the motive behind the act, and it requires you to be actually performing the motions that your character describes. Pushing a button on a controller is an act far removed from pulling the trigger of a gun, and having your controller vibrate is far removed from feeling what it's like to fire the gun. Because you aren't this immersed the action trigger is different, thus you feel the full emotional impact in real life.

"Throughout history a seasoned warrior is one who has experienced combat and had become desensitized to the point of viewing the battlefield as a normal environment in which they could operate very effectively untouched by what is going on around them. We cirrently use simulation training and images to desensitize EMT and doctors and other emergency response personnel to the blood and gore of traumatic injury so that they can operate in those situations in the same manner. Video game technology is currently being used by the modern military forces to train and desensitize soldiers to prepare them for combat."

About this, yes a seasoned warrior is desensitised, BECAUSE HE'S BEEN IN COMBAT A LOT. A green soldier isn't, and if you know anyone who is a doctor/nurse/surgeon/front line soldier talk to them and find out about the time they froze up, or panic welled up and they had to fight it down, or their commanding officer snapped them out of it, because pretty much everyone goes through that no matter the level of training. Video games aren't being used to desensitise soldies, they're used to train them, most combat simulators aren't particularly visceral games, there's no way something like that will desensitise you to real combat.

Also puzzle this out, if you're desensitised to an act, DOES THIS MAKE YOU COMMIT IT? This is a different realm of the argument, but merely being desensitised to violence doesn't necessarily make you commit violent crimes. Lets (for arguments sake) assume I've been desensitised to violence by a video game. Does this automatically make all my societal values fly out the window. Does this make me actually enjoy hurting people. I think not. Being desensitised does not equal enjoyment, or motive. Sure it might let me more easily commit a crime, but if I'm in that situation I'm already doing something criminal, and the reason I'm committing that act would be more than just wanton. Will I beat my wife because I did it in a game?? If I found it fun in the game (and I'd have to be fairly warped but people like that do exist) then becoming desensitised to the act actually removes any enjoyment I had from it because I FEEL NO EMOTION ATTACHED TO THE ACT. If anything my societal values and morals would have an even stronger impact than before as they become my only guideline.

Just ask a veteran if he enjoys war, if he'd willingly go back for absolutely no reason whatsoever except that he just felt like it. For one I think you'll find that even a veteran is emotionally scared by the acts of war (so not completely desensitised after all), and I think it highly unlikely that all but the most warped of individuals would go back to fight a war without having any cause except for, "I felt like it".

Do some more reading people and you'll find that the techniques that the military have used to desensitise it's soldiers have only worked to a small degree, you'll find that the number of media related "it made me do it" cases are exceptionally minor, with something in the vicinity of 4 over the last decade, are remarkably over hyped, and unproven. Learn some more psychology, read about how psychologists use desensitisation to treat people with extreme phobia's, and you'll learn that it works but rarely in the first place, and that's under extremely controlled circumstances.

This is a long reply, but as I stated, I tire of this argument, it's so often put forth people who, "want to protect the children" without first understanding what their accusing, or why. Most (if not all) of the studies conducted are flawed in massive ways (or at least their findings are). Not only this, but why do we care about the affect on children....shouldn't parents be protecting them from viewing such media in the first place, that's a society issue, not one that game developers should be held accountable by.

Ultimately desensitisation is now just another buzzword thrown around by a lot people who have no idea what it means, and intelligent discussion about it becomes increasingly difficult.

Kevin Baba
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If "desensitization" is a buzzword about which I have no idea of meaning, then "immersion" seems to be to you. Nobody is (well, at least, I'm not) claiming that video games are capable of bewildering the psyche and tricking people into thinking they're doing things they're not. My whole point is that suspension of disbelief is inherently a conscious choice with the goal of becoming more involved with the game world, and it is (among other reasons) a major driver in adding better graphics, physics systems, and user interfaces. If you're more interested in simple "hey I wonder if" play than in "I'm part of an interesting world doing interesting things," then realistic graphics, sound, etc. don't really matter as much. Yes, it's still nice to have a polished game, and that's fine.

Why does the player care if the blood spatter is *realistic*? If personal involvement isn't part of the equation, he's better off looking it up on the Internet, or taking up forensic science, not buying ShootSomeGuys 3 at the game store. Granted, blood spatter isn't what we're talking about here (and I really doubt you'll get objections to a detail like that in a game), but the point stands. The exact sound of a neck cracking, or the sound of a victim's cry as his throat is torn out, or are really the kind of thing that should probably be simply approximated for the player, who won't (shouldn't!) be able to tell the difference anyway.

As for desensitization =/= causation, again, that's not really the point. The point is that if you can hear a (fictional) innocent plead pitifully for his life, coldly murder him anyway, and not care about it in any way, you're probably not the kind of person I'd want to have around my children. Not because I think you're going to murder them, but because I think your empathy mechanism is at least a little broken (in the opposite way of the crazy PETA activist who I would equally deny access to the kids).

Moreover, the main point (once again) of this article isn't that games are evil, simply that the more realistic they get, the more responsible creators are going to need to be, lest they end up leaning that way.

This is an old topic (because I don't check for updates often enough) so I doubt this will be read anyway, so... whatever.

Salim Larochelle
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I think violence is part of human nature since the beginning of mankind. Like any other animal we used physical violence to get food, to protect ourselves, to survive. Today, we are still violent being, put we are smart enough to understand that using violence in the wrong context can have a negative effect in the society we live in. While some people have more violent urge then other, everyone try to suppress it one time or another. Or, try to get it out one way or another like with verbal violence or harassment. heck, even forcing your opinion on other could be interpreted as a form of violence.

My point is, games don't make you violent, the urge was already there to begin with. As for me at least, violent game help me relax. If people didn't want to be violent, there would be no violent games. But there is, this is who we are. You can play video games to relieve your violent urge while still respecting your own values and ethic, simply because it's not real.

Put two groups of troubled kids in two separated room. Force one group to play gears of war for 5 hours and the other group to play the barbie video game for 5 hours, and watch which group comes out with the urge to kill.

I'm just saying :D

Van Miller
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You ask the question of "Just where" that slippery slope leads? It can only lead to one place: STRAIGHT TO HELL!!! When folks don't have Jesus/God in their lives as a moral compass, they're basically sailing the ship that is their VERY LIVES & SOULS straight into the rocks! You can call me crazy if you want, but in my many two-way (Yes, I said TWO-WAY: Jesus is THAT 100% REAL!!! And you can't have a TWO-WAY conversation with someone who isn't real; that would be a ONE-WAY conversation, now wouldn't it?) conversations with Jesus, He's told me that he ACTUALLY HATES First-Person-Shooters & plans to punish everyone who plays them! Now, I know what'cher thinkin', "The Bible is chock-FULL of violence, why are you complaining?" Folks, it's violence FOR A REASON(Such as the many wars that're chronicled there in the Bible.)! I mean, do you really think God ENJOYS seeing folks suffer? Far from it! That would be the devil who would enjoy something like that. Otherwise, Hell wouldn't be a place of such suffering in the first place! Like I said, when you have no moral compass (Such as Christ in your life), do you really KNOW where you're going? Or are you more like a ship adrift on an ocean, without either an anchor OR a Captain (That would be Christ, of course!)? Sadly, too much of our society is like this these days. Sodom & Gomorrah were like that; doing what was right in their OWN EYES, instead of what's right in the Eyes of God (And EVERYONE KNOWS what happened to them!). You spoke of the WWII generation & how they would react to some of these games (With SHOCK[!!!], of course!! And you wanna know why?!!! Because these people come from a time when America & the world still, for the most part, loved & feared God! That's why!). Once again, if you'll even bother to look at the state of our world & then look at the description in the Bible of how it was in Noah's time, it fits our world to a "T"! But Jesus warned us about these things, saying that it would be like it was back then, "Where people ate, drank, made merry, & married & were given in marriage, right up until the time that Noah & his family entered the Ark. So it shall be at the coming of The Son of Man." WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!! Jesus is coming back!! Put down your video game controllers, stop playing those despicable First-Person-Shooters & other violent videogames, & get right with God, before it's too late!!! You can either be smart, like Noah, who listened to God & survived, or you can be foolish, like his neighbors, who just stood there & laughed at him & his family while they built the Ark (And perished!)! What's it gonna be? Jesus & survival? Or foolishness & destruction?! Take your pick, 'cause time's running out!! At that, I'll leave you to think about it, & laters! Cya! Bye!