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Editorial: Is Desensitization Really Bad?

It's a word gamers have riled against repeatedly over the past decade or so; one might argue it started with games like Mortal Kombat in the arcades. It's a common accusation of anti-game activists, who point the finger at us and say, "you're desensitized." The statement carries a decidedly negative inflection, too, so it's painfully obvious they're not paying us a compliment. But in looking closely at this situation, I often wonder: is desensitization an entirely bad thing?

If you're not familiar with the concept of the game haters, I'll explain the basics. Essentially, they claim that violent video games "desensitize" us, which means we are no longer shocked, appalled or frightened by intense violence. Obviously, this would imply we're supposed to be shocked, appalled or frightened, yes? That's merely logic talking. The very clear downside is that those who are desensitized might not be so adverse to bad behavior; i.e., it'd be easier for them to break the law or even kill someone because they've seen the virtual recreation on screen. Thus, this somehow impacts our inherent human trait that – for normal individuals – restrains them from voluntarily causing physical harm to others. This is why video games are constantly a target when something tragic like Columbine occurs. They would claim that killing in a virtual world would make it easier to kill in the real world.

Now, as far as I know, there has been no study conducted to prove this theory. It has been found that children will become more aggressive when playing violent games or watching violent media, but that's a given. It's why we have a ratings system, and anybody who doesn't believe something like GTA or "Hostel" wouldn't have a negative impact on a child is too naive to live. Plain and simple. But most times, when talking about desensitization, we're talking about fully formed adults. There has never been a study involving adults and video games that proved aggressive or otherwise abhorrent behavior increases with violent game play. I'm not about to sit here and say desensitization doesn't exist, but if it does, how evil is it? Really? Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the phenomenon, why not examine the positive aspects? And if I'm not completely crazy, they do exist.

When you attend medical school, you must dive in and get your hands dirty. You can't have a new surgeon conking out when they open up an individual for an operation. Cops and the military are trained in situations that would, and correct me if I'm wrong, "desensitize" them to terrible events. During 9/11, when all those brave firefighters saved many, many lives but lost their own (and we always remember them with proud yet heavy hearts), they were trained. They may have been scared, of course, but it wouldn't have done anybody any good if they cowered in a corner with their hands over their heads, sobbing. With those who aren't "desensitized," they have trouble watching violence and often recoil, which typically causes them to become, well…useless. They can't function. Citizens walking the streets on 9/11 weren't expected to respond the way the firefighters did, but then again, what if they could ? What if "desensitization" isn't the ultimate evil some people make it out to be?

Recently, there was this very inspiring story regarding a young man who reacted quickly and effectively when faced with a horrible accident. He was able to do this because he had learned – had been "desensitized" – standard medical treatment from playing the video game, America's Army . Game Project Director, Colonel Casey Wardynski called this individual a "true hero." Now, granted, not every video game is like this one, and not everyone will be faced with such a situation. But if he hadn't played that game, what might have happened? Those who can't stand the sight of blood or physically harmed humans might not have been able to do anything. But before everyone leaps on my back, bear in mind that I'm not saying violent video games can turn you into a hero. But is there a better chance it could turn you into a hero rather than a psychotic killer? Is a violent video game more likely to cause a normal adult to smack someone upside the head with a baseball bat for cutting in line at the movies?

Or , does violence in games, which certainly does expose people to a certain level of intense – and often brutal – violence, actually have the capacity to help ? Simply because you aren't passing out in the face of adverse conditions doesn't mean you're about to cause those adverse conditions. But what it does mean, is that you might be able to act in the positive…while the other non-desensitized individuals are closing their eyes and covering their heads, you might be able to help. Some may say this is a stretch, but it's not. It's more of a stretch to believe that playing GTA or any other bloody video game would cause a well-adjusted adult to resort to terrible behavior. And for the last time, I'm not talking about children. I hold a degree in Psychology, and while that doesn't mean much, I know for a fact that kids who are exposed to certain forms of violence can, and usually are, negatively affected. Just look around you; the proof is in every Wal-Mart on the planet.

In the end, I don't doubt desensitization has a downside, but I find myself thinking that this term isn't far from "training" or "learning." I'm well aware that citizens aren't soldiers or doctors, but what if they find themselves in a position that would benefit from training? It's training one's mind to not shut down in the face of horrid circumstances. That is the definition. And as far as I'm concerned, there is a definite positive side to this. If someone can prove me wrong, that's fine; it's an editorial. It's just my opinion. But I doubt anybody – not even Jack Thompson himself – could "prove" my theory incorrect. I guess the real question is, what is a desensitized person? If we can answer that, we'd be getting somewhere.

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16 years ago

when we were running about killing Mammoths and Sabre tooth tigers we were surely Desensitised (British spelling 😉 ) then? no..? (lol.. I know an extreme comparison)

But now we wrap ourselves up in cotton wool, worry about being PC and what the other person thinks so much that it goes full circle and you actually become too sensitive to the situation and then become what you fear most, the very thing you are being sensitive about.

I say theres nothing wrong in being a lil bit desensitised, you dont want to be too removed to care, but I do think its healthy to be able to cope with lifes little problems rather than crumble like a sack of dried turds in a heavy wind.

16 years ago

Well, it's a completely different spin on "desensitization" but imagine a completely pacifist world, no weapons, no violence, everyone living in peace. Suddenly group of people go crazy, and run around with weapons trying to take over. It would take them no more than 60 seconds to make it happen. People would panic, have no clue how to respond.

When I was 13 I went on vacation only to walk into my aunt's house to watch her husband get shot in the head by her ex husband at point blank range, and then the gun pointed at me. That in it's own true "desensitization" if you ask me. In my case it brought about a reality of life and death. You can't escape it, and at any time anyone can take it away.

If you wanna get into the video games and media aspect of it, depending on the age, it's hardly helpful to real life. Real world experiences are far different than those on tv and video games. What happens here is children without parental supervision see these things, get used to it, and childishly mimic these things in the real world not understand their actions as a mature adult would. It's completely another story though.

As for the 9/11 event, I remember when it came on the news that morning. I was living with my dad, and my girlfriend at that time was living with us. My father banged on the door, telling me to turn on the news. I was woken up, pissed off about it, and turned on the TV. Me, all I thought was "what the hell is going on?" I wanted answers. My girlfriend on the other hand went into mass hysteria, crying and acting like the world was going to end. Americans panic in the face of danger on our own soil, the rest of the world I believe is used to it.

By all means though, my belief is that the term as a standalone meaning is a lack of shock and/or panic in what would be above normal circumstances. 'Normal' however itself is a twisted word and it's value is simply based on society standards.

That's my 5:45am 2 cents of rambling.

16 years ago

I like this editorial and I agree completely.

16 years ago

@ Zapix.

I honestly think all of the people reading this editorial didnt need to know that information.

I do however agree with your last comment.
Americans absolutely panic when they see things happening on their own soil.

Desensitization can help or hinder us. But in the end it boils down to the mental maturity of the person playing the games.

Any normal human being, or someone with at least some level of common sense, would realise that its just a game, and that the events in the game are simulated, and that the sense of realism in a game is purposly twisted to achieve those results.

I supose it doesnt help that games are getting more realistic then ever before, but in the end I think there will always be a limit to how real a game can be.

It is also the responsibility of the parent to make sure their child isn't playing said violent games, but if they let them, maybe the parent should be making sure their child understands that its "just a game".

From my experience, the tens of thousands of terrorists and soldiers i have killed, often in horrific ways, have never influenced me at all to go out and start killing my local citizens.

Maybe i should go take-over my local high school, with a bunch of cloned soldiers with the purpose of controlling metal gear rex and creating a nuclear holocost. and then after a man wearing a grey spandex suit comes and defeats me ill tell the judge i did it because i seen it happen in a game…….=
But i do admit, i have been caught mimicing the behaviours of Solid Snake =]

14 years ago

I am not necesarily for or against gaming. But, I am bothered by dis-information. When someone says, "Now, as far as I know, there has been no study conducted", it begs the question, "has that person even tried to be informed". The implication in the statement is that the person is informed and that no study exists. Please try to be informed before implying that you are informed. Please read "On Killing" by Dave Grossman. World War II Veterans returned fire at a rate of 1 in 5, during combat. After learning these statistics, the US Military began using pop up targets with human shaped silouettes. In Veitnam, the US Military achived a rate of better than 4 of 5 soldiers returning fire in combat. These investigation are well-known by people who are informed about the subject matter that the writer is trying to speak to. The results of the studies are generally believed to show that desensitization is an extremely effective technique in improving the likeliness that a person will be able to try to kill another person.

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