In some ways, even “family friendly” video games are centered on violent acts. The first moments of Super Mario Bros. (1985), for example, likely involve the player stomping a goomba to death and repeating this act countless times over the duration of the game and its many sequels. There is a qualitative difference, though, between stomping a goomba and shooting a realistic-looking human with a virtual gun. I recently realized the desensitization to virtual violence that can take place over a lifetime of playing violent video games and that it is possible to become resensitized to this violence.
Other than NES games like Contra (1987), my first experience killing virtual humans (and dogs, incidentally) came in the early ’90s while playing Wolfenstein 3D (1992) on my family’s first computer (with a 33 mhz Intel 486 and sans sound card). Its rudimentary 3D corridors were amazing to me at the time and the ability to shoot Nazi guards and see their blood splatter seemed “cool” to my pre-teen self (and his friends). Nothing about the experience (or that of playing Doom (1993) a few years later), however, suggested that killing real people would be anything like it.
Around this time, I remember seeing the game Pit Fighter (1990) in the mall’s arcade and noting its realistic graphics. Pit Fighter used the same digitization process that later made Mortal Kombat’s (1992) over-the-top violence infamous, with real actors playing the parts of its characters. When I eventually purchased a copy of Mortal Kombat, I was sure to get the Sega Genesis version, which had a code that allowed you to see blood like in the arcade. Nintendo seemed to learn that kids like blood, since Mortal Kombat II (1994) was released on the Super NES with blood intact (unlike the virtual “sweat” of the first game), and I bought that version as a result. Again, there was nothing about the experience of playing these games that seemed to reflect real-life murder. Having never been in a fight, I certainly wasn’t going to pull out anybody’s spine or beating heart.
The beginning of college took much of my attention away from video games but I later revisited the Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye 007 (1997) after buying it at a pawn shop early in grad school. The characters looked like faces pasted on blocks of wood so, again, I never got much of a sense of killing real people. Because of my late arrival I also missed out on the deathmatch aspect of Goldeneye. My first taste of shooting at friends in a video game came with Halo (2001) on the original Xbox. I particularly remember playing on my friend’s huge (maybe 35 inch) SDTV. This, I think, is where my desensitization to virtual violence really began.
During the single-player campaign, Halo players kill multitudes of strange-looking aliens. Multiplayer options allow players to kill each other’s space marine avatars, but helmets and body armor prevent them from looking particularly human. Starting with Halo and continuing with its sequels on the Xbox and Xbox 360, I spent hours killing various aliens, friends, family members, and strangers on the internet. The Gears of War (2006) series on Xbox 360 also tasked players with killing strange-looking
aliens creatures from beneath the planet’s surface.
I spent so much time killing aliens and unrealistic-looking humans during these years that I don’t remember thinking twice about killing more realistic humans in games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) and its sequel (although the sequel’s immersion of the player into a terrorist act got some attention from others at the time). I also played these games with family members and didn’t think anything of “killing” them even when they looked like soldiers.
The last game based on shooting virtual people or things that I played before this year was probably Gears of War 3 in 2011. In the meantime, things like teaching, research, and changing jobs took up much of my time and the time I devoted to video games was more likely to be spent killing goombas in Super Mario 3D World (2013) or driving virtual go karts in Mario Kart 8 (2014). Over the summer, though, my curiosity was piqued by articles about Battlefield 1 (2016) and its approach to World War I. The only issue was that I did not own one of the new video game consoles or a PC on which to play it. Instead, I sought an Xbox 360 launch title, Call of Duty 2 (COD2), that focused on World War II and had gotten good reviews upon its release in 2005.
COD2 is what made me realize how desensitized I had been to virtual killing in the past. As an 11-year-old game, its representations of humans are not incredibly realistic, but I was constantly aware that the avatars I was mowing down with a machine gun represented people (a sense I do not recall having when playing its sequels five years ago). While this was surprising to me, it also worked to heighten the cost of WWII in terms of human life, a point that the creators of Battlefield 1 also make in terms of WWI. One important difference between COD2 and Battlefield 1 (which I have not played), though, is the technological advancements of the past 11 years. Battlefield 1 looks incredibly realistic, which might make the experience more jarring for those who are not desensitized to virtual violence while also furthering the desensitization of those who are. Had I not stepped away from virtual warfare for several years, after all, it is unlikely that my response to it would have been the same.
I would not argue that games like this should not exist. By many accounts, Battlefield 1 does a good job of communicating the horrors of WWI in the same way that a good book or film might. I do think it is important to be aware of how these forms of media affect us and our responses to violence, though. This is particularly problematic in terms of video games because, unlike authors or screenwriters, some video game developers seem to have a hard time envisioning solutions to problems that do not involve violence. The 2014 game Watch Dogs, for example, focused on hacking but required players to shoot a large number of people. Other than The Matrix (1999), I don’t recall a lot of movies about hacking that focused as much on gun violence as actual hacking.
This is unfortunate. Not every game involves virtual murder but it would be nice to see more room for genres that focus on other forms of problem solving. (Notably, Portal (2007) focuses on problem solving while also making light of the callous disregard the protagonists of many games have for those around them.) Adding to the problem-solving toolbox might allow more space for players to be aware of the effects their virtual behaviors have on their perceptions of violence inside and outside of increasingly-realistic game worlds. After all, if all you have is a gun, everything looks like a target.
See also: This related article at Slate that was published after I had written this but before it was posted.
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