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.
3/5/2008 Ben Dutka