Violent Video Games Have Desensitized Me

Thanks to video games, I have realised that I can no longer be shocked.

Paul Tamburroby Paul Tamburro

I remember as a young lad being blown away by the gore in Mortal Kombat. I live in England, where arcades were never as popular as they were in the US, so my first experience with the game was when I borrowed a copy of the Sega Mega Drive port from my cousin. 

With every uppercut a gratuitous amount of blood splattered across the arena floor, and a correct button input on the 'FINISH HIM!' screen could lead to one of a variety of brutal sequences that included the decapitation and mutilation of your enemies, among other things. The game was so gory that it worried parents worldwide, including my own mother, who upon seeing Scorpion punching several shades of claret out of Sonya Blade, exclaimed: "WHAT IS THIS?!" "It's just a game, Mom", I replied, before continuing my bloodied assault of my female opponent. 

I would later learn that the Sega Mega Drive port was rather shoddy when compared to the original arcade version, but it didn't matter. There was blood. Lots and lots of blood. Up until that point I'd never seen human blood in a video game before. I'd seen alien blood – the green stuff – a few times, but who cares about green blood? Not me. I wanted the red blood, and now that I had seen it, I would never settle for anything less. This was the bloodlust that all those politicians had warned we would get if we played these violent video games. With every one of those bloody uppercuts I was becoming a bigger threat to society.

Fortunately for society, a couple of weeks later I had stopped playing Mortal Kombat. Familiarity breeds apathy, and after initially being shocked by seeing blood in a video game, a few days later I had grown indifferent to it. Impaling my opponent with a metal spike to see a waterfall of claret gush forth from his chest didn't have the same effect as it did when I first witnessed it. After MK had released the floodgates, every developer targeting their game to a "mature" audience included copious amounts of blood, which meant that before long the red stuff had become as commonplace a feature in video games as exploding barrels and the double jump. 

As I grew accustomed to bloodshed, developers began to think of new ways to shock gamers. Manhunt had me suffocating enemies to death with plastic bags, Grand Theft Auto had me mercilessly killing police officers, but each time I was being forced to redefine what I considered acceptable in a video game, I was also finding it more and more difficult to be shocked.

Harvesting the Little Sisters in BioShock, for example, is initially difficult to do, but after forcibly removing those pesky sea slugs from them a handful of times, I eventually grew used to the disturbing scene of me "euthanising" them. Similarly, being faced with an airport full of innocent civilians in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and given the option to kill them all caught me off guard at first, but after opening fire, what unfolds eventually becomes as emotionless an experience as the slaughtering of the enemy soldiers in the previous missions.

Before I was allowed to watch violent movies, I was playing violent video games. I've been brought up on them. While my favourite gaming memories from my childhood includes light-hearted fare such as Super Mario Bros. and Rolo to the Rescue, it was also peppered with the kind of virtual gore that anti-video-game activists would suggest should have turned me into a homocidal maniac. However, my over-exposure to violent video games has completely removed any bloodlust I may have had, thus making me less likely to turn into a mass-murderer than the average non-gamer who didn't spend his childhood killing NPCs. So would it be more of a reasonable parenting decision to give our kids a copy of God of War III and leave them to it?

Well, no. A couple of months ago I was looking after my 8-year-old half-brother and, like any self-respecting adult who hasn't got the energy nor the willpower to play a prolonged game of hide 'n' seek, I kept him occupied with the Xbox 360. "What do you want to play?", I asked. "That one", he replied, pointing to Left 4 Dead 2.

Without hesitation I inserted it into the disk tray and watched him unsuccessfully try to withstand the attack of the zombie horde. He frantically tried to run away from the undead as they ran towards him, pressing all the buttons on the controller at once before they pinned him to the ground. At that moment my girlfriend walked in and stared at the image of my little half-brothers' player character's corpse on the TV, zombies continuing to ruthlessly attack him. "Should he be playing this..?", she asked, no doubt horrified at my poor parenting skills. "Why?", I asked, naively. My half-brother simply sat motionlessly as the zombies surrounded his body.

That night, my half-brother probably went back home and had nightmares about what he had seen. His knowledge of video games, which up until that point had consisted of nothing but movie tie-ins on the Wii, had been broadened immeasurably and, judging by the haunted look on his face as I finally came to my senses and put Viva Piñata on instead, not in a good way. 

Meanwhile, that night I put on 28 Weeks Later and ate pasta throughout the scene where Robert Carlyle's character jams his thumbs into his wife's eyes.

I guess my generation were just built stronger.

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