Guest Writer: Desensitisation

This article is a guest submission from Dexter17.

The process of desensitisation is a process that the human race prefers to relegate to the back of the mind. It is incomprehensible to some that they would fail to become significantly moved by scenes of an extreme nature, but consciously or not, it happens. With the internet on tap and easily accessible news feeds, we are continuously being battered by all forms of media output, and it would take a naive person to deny that this emotional lambasting is failing to moderately manipulate the mind.

Essentially, desensitisation means reducing the brain’s sensitivity to a specific stimulus. This is typically achieved by exposing the brain to the stimulus a multiple number of times, so it becomes more comfortable with the stimulus and as such experiences a less intense response to it. For example, someone with an irrational fear of spiders could be helped by being exposed to them for short periods over a lengthened amount of time, and the same theory can be applied where global news is concerned.

The effect of an extreme video may be significant for the first view, but if a similar video was replayed every week for the following year, the effect of the video would gradually diminish until the human brain perceived it as normal.

This kind of process pitches an interesting situation for our beloved videogame industry. It thrives on forcing the player to invest an emotional engagement with the videogame, but if every videogame poses a similar conditional state this effect will gradually lessen, providing developers with a need to push the boundaries in search of an improved emotional channel. This serves as the motivation that developers need to innovate so that the player can continue to feel the full impact that would come with watching that extreme video for the first time, and as such, proves positive for all parties involved.

However, it’s a contrasting state of play where violent videogames are concerned, and a severe discordance with the positive progression that I have previously mentioned. Whereas The Punisher on Playstation 2 may have shocked on its release, it now appears comparatively tame when stacked against titles such as the recent SAW: Flesh and Blood. But if our reaction to the extremes of violence found in the likes of Grand Theft Auto has become attenuated over the years, this poses any developer with a will to survive in the current economic climate with an increasingly tough question: how do you evoke a response when the stereotypical player has become desensitised to the traditional forms of pixelated brutality?

The obvious answer is to invest more time in developing the characters, providing the same violence that has been seen before but adding an extra degree of emotional depth behind it. Despite this, there is no escaping the fact that some videogame plots dictate that violence is the driving factor, and in this case the developer in question will be forced to push the unwritten line and hope that the classification boards such as the BBFC take kindly to their efforts. The industry needs to evolve, and making the player feel something is a crucial part of any successful title.

The disturbing proposition is that unless rapid new technologies are discovered, developers will be unable to do this due to the desensitisation of the player that has run its course since the inception of the first violent videogame.

The industry isn’t going to die overnight; whatever happens, developers like ThatGameCompany will always be around to offer emotionally rich experiences that don’t depend on savagery. However, unless the already relatively lenient British censorship regulations are overhauled, developers may be confined to what violent dishes they have already served up, and this could potentially stifle the already saturated violent videogame market. Maybe the brain is trying to tell us something; maybe we should throw our violent shooters and sandboxes aside and make way for more emotional experiences that make us think, feel, but most of all, enjoy, without a blade or bullet in sight.


  1. Very interesting article and I agree with most things you’ve said. I was actually thinking the other day when I was playing Killzone 3 and stabbed someone in the eyes with one of the brutal melees. I felt a bit ashamed when it had no effect on me whatsoever, surely that should at least make me cringe?

    Personally I think GTA IV did a very good job of balancing excessive violence and an emotional story. Lots of people had a go at it for trying to be too realistic and taking away the “Fun” but by the end of the story when certain characters were killed (No spoilers here though you really should have played it by now) I did feel upset, and that was a lot more captivating than killing lots of random people with tractors in San Andreas, despite people’s claims that that was more “fun”

    • GTa 4 balanced it just right i felt. due to the characters and story the violence came with a certain underlying guilt the got under yer skin after a while. Compared to Killzone three which shocked me at first but after the first few hours just faded away and became something to pass the time with

  2. Great article.
    It is a tricky area for developers but I think the answer is to focus more on the storytelling and character development than the level of violence. Like you said, pulling the player into a more emotional relationship with the main character(s) through good character development means that seeing something bad happen to them or their family/friends has more of an impact than seeing something incredibly gruesome happen to some random NPC you’ve only just met.

  3. Yet again, another great guest article. Desensitisation has often be used to malign the games industry and gamers in general, but I think there are two other factors that come into play here; on is saturation of games, the perennial CoD and Sports franchises and also the difference between being active and passive, often in a game you are not thinking about what your doing to this in game enemy, you’re thinking about the overall objective or what to do next, however the person sat next to you while you’re playing takes all of your actions in, in the moment, as it were. The desensitisation really comes in through the cinematics and cut scenes. And the emotional engagement through dialogue trees and the like, one of the reasons why I like Bioware games so much is that they try to engage characters and decisions you make at a very emotional level.

  4. I find that I am completely desensitised to violence in games, killzone 3 brutal melee is not effective, neither was the scene in heavy rain where (spoilers) you cut your finger off. Even the scene in the film 127 Hours where he removes his own arm with a blunt knife was acceptable.

    However, I find that although I can happily decapitate someone in a game or watch it in a film, documentaries about WW1, WW2, or other horrific events still have the expected result of sadness, disgust, horror etc. I find that as I consciously know that a video game is pretend, and there are no adverse effects to anyone, I can distance myself, become desensitised, and accept the violence.

    • i’m the same, i can watch the most violent films, and play the most violent game, and it doesn’t affect me that much.
      but when i know it’s real, then i become really squeamish.
      i can’t even watch the needle going in when i get a blood test or something.

    • That plays a major part for me, knowing the difference between whats real and what isn’t although saying that if i’m drawn into the story enough it still shocks me. There are some cross overs though for example i’m watching the Wire again and i know its fictional but i’m aware the drug violence is very very real so it still contains a huge impact which is enhanced by the characters who i’ve grown to know after spending so much time with them.

    • I would say that i’m fairly desensitised to violence in games but that ‘cut’-scene in Heavy Rain actually did affect me.

  5. Good article. However, the closing sentence will only ever have registered with a small minority of the gaming populous, there’s a reason why shooters and violent games are so popular, likewise why the typical gamer is still male, even though this is beginning to change. This same reason is why as children, males and females often display stereotypical differences in interest…..why do we find fire / explosions cool etc?

    Unfortunately, trying to stop a love of violence is impossible. It took a couple of million years for us to compress the instinct and place it into categories where we can “enjoy” it without ever feeling guilty, sport, movies and of course, games.

    Unfortunately, violence is still the ultimate answer, that with enough force can solve anything, if we intrinsically were opposed to violence, it wouldn’t be the go-to response that it still is even in 2011.

    Games don’t have to be violent to be enjoyable, I wish more people would give games that don’t feature a gun a chance as they may find something new and exciting. Unfortunately, be there desensitisation or not, there certainly is a sensitisation towards violent games, anything less simply won’t do in the eyes of many.

  6. interesting article, but would making the characters seem more three dimensional be a good thing? if you’re going to have to kill or attack them.

    i mean, most people when they’re playing games committing violent acts on these game characters are very aware that these aren’t real people.
    often they one dimensional with less character than somebody in a coma, so there’s not usually that connection between killing those characters and violence against real people.
    desensitising people to violence against fictional characters isn’t really damaging, to most people at least.

    but however, if you start making people think of these characters more like real people, then it gets more complicated.
    in most games you will have to commit some sort of violent acts against these characters.
    when people start thinking of these NPCs more like real people then people might start making the connection, and that’s when desensitisation can become a problem..

    i could be talking out of my arse of course, i know practically nothing about psychology.
    this is just my thoughts on the subject, wrong or right.

    • I was going to say somehing similar. I’ll often watch a violent movie, Machete for example, just for kicks yet there are other movies i watch which have more depth to the characters and a much less violent act will seem more shocking to me. I think that’s why the Heavy Rain ‘cut’-scene worked for me.

  7. Great article Dexter and a very interesting topic. I agree and believe that I have seen for myself the influence exposure can have on reactions. For me, ultimately, I look to games for enjoyment and entertainment and I certainly prefer if they can do so without needing to deploy scenes of extreme violence or revulsion.

  8. It happens more and more often that I encounter scenes and gameplay where I think to myself: Why did this have to be so violent? Why give the player the opportunity to do this?

    In the knife situations in Killzone 3 I didn’t just stop caring for the Helghans I killed but also for the game itself. It was just a repetitive game mechanic.

  9. Its only a game, we are old and wise enough to realise we arent actually killing anyone and should worry about maybe not screaming when an eye is popped with a blade.

    Its not real so its cool. It would be like playing Dead Space and never leaving your wardrobe as a result.

    Great article :-)

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