What Little Video Game Violence Does to Prepare Us for the Real Thing

We see a lot of violence in video games. We’ve seen needles thrusted into eyeballs, entrails spilled out of ripped open torsos, and monsters chainsawed into or blown into pieces. When we pull off these gruesome stunts in our favorite games, it’s often accompanied by a nervous chuckle, or maybe a complete about-face from the television. And even in those instances where such violence is sought after, for age appropriate players, there’s a clear understanding about how ludicrous and far from reality these extreme depictions of gratuitousness is. But it’s when we see this level of violence take a realistic form in either film or real life, that it becomes deeply unsettling. 
I remember when the first gameplay demo of The Last of Us was shown at E3 2012, and how disturbing and deliberately tempered the violence was. There was a moment when Joel grabs an enemy from behind, choking him as he kicked and clawed at Joel’s arm with panic in his eyes before his body went limp and slid to the floor. This was the same year when God of War Ascension was debuted, which ended its demo with a “crowd pleasing” shot of Kratos splitting a bipedal elephant’s head open and exposing its brain. It was a year when viewers and games press alike had expressed growing tired glorified violence at E3, and called for more creative marketing at these trade shows. Of course getting thrills from kills in E3 trailers haven’t gone anywhere, however seeing games like the new God of War change its tune in the last five years shows the industries movement away from glorified bloodshed.
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 A layman from the sidelines would look at E3 2012 and use this as unsubstantiated proof that video games desensitize us to other depictions of, or even real world violence. Some would even go as far as to accuse these as “murder simulators” that mass shooters use to “train” and hone their skills to end as may lives as possible. 
Before moving to my main point, I do want to take a moment to address this, thankfully now dormant, debate of games’ influence of violence. After decades of baseless accusations and logic-leap connections between incidents of mass murder and video games, we heard a report that Brock University in Canada conducted research back in 2011 seeking to determine the relationship between the two. What they actually found was that the competitive factors of video games is what triggers aggression, not the violent depictions themselves. They came to this conclusion by comparing the aggression of participants who played the single player action game Conan and the cooperative shooter Left 4 Dead to those that played a variety of competitive games, which included Codemasters’ racer Fuel along with M vs. DC and Marble Blast Ultra. When measuring aggression by how much hot sauce participants put into a dish, they found that those who played the competitive games came up more aggressive than those who were playing single player or cooperative games. 
That aside, there’s a dramatic misconception that gamers have an unhealthily high tolerance for real world violence. A misconception, but not complete lunacy. Sure, if you repeatedly expose a 5 year old to Gears of War, and not teach her or him that popping actual people’s heads like watermelons is not socially acceptable and is actually morally horrific, then yes, that sad 5 year old will likely grow up to be a head-targeting serial killer. But such poor childcare hardly exists. And though here is a degree of acclimation in seeing various forms of over the top violence, there is a baseline moral compass and empathy that’s instinctual to us as human beings. Remember, gamers are people too.
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It’s important to remember that there are many variables in regards to age that goes into gamers’ perception of violence. A 17 year old gamer today won’t have the same perspective of a violent video game than a 27 year old because of an entire decade of game exposure that differentiates the two.
Those of us in our mid to upper twenties have seen how 2017’s Resident Evil 7 makes 2007’s God of War 2 look like an episode of Family Guy, and thus have more of an appreciation for the visual fidelity of violent games in the modern era.
I also believe that older gamers have more of an understanding for the consequence of violence shown in games today. We may look beyond someone simply falling from a steep drop and go as far as to think “Damn, that must have done a number on his knees and lower back”.
Or we may consider those who also might be affected by acts of violence like a character who has been decapitated and happened to wear a wedding ring.
Being a parent also seems to alter one’s perception of violence, whether that may be because of their less exposure to violence in favor of media that’s geared towards a younger audience, not wanting their children to walk into them playing mature content, or an overall drop in tolerance that is associated with conducting their lives vicariously through their young ones.
Age undoubtedly brings with it a set of life experiences and matured perspectives that colors the lens in which violence is viewed through.
I myself am not a parent yet, but at the age of 28, I’m beginning to see how little my tolerance for violence in video games prepares me for violence in other mediums.
Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, a war film about Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and his team’s dramatic story depicting their involvement in Operation Red Wings, was one of the most violent movies that I’ve ever seen.
So violent in fact, that I found myself having physical responses to these SEALs being slaughtered throughout the film. Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness displayed some truly disturbing images of body horror that I was severely underprepared for, and I’ll likely not watch again to avoid seeing what literally brought my wife to tears.
Earlier this year, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and came across their VR exhibit featuring a short film by Jordan Wolfson called “Real Violence”.
Real Violence comes with a very firm age restriction and trigger warning, both in which I’ve seen enforced by museum staff. One individual who couldn’t have been older than 16 was asked to show ID, and was then escorted from the line when he couldn’t provide proof of age.
And each viewer stepping up to the table of Oculus Rift headsets was warned for the contents depicted in the video. If you’re in the New York area and don’t want this VR short spoiled in order to experience its shock value in full, skip the next two paragraphs.
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As if you’re lying down, the video starts with a view from a Manhattan sidewalk. My orientational reflexes set in as I tried to look downward, seeing a young man with a red hoodie on his knees with another gentleman walking into view with a baseball bat. The camera orients itself appropriately shortly before “Bat Man” takes a full swing to the side of “Red Hood’s” head. He drops instantly.
Without resisting, Red Hood is dragged to the curb as Bat Man hammers down a series of stomps onto his skull. The shape of his head begins to distort, his jaw is knocked out of alignment, blood begins to soak the ground as he convulses and grunts helplessly.
To finish the job, Bat Man picks up the baseball bat that he quickly discarded before, and brings it down relentlessly several times as if he’s trying to turn a watermelon into mush. The entire video is shot in one take.
“Oh fuck…” is what I said after taking off the Rift headset. The closest thing that had ever seen to being that gruesome was actual footage of a man being shot in the head with an AK-47.
I needed closure after seeing what I had just saw, closure to subdue the part of my imagination that thought this was an actual crime. I immediately Googled articles detailing the contents Real Violence before coming across a piece from The New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz. Turns out that Jordan Wolfson, “Bat Man”, used an animatronic doll for Red Hood because use of a stunt man wasn’t convincing enough to allow him to fully commit in brutalizing the depicted victim.
When looking at Red Hood’s head smashed into the pavement, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if that was me?” What if there was a guy repeatedly curb stomping my face, and smashing my skull into multiple pieces with a baseball bat? None of my video game experience enabled me to digest Real Violence any easier.
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In the New Yorker article, Schwartz actually then questions if a parallel can be drawn between what Real Violence had shown, and other activities such as firing a gun at a shooting range, or playing a first person shooter. She even goes further to theorize that handling a gun at the range or in a video game is a “contest for your own survival”. But this isn’t larping or playing Outlast 2, where each consumes the participant in a more encompassing roleplaying experience.
While shooting at a range or playing deathmatch are indeed contests, and many game players and range members certainly roleplay being in actual danger, Schwartz missed that point that these largely embody a test of skill, not so much survival. I’d be worried if the person in the booth next to me at the shooting range is shouting “Die motherfucker!” while pumping bullets into his paper target, or if one of my teammates in Call of Duty is screaming every time they’re shot at in Team Deathmatch.
By and large, whether you’re mastering your grip on a Beretta Nano, or increasing your K/D ratio in Infinite Warfare, our imagination takes a backseat for the sport and contest of honing our skills.


Whenever I hear the phrase “this isn’t a video game”, I can’t help but roll my eyes at how clueless and demeaning such a statement is. It comes from the implication that one cannot separate risks, dangers, and consequences of real life from the inconsequential elements of a video game. It’s almost as, frankly, ignorant as when folks like Jack Thompson used to accuse mass shooters of “training” in games like Counter Strike and Doom. The assumption that video games somehow makes us more violent or desensitizes us to violence is dehumanizing, full stop. Consuming violent media responsibly allows us to experience creative and horrific kills in a safe space, but that doesn’t drive us to the point of not respecting the gravity of loss of life.