Realistic Graphics Can Open Real Dialog Around Game Violence

Realistic Graphics Can Open Real Dialog Around Game Violence
Written by Techbot

If you’ve spent any time playing Dead Island 2, chances are you’ve noticed the game’s progressive damage system. The Fully Locational Evisceration System for Humanoids, or FLESH, as developer Dambuster Studios call it, is a procedural tool that makes dismembering, melting, or burning zombies look more realistic, as signs of trauma correspond to the attacks you perform, visibly chewing through skin, muscle, organs, and bone. Of course, Dead Island 2 applies all this gore to schlocky, slapstick effect. But FLESH may make you wonder how such gruesome detail might translate to games with more serious themes.

Questions around violence in games have a long history, spanning tabloid moral panics to concerted academic research. While the topic of whether playing violent games may lead to aggressive behavior in real life is still hotly debated, studies tend to show that any correlation is at most minuscule. Yet with the progress of visual fidelity in games, from the FLESH system to the recent trailer for Unrecord, which some thought looked too lifelike to be true, it’s no surprise if the question circles around again.

Aaron Drummond, a senior lecturer at the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Tasmania (and coauthor of the study linked above), believes that while the topic demands additional research, if increasing realism in game violence did lead to more aggressive behavior, the signs should already be present.

“One would expect to see three things,” he explains. “One, an increase in the number of studies showing an effect of violent content on aggression; two, an increase in the effect sizes of violent games on aggressive behavior; and three, an increase in assaults and violent crimes.” None of these things have happened, he adds, with data in fact trending in the opposite direction.

Paul Cairns, head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of York in the UK, has a similar view. “My instinct is that if violent video games really made people violent, we would be going to hell in a handcart right now,” he says. Cairns has explored the concept of “priming,” or the idea that game violence can somehow alter how we respond to violence elsewhere, potentially leading toward violent behavior. There’s no obvious evidence of priming, he says, and “if you manipulate the realism of games, it really doesn’t lead to any change of priming at all.” If there’s any path from playing games to violent behavior, then, it’s not merely down to violent content. “There’s got to be something else going on there.”

Despite past research, though, it’s impossible to know for sure that increased realism won’t have a negative impact, Cairns says, simply because we’ve never seen the current levels of realism in interactive media before. Yet humans—at least adults—are very good at understanding what’s real and what isn’t, he continues, “which is why [some people] can bear a horror film but can’t even watch people have an injection.” So as long as we understand we aren’t taking part in a real scenario, it seems unlikely that even a highly realistic simulation will spark problematic behavior.

Visual fidelity isn’t the only consideration when it comes to the impact of violence, however. The fact that we enact violence in games rather than merely observe it, as in film and TV, makes it a different proposition, as do structures that have us repeat acts of aggression over and over. Indeed, if you enjoyed Dead Island 2’s bloody displays, you might also have found that the novelty wears off after a few hours. Eventually, the sight of blistered skin and broken legs begins to feel mundane. When so many games are built around combat loops of this kind, do we become desensitized to the impact of violence?

It’s certainly possible, Drummond says, potentially resulting in “decreased emotional and physiological reactivity to the violence one witnesses.” Yet that’s not necessarily a problem. “For instance, desensitization is useful if you want to help someone get over a phobia,” he explains, “which clinicians now use VR to do.” Plus, no “sensible player” generalizes in-game violence to real-life contexts without grasping the moral and legal implications.

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