Warning: This article contains spoilers for a minor but well-done sidequest from Troika's "Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines"
I am a creature of violence. In the past year, I have attacked countless people, savagely beaten them, run them over with cars, and rained down all manner of ordnance upon them. I have killed hundreds, if not thousands; typically in self defense, but occasionally out of pure malice. And I'm assuming you have too.
Make an estimate as to your own butcher's board; quickly tabulate the masses you have executed to achieve your goals. We are all virtual Pol Pots. We have raged regular swaths of death and violence across multiple worlds. While these atrocities will never bring about a trip to The Hague, that does not change the fact that we've committed them. Yet somehow these innumerable deaths do not weigh on our consciences as much as one might expect. One does not meet too many gamers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, haunted by an innumerable cast of simulated ghosts. We live such violent lives, yet they never move us to seek any redemption. It is difficult for me to pick even one of these moments which made me stand back and look at what I'd done in horror; of all my monstrous acts, almost none have made me pause and think "I am a monster".
So many of our games are inextricably linked with violence, but it's a violence which typically does not move us in any way. Think about every game you've played. Think about every character you've killed. Try and compose a mental list of in-game obituaries. For how many of these deaths do you feel anything resembling remorse?
Here is where a word like "desensitization" might come into play. I am not fond of this word. To say that someone has become "less sensitive" to violence is is to imply they have become less of a human being. Though the typical violence of games has little effect on me, I don't think it's because some essential portion of my humanity has been deadened. I think it's because what we most often see in games can't be described as violence at all; at least, not in a human sense. Our games often compel us to commit violent acts to progress, but we cannot usefully compare the typical experience of this to real-world violence. It is an abstraction, a gameplay mechanic for which there is no suitable analogue in real life. Distilled of its avatars and setting, it is a relatively simplistic device, based on numeric values, as most gameplay is at its core. This is a violence without any sense of suffering, and therefore, without any sense of regret.
True violence can't be quantified. There are no numbers at its core, only raw experience; and a videogame mechanic is no approximation. The numbers may count down to zero and the game may pronounce a character as dead, but usually there is no agency in this pronouncement. The character may have disappeared from the gameworld, but there are most likely a thousand other characters just like it waiting to be dispatched similarly. If the character is unique in such a way that a player might regret their passing, she may simply reload and spare that character. This ability alone dilutes nearly all videogame violence of its potency; for the most affecting moment of any real-life violent act must be in the realization in the moments after it has occurred, the realization that you can never take it back. I fear more for gamers' warped sense of mortality than their supposed "desensitization".
Let's get back to that list of obituaries. Of my own incalculable casualties list, I regret only a few: the family of Sims I allowed to burn to death because I was sick of telling them to go to the bathroom, all the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, and the stuttering vampire.
The stuttering vampire was a character in a sidequest in Troika's much-maligned Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. He had been sentenced to die, for reasons I cannot recall, and I was to be his executioner. He was a pathetic figure; a powerless, thinblooded pseudo-vampire, abandoned and confused, unsure of how to conduct himself in this dark new world in which he had been forced to live. I had met him at the beginning of the game, when I was essentially just as confused as he was, and to complete my mission I had to return to the beach he lived on in the game's starter hub. And though he had no idea he'd done anything wrong, and though he pleaded for his life, and though at the back of my mind I realized I could easily let him go and, since this was a game, suffer no consequences, I also felt that I had a job to do; a job given to me by dangerous employers. I felt, for a brief second, that it was either my life or his. These are the moments when true violence occurs.
I was surprised that, after it was done, after a single stroke had rendered him as ash, I stayed in this now meaningless side-level for a few minutes. I looked out at the simulated waters, and I reflected on this feeling I had: that I had just done something terrible and inhuman, and that there was no way to undo it.
This experience was fundamentally different, and inherently better, than a typical violent scene. It was poignant, it was moving, and it brought on a moment of genuine introspection. It was the complete opposite of desensitization. It'd be too much to ask for every moment of videogame violence to be like this; it'd simply be too exhausting. But videogames present a unique opportunity. In a culture whose media is already heavily infused with violence, they offer their audience a chance to experience violent moments that they alone are responsible for, moments that might make them feel something that cannot come from watching other people be violent: remorse and angst and self-doubt. These are such important emotions; they are so powerful, so fundamental to the human experience, and games could strike right at the heart of them--if they wanted to. But no game can evoke these emotions, so long as the violence in them stands for nothing more than a means of progression.
I would like to see more developers attempt to design games where violence exists, but it is not ingrained into the world--where it is not a mechanic, but a last resort. Someday, I want gamers to seek redemption for their violent acts; because in real life, redemption is the only good thing that can come out of violence. Games should start forcing us to look at our bloody histories with a little less triumph, and a little more remorse.