Desensitization: From DOOM to Slenderman

Last week, the national headlines in the US centered around the unthinkable. A pair of twelve year old girls attempted the brutal slaying of a friend and classmate in order to impress a fictional internet character. Not being a fan of that genre of entertainment, I have to admit that the “Slenderman” character, along with such horror sites as Creepypasta Wiki were all completely new to me. But as a parent, its influence on this pair of children (who will be tried as adults, it seems) is frightening. I can’t imagine sending my daughter to something as innocuous as a sleep-over party and the next day visiting her in the hospital, not because of any type of accident, but due to a pre-meditated senseless attack by those who she considered friends. The mere possibility chills me.

Creepy Pasta
This pasta is as creepy as I get

Some of the media reports mentioned the ability of children to discern between reality and fantasy. Studies indicate that children as young as 2 1/2 years old understand that there is a difference, but it can take many more years to properly categorize things that they observe. I cannot remember ever having problems discerning between reality and fantasy, but that doesn’t make the consumption of disturbing images any easier. I once merely (accidentally, thank you click-bait) read a synopsis of the film “The Human Centipede” and it was enough to thoroughly disturb my train of thought for the better part of two days. I’m not bothered as much by the fictional concept of such horrors as the realization that somebody, perhaps even a room full of people, sat around for weeks attempting to develop such a demented tale, and did it to entertain people. These horrors are an invention of the human brain, and it bothers me that the human brain is capable of such things.

Having said all of that, I can appreciate that people have different tolerance levels for gore, shock, and even concepts that I would consider deranged. The question that I ask, and one that has been hinted at for as long as I can remember, is whether those levels of tolerance are being collectively raised by continued exposure to gore, shock, etc. as a form of entertainment. Desensitization. As we grow more intertwined with technology (the primary medium for this type of entertainment delivery), does fantasy begin to feel more and more like reality? What role does gaming play in this gradual societal shift? As a (much) younger man, I can remember being a bit shocked and disgusted by the pixlated gore of the original DOOM games, but I played them, anyway. Also, I never felt that they affected my ability to recognize fantasy. Still, come to think of it, the more realistic blood splatter in the Call of Duty games no longer phases me like it probably should.

Doom

When I was young, I would tend to scoff at attempts to blame “the media” for desensitization of the youth. Back then it was typically the evening news or rock n roll bands that received much of the negative attention. I laughed it off as “old people” trying to pin down something they didn’t understand. Anybody else have a great-grandparent who wouldn’t walk in front of the television half-dressed for fear that the people on the other side (or worse, the little people in the box!) might see them? But as I have aged, and have learned to care for others more than myself (the biggest benefit of having children), I do worry that the frog is slowly being boiled. To paraphrase the best line from Jurassic Park: in western society we are typically so focused on what we can do, that we don’t collectively stop to consider whether it is something that we should do. If there is a demand, and people will pay money for it, you can bet that a supply will eventually pop up. The more often that supply shows up, the more widely accepted it becomes. The more widely accepted it becomes, the less shock value it holds. The temptation to “one-up” previous offerings grows. The cycle repeats.

Does this ‘blurring of the lines’ along with the pressure to entertain people with increasingly escalating shock, gore, and twistedness indeed interfere with a the ability of a developing child to correctly categorize elements in the world around them into either reality or fantasy? Many will point to parenting as the guiding force that can help in this regard. I do agree that it plays a part, but the realities of the times make it very difficult for a parent (or even a complete set) to single-handedly guide a child through the flood of data that they are expected to process on a daily basis. I can speak to this first-hand. I work in the IT industry, am familiar with security techniques, and have taken many, many precautions to protect my children in this regard, but there is no such thing as 100%. The reality of it is that not only are there holes and cracks in every security deployment, but also my children (gasp) occasionally leave the confines of my house. In the latter case, every single safeguard I’ve dreamt up can be thrown out the window. So, as much as I’d like to believe I can shelter my kids from all of the creepypasta’s and slendermen out there (not to mention the real people who are actual threats), the responsibility cannot lie squarely with the parents.

I don’t have an answer. Morality is a tricky thing, and I realize that many people don’t agree with mine. I guess I just wish that we could raise our kids in a safe environment where they could choose their desired form of entertainment once they’ve matured to a level that such a choice is truly theirs and not forced upon them by the flood of words and images that they are bombarded with every time they open a web browser.

#violence #desensitization #kids

Pasta image by Ferran Jordà on Flickr Creative Commons

Doom image by SARS Ninja on Flickr Creative Commons

Featured image by Maja_Larsson on Flickr Creative Commons

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33 thoughts on “Desensitization: From DOOM to Slenderman

  1. Doone June 9, 2014 / 1:42 pm

    I think every parent reads these reports with special, particular alarm. It’s really easy for the general public to write these occasions off as rare, but in the world of parenting they are far, far too common. Just think about the number of school shootings and general crime committed by the kids in our schools (from inappropriate pranks, to hazing, to coordinated planning of gang rape).

    I know gamers are just waiting to pounce on anyone who even remotely implies that game violence affects us. Yet all media we consume leaves an impact. All of it. Games are no different and their interactive nature make them very unique in that regard. I don’t think it’s a case so much of children not being able to tell fantasy from reality, as it is that reality mimics fantasy to such a degree that the lines between them are blurred in society.

    I watch my kids growing everyday and it’s fascinating to watch how their thoughts progress. I can see the moments when they realize something and I can see their confusion when they get conflicting information. The world raises our children as much as we do.

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    • Braxwolf June 9, 2014 / 3:51 pm

      I was actually expecting more people to react negatively to my insinuation that games may indeed play a part, or that desensitization even exists. Apparently, though, in looking at my hits so far, most people who disagree have simply decided not to click on the link 🙂

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  2. Izlain June 9, 2014 / 2:39 pm

    Ironically this was a topic we covered in our Podcast practice. It wasn’t so much on the desensitization of our culture, but more on the shitty parenting of those girls. Them having access to the Internet and reading about Slenderman isn’t to blame. Parents that aren’t involved in their children’s lives (knowing their interests, their movements) are to blame. It’s sad but I’m glad that the victim survived and those girls will be facing justice.

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    • Braxwolf June 9, 2014 / 3:04 pm

      Is this the case, or are we simply assuming it is the case? As a parent, I’m slow to make that assumption. I don’t want people making assumptions about me based on some of the stupid stuff my 13 yo son does, and I certainly don’t want them assuming that I agree with all of his behavior, or assuming that he would only behave in ways that I approve of. On the contrary, at times I feel very sorry for parents who are crucified by the media/Internet, etc. By those who know them ONLY by a horrendous or unthinkable act that had been performed by their child. Some of them are simply trying to make sense of it along with everybody else.

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      • Izlain June 9, 2014 / 3:59 pm

        Well ultimately the parents won’t take the blame. The kids will and that will be that. They’ll probably be tried as adults since they premeditated everything, and the public will forget all about this.

        I don’t have any children. I don’t know that I ever will. I don’t want to be held accountable for something my child might do in the future 🙂

        Obviously parents wouldn’t approve of this behavior. My point was that if they took a more active role in their children’s lives, they might have seen some sign of this coming. My parents didn’t know everything I did, but the worst of it was smoking weed. That pales in comparison to attempted murder.

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      • Doone June 9, 2014 / 5:09 pm

        I agree with Brax on this: you’re assuming they DONT take an active role in those girls lives. You were a child once. Ever do something your parents wouldn’t approve of?

        It’s really easy to throw blame, but its even easier to think about the ways in which it’s absurd to assume these things about the parents. We were all children once. I surely did things adults would never have let me get away with. Just the same, I know children in my neighborhood whose parents are extremely active, but those kids are still troubled despite all their efforts.

        The world raises our kids as much as we do.

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    • Braxwolf June 9, 2014 / 3:06 pm

      BTW if you have a 13 yo son, you know what I’m talking about. 🙂

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      • Izlain June 10, 2014 / 6:16 pm

        As much as you want to say you can’t blame parenting or I’m ASSUMING they’re shitty parents, you also can’t blame the Internet or the creator of violent games or the creator of Slenderman.

        Who is to blame then?

        Also, we might have done things that our parents disapproved of, but did that include attempted murder? Obviously not.

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      • Braxwolf June 10, 2014 / 7:43 pm

        This has been an incredible discussion. 🙂 I can’t believe the number of comments!

        Couple of things. I used the current news story as a catalyst to talk about desensitization and the possible role gaming plays in it. That is because it was the catalyst to me coming up with the idea for post in the first place, and it set the stage nicely. I wasn’t actually attempting to assign blame for that specific case. It’s entirely possible that the kids have terrible parents. All I said was I’m cautious to jump to that conclusion in any case where I know as little about the individuals as I do in this one.

        Mostly I was just wondering aloud what affects the uncontrolled bombardment of entertainment of escalating edginess and realism has on the developing personality. And, I suppose, somewhat lamenting the fact that on certain days it seems that the world has more opportunity to affect my children’s ideals and values than I do.

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  3. Joseph Skyrim June 9, 2014 / 5:58 pm

    Some people are just born crazy, and become crazier in numbers (Feel free to swap crazy with stupid at any point).

    By the way here’s a free Slenderman game. I personally haven’t managed to finish it because I lose my nerve (and quit) at around page 4 or 5. Strange because there’s not a single piece of gore in the game. >.<

    http://slendergame.com/

    Like

    • Braxwolf June 9, 2014 / 8:58 pm

      Interesting take on the genetics/environment debate

      Like

      • Joseph Skyrim June 9, 2014 / 10:16 pm

        Heh, well you can’t really teach a whale to fly. Some of them certainly give it a try though. Environment does play a part too. Countries that have laws against firearms often have a reduced rate of shootings compared to those that don’t. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but the opportunity to be a douchebag is much less.

        How did those girls leave the house with knives/a knife? Why do they think they serve the slender man (did he get too tired to kill his own victims)?

        If the parents aren’t to blame then the girls were just born broken in the head. I could be wrong though. Maybe they weren’t born crazy and their parents were lacking severely in the parenting department, failing to instil moral values their offspring. Either way you cut it, some part of the family is to blame.

        To say that “society” failed them might be true to some extent but if society has a stronger voice over the kids than their own parents then obviously parenting = fail.

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  4. tsuhelm June 10, 2014 / 6:21 am

    Hi Brax, sorry long reply :(, Hugely complicated issue…

    ‘2 troubled young girls attempt to kill another young girl and they say it was to impress slenderman’

    We blame computer games…we blame society …we blame the parents…

    Who are ‘we’ to be blaming anyone?

    We do not know any details other than what was reported in the original article which is to say absolutely nothing. Of course it is a scary ‘story’ and troubling…

    Only the professionals that are looking after these 2 girls are capable of working out what happened. (And the authorities’ investigation into the crime.)

    Shocking and horrifying to me is the reaction of horror directed toward these girls who are after all minors…not adults, not able to comprehend the world around them being tried as adults. Interestingly the world’s courts has very differing views on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_of_infancy)

    I am a father of 2 and know my boys can be a horrible handful, they are both under 4 and dread what mischief they will entertain in the future, dread what they will be exposed to in this world full of horror, that is online and in reality. I hope to minimize this of course but also to help them comprehend that this world is horrible in so many ways and I hope they grow up understanding that!

    Your question I think was are ‘we’, this 20th century society, being desensitized due to exposure to games, and presumable internet horrors such as the horror writing pages… game or literature?

    I would answer surely the things that we are exposed to now would have horrified us 20 years ago and terrified us 50 years ago…I remember hiding behind the sofa watching Dr. Who in the late 70’s, watching with my parents!

    But do we admit and understand that our society is much more open and our culture, unfortunately, is now saturated with violence in all shapes and forms…exposure to pandora’s many boxes inevitably more easy and therefore caring and guiding our children ever more important.

    Maybe without the ‘desensitization’ we would all struggle to cope…

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    • Braxwolf June 10, 2014 / 6:52 am

      Great thoughts, Tsu. And you got to the heart of it. I was less interested in placing blame for a specific case and more interested in exploring desensitization at large. It is really not something that is talked about much any more but in my almost 4 decades on this earth I’ve become fairly convinced of a couple of things:

      1. It does, indeed exist
      2. It has some kind of an affect on us

      Perhaps we don’t like to discuss it because that might imply that we all are in some small way contributing to the actions we read about in the news – the ones that are incomprehensible to us that we would rather just click away from. Or maybe we’re just too busy being entertained by everything to bother with it. Don’t know.

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      • tsuhelm June 10, 2014 / 7:23 am

        In a world of over stimulation do we crave ever more excitement? Does that also contribute to a sense of desensitization to less intense stimuli?

        Does a horror movie have to keep upping the horror to horrify? I certainly cannot stomach the horror movies of today and yet laugh at so called splatter movies of the past.

        The true horror is in the mind, the mind’s eye see’s the unseen and those images take a long time to fade.

        What will horrify the generations of the future? Being forced to read a book? A scary book?

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    • Vlad Matejka (@thematejka) July 1, 2014 / 7:35 pm

      Great thoughts… I find your notion of struggling to cope without desensitization interesting. It seems to me that it is a violent solution to a violent problem, though. What I mean to say is that this is how people who are trained to do violence (soldiers, etc.) get by in the face of violence (or they justify it into a good). In my view, desensitization strikes a moral numbness and lets one ignore what they are experiencing or doing. This is not good in the long-run, but I will grant that it helps in the short run. So in a sense your notion is absolutely right.

      As a counselor-in-training, I know that there is much more to coping than desensitization. Healing is coping, which is a step ahead of desensitization and leads to a state not coping, but thriving.

      We are desensitized in many ways and to many things. Media is the half of it. There are abused people, people who have been in accidents, and victims of real war that choose numbness over healing. In the end, the numbness still eat them. I know this from people I’ve worked with.

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  5. eldaeriel June 10, 2014 / 9:11 am

    thought provoking article, thank you Braxwolf.

    there is some growing evidence that desensitisation (via violent media) does have a negative effect. It seems that there is some effect in the short term, and can be continued as a learned behaviour into adulthood. I can only link to the study’s abstract but it’s interesting nonetheless (http://psi.sagepub.com/content/4/3/81.abstract) currently there isn’t the data to properly study long term effects.

    Fortunately though, the effect of violence upon children doesn’t happen in a vacuum – examples set by adults and their peers have far more influence long term over their behaviour. Most children (and I do mean the vast majority) just simply wouldn’t dream of acting of like this.

    There do seem to be cases like this (violence by children upon children) which happen rarely but periodically (a particularly harrowing case here in the UK about 20 years ago, there was a case in Sweden (I think) roughly 20 years before that). I’m not sure anyone has ever found a cause or a reason for their actions.

    hmm sorry rambled on a bit here and not sure I’ve contributed anything

    ps did you have to mention the human centipede *shudder*

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  6. Branhild June 10, 2014 / 10:50 am

    Thx. I’m not as eloquent as you. I have two kids just starting their online presence. We have tried to have them realize that people online are real people and there should be mutual respect. If not, block or be blocked.
    I certainly feel that any content can have an affect, online or in person. As a parent my wife and I, from early on tried to instill in them basic respect with a healthy dose of skepticism. I hope when the hormones kick in, they will still carry that with them, in game or out of game. At least for now I can somewhat monitor them and help them understand things as they come up.
    On a side note, I know and have known some kids that do not learn the same way as others, some just need to “burn themselves”, some where even that did not stop them.

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  7. TirrimasInTheNexus (@Tirrimas) June 10, 2014 / 10:54 am

    I’m a parent, too, of two HS graduates (eek!) and a 12-year old son. There’s NO WAY i can completely, 100% be on top of every single thing my kids do. I don’t always catch stuff my son sneaks out of the house on occasion (usually the hubby’s tools, but once a drywall saw – he was cutting branches with it).

    Our information age is such a new and unprecedented occurrence that NONE of us know how to cope with it. None of our ancestors have every seen anything like it: information available for immediate consumption 24/7, and in blazing, living colorful detail! Our brains haven’t physically evolved enough to handle this kind of onslaught.

    Are we more desensitized than our ancestors? I would have to say no. Bear with me. Most people before the industrial age lived on or near farms. They knew gore, they knew death and birth and the cycle of life in ways we don’t anymore. In the not too distant past, boys and men were raised to go to war, trained to kill with methods we consider primitive nowadays (yeah, shooting with a high-powered rifle is so much more civilized). I suppose the only difference now is that we can see, first-hand, what killing a PERSON looks like.

    Who’s to blame? Ultimately, the girls made the decision to attack their “friend”. Without more information, it’s impossible to say what the parents’ culpability should be. Certainly, society and our consumer culture certainly bears some blame, but who can we send to jail? Within the limits of our justice system, i think the case is moving in the right direction. I’m just glad as hell I’m not on that jury.

    All we can do as parents is try to provide guidance for our kids. Eventually, we have to trust that guidance has stuck.

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    • Braxwolf June 10, 2014 / 11:01 am

      Thanks for your comment! I do think there is a difference between the violence and gore required for survival and that which has been invented for the sole purpose of entertainment.

      Like

    • Doone June 12, 2014 / 12:10 pm

      This is true and a really interest response because you’re asking us to question our sensitivity to violence.

      I’d argue violence of the 19th century is different than that of the current. I’d also argue that killing at a distance is far more enabling than killing up close. For example, it takes a different kind of courage to knife a man to death than to snipe him at 1000 meters. I’d argue the latter easier to do. And consumption of this kind of violence, therefore, has a more dangerous affect on the psyche. I’m purely speculating here, but I guess my point is that I think the exposure to violence and the violence we permit today is different. I don’t know. Violence today seems more encoded/embedded into our lives in a way that it definitely wasn’t for my grandparents. I don’t know which is actually worse and it’s probably not an important question anyway. Just interesting to think about.

      Like

  8. Pasduil June 10, 2014 / 11:00 am

    It’s hard to draw general conclusions from isolated cases.

    I had a quick look around for data on the trends for violence by children over time, and the most useful result I found was this:

    Youth Perpetrators of Serious Violent Crimes

    It looks like the general level of violence by young people has been on a steady downward trend since 1980, though with a spike in the mid 90s.

    Data has to always be treated with caution, but on the face of it, whatever factors (games included) there are that might be tending towards increasing violence are being outweighed by whatever factors exist that are tending towards reducing violence.

    It doesn’t like we’re all doomed because of DOOM at least.

    Like

    • Braxwolf June 10, 2014 / 12:19 pm

      How dare you come at me with data! Actually, I’ll just use this link to take credit for just how great we’re all doing as parents. Bravo, helicopter parent generation! Well done, in spite of all odds 😉

      Like

      • Pasduil June 10, 2014 / 12:41 pm

        Ever since you become a parent, violence by young people has been steadily declining!

        You’ve obviously been a tremendously good influence on the entire nation! 🙂

        Well done, Sir! 😀

        Like

      • Pasduil June 10, 2014 / 12:43 pm

        Also, sorry for being a spoilsport. 😦

        I was exposed to too much math at an impressionable age. 🙂

        Like

      • Braxwolf June 10, 2014 / 12:51 pm

        Well, as you rightly implied, data is just data, and absent of any real context is pretty tough to make any causal assumptions. I’m not convinced that desensitization isn’t having some sort of affect on developing minds and personalities, but I have nothing to back that up other than a hunch and my own sense of morality, which not everybody (fewer all the time, it seems) subscribes to.

        Like

      • Pasduil June 10, 2014 / 1:41 pm

        Being serious for a moment, of course that data doesn’t say anything about desensitization as such.

        I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some desensitization happening to be honest. The more you see of a thing, the less striking that thing is to you, whether it’s graphic violence or moon landings. But it’s not so obvious that the effect of being desensitized to violence in games and media would be to cause you to commit more of it in real life. Maybe the effect would be to just make you bored with portrayals of it.

        Or maybe while it has no effect on most, there is a minority that are susceptible to being influenced.

        Violence in games could still be a bad influence, but just not enough of a bad influence on a large enough number of people that it’s going to have a big impact on society overall, compared to everything else that’s going on.

        It’s perfectly legitimate to have some worries about it, I’d say.

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  9. Roger Edwards (@ModeratePeril) June 11, 2014 / 4:19 am

    As a parent (with a son who is now an adult) I recollect trying to maintain a “safe” home environment with regard to what my child was exposed to.

    I also remember the sense of frustration when I realised that the moment he went to school and met other children, that there was a wealth of input I had no say over.

    As a parent the most important thing you can do for a child is to try and teach them a sense of empathy. An absence of such an outlook is detrimental for the children in question and society as a whole.

    Like

  10. Arcadius June 11, 2014 / 3:14 pm

    The desensitization that I am most worried about is the one that teaches children to treat others as if they were NPCs. To reduce it to essentials, I’m less worried about graphic violence than about the more pernicious violence of psychological abuse.

    Sure, I’m talking about all the time-worn issues, such as discrimination against women and minorities, griefing, trolling, stat-shaming, etc. The list sounds so commonplace that it really doesn’t have any impact at all.

    But I think the coarsening of the internet culture leads to a coarsening of the children growing up in this culture; not an increase in extreme violent behavior, but a general lowering of our basic understanding of common decency. I have two children, 14 and 15, who I feel are at risk in this environment.

    In addition, I do think that desensitizing children to the basic worth of an individual can lead them to some very dark places. After all, if they’re not really people, what does it matter how I treat them.

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  11. Ali June 12, 2014 / 5:00 am

    Good article with many good points..In the world we live in, I believe it is very difficult to control all the stuff that kids are exposed to..
    Internet, more specifically the dark side of internet, having everything, literally everything, good and bad, at the click of a button, its dangerous, its knowledge, no doubt, knowledge of good and bad though, and as they say knowledge is power, with power comes responsibility, but how can you teach a 7 year old, a 10 year old, responsibility?
    The morality question is tricky no doubt, morality changes from person to person, from society to society, from country to country..but here is the thing..internet connected the whole world, and with that connection, the lines of morality became blurred..
    Now a kid, with parents who provide with strict set of rules, principles, morality, faith, and a kid whose parents have different set of rules, principles, morlity or lack of, both are being exposed to same thing..clearly one kid is more capable of handling that knowledge, that power, while the other isnt..
    Dont know if I was able to make my point clear with my babling..but in simple words, parenting has become just so darn difficult and people should just make sure they are ready to have that responsiblity before bringing children into the world

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  12. Vlad Matejka (@thematejka) July 1, 2014 / 7:58 pm

    Hey Braxwolf, great post. I think about this lots, especially since I have a relatively newborn son now.

    It bothers me that violent entertainment can have such an effect on people. It’s not just kids, but some adults get too enmeshed with that medium and do horrific things. My question always is, what variables set up a person to be affected in x or y way by a violent medium? This question comes before moral evaluations and can be very complex. I hate when news media reduces these issues to single domino effect causes. The moral evaluations are tough, of course, and call into question our personal morals, where we go back on them, and subsequently what we really think.

    For myself, I dislike most heavy violence – especially when it is for mere entertainment. I don’t particularly like war movies, but know that wars fought in the past cannot be washed clean and primped up to look better in the future. It is just not truth. Violence is an ugly thing, yet I love some of it. I am enamored with explosions, loud noises, speedy things, and many of the other things associated with violence at many degrees. I wonder if what we are really trying to do when we subject ourselves to violence in some particular games, movies, and stories is explore our humanity and what it means to be human. For instance, I know that very young kids on a playground sometimes bully each other not to cause harm, but because they do not yet know the difference. They must see pain or feel it in order to discern whether it is good or not.

    I won’t get into moral evaluations much, but a continuous question for me is why do I reject games like C.O.D. and Slenderman, but not LOTRO? All of them are violent. Does the degree matter? What about purpose?

    Like

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