Media Violence

Video games and desensitization to violence. Are they correlated?

Essay by NIKOLAOS A. IOANNIDIS  Copyright 2000



 N. Ioannidis  is a composer, lyricist, guitar soloist and multi-instrumentalist performer (BA Music & Media Studies, MA Digital Media Studies, currently doctoral candidate in Musicology at the University of Sussex)






For a list of other online essays on Music and Media by IOANNIDIS you can visit his ESSAYS page.


A list of all IOANNIDIS' works (musical works, lyrics, essays, translations of classical texts) is available at his WORKS page.


MP3 files of his musical works  (samples and some full songs) are available for downloading at the Ioannidis Mp3 page


Works  of interest to classicists and composers


The Music of Ancient Greeks    an approach to the original singing of the Homeric epics and the lyrical poetry of the 8th-5th century B.C.


MUSIC and RELIGION (extant ancient Greek religious songs, Byzantine chant, Gregorian chant, Quranic chant)


Oedipus Rex English opera. Audio excerpt of this work is available online in mp3 format. Also available is the complete Greek text of Sophocles' tragedy "Oedipus the king".


Also, a new page presenting IOANNIDIS' research project at the University of Sussex will be available here soon. The subject of this research project is the relation of ancient Greek music with all musical cultures that have been subject to classical Greek cultural influence.


Works  of interest to poets and lyricists 


Ancient Greek epic and lyrical poems translated into English by Ioannidis  (The original Greek texts are also available at the same page) 


LYRICS   (to songs from the albums Mass insanity , BE A MASTER OF YOUR FATE! ,  AREN'T YOU FED UP? ) dealing with the dominant political, social, and ethical issues of our time: the erosion of the nation state, globalization, terrorism, the moral and cultural decadence of modern society.


Works  of interest to music performers


Instrumental performance:12-string Guitar Works (12 string classical guitar), Mass insanity (electric guitar, fretless guitar), The Music of Ancient Greeks   (ancient Greek instruments -ancient kithara, aulos, ethnic percussion).

Vocal performance: MUSIC and RELIGION (including some tracks with performance of ancient Greek instruments)


 At the IOANNIDIS shopping page  you can buy or download the composer's CDs,  and even create a custom collection of songs to be burned on a CD, using the simple, fast and secure Homo Ecumenicus online  payment service or other payment methods (PayPal, Cheque, Money Order, Bank transfer). Sound clips of all songs are available at the IOANNIDIS mp3 downloading page, where you can listen to samples and download songs at the price of  $ 1.00 per song.




          Before trying to determine whether desensitization to violence and video games are correlated in any way, we should mention first what is usually meant by ‘desensitization to violence’. Young people becoming desensitized to violence means that "they gradually come to not be aroused by violent scenes and to not be bothered by violence in general". The dominant argument in this respect is that because children perceive screen violence as play or spectacle, they somehow become "immune to the horror of violence, which makes them as a result less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, or even aggressive towards others".

        It seems that there is no controversy concerning the effects of violence viewing on young people. Most scientists agree that there are negative effects from exposure to media violence and one such effect is desensitizing to violence. However nobody ever distinguishes between actual violence and fictional or simulated one, as is the case with video games. Do those scientists really believe that the teenager, who laughs while seeing a game character being relentlessly beaten, is equally insensitive when he sees his mother, for example, being beaten by his father? Is there some kind of selective insensitivity then?

        There is also a tendency for oversimplification of a very complex issue: the building of personality. In my view, sensitivity is an integral part of an individual’s character and not something that can be added to their character by means of an external influence. It cannot be removed either. Being or not being sensitive depends on the same numerous factors that condition the building of personality. It takes therefore more than exposing oneself to violent material in order to become insensitive to anything or even aggressive and violent. After all, the kind of violence we are talking about, fictional or simulated, is everywhere and has always been. Literature, poetry, films, tv movies, games, every form of art, all are full of violent content. From Homer who was a master in depicting violent scenes to Shakespeare and to contemporary film makers we have been exposed to such a vast amount of violence viewing that we should all be completely desensitized to it by now. Are we?

        As for aggressiveness and violent behavior related to media violence, there couldn’t be a funnier argument, in my opinion. Aggressiveness is not a learned thing. It is an instinctive response to  dangers (real or feared) that threaten an individual’s life and happiness. People never become aggressive because they saw similar behavior on screen. They are aggressive if and when they have a reason to be. If, for instance, they feel threatened, or are actually attacked or insulted, and if they have enemies or rivals or competitors whom they hate and want to harm or to defeat. Also if they are cheated or betrayed. If aggression is not normal reaction in all these cases, then what is. Of course, aggressiveness is not expressed in the same way by all individuals. The way it is expressed depends mainly on the individual’s cultural level. The more lower their culture, the more likely to express aggressiveness by exercising physical force. In this case media may be useful to them in providing new fighting tricks and techniques. However these people would look for this kind of information anyway, even if it wasn’t offered by the media so abundantly. Still, imitating violent actions is not the cause of their aggressiveness. People of a higher culture, on the other hand, are more likely to cope with conflict situations using reason. They have less reasons to be aggressive, but when they are, they express their aggressiveness by means of verbal violence which, of course, is never to be found in video games. A civilized person would never resolve conflict using his fists even if he had previously killed some thousand little men in Streetfighter or Mortal Combat or whatever fighting game. To those who might argue that these views do not apply to children or teenagers because children develop value systems from what they see, I would say that being primitive or civilized has nothing to do with age. After all, in some parts of the world (where children do not have computers and do not play video games), engaging in real fighting, throwing stones at each other, and getting  injured on a daily basis is children’s play.  There, the sight of real blood, which would make even the most game-holic American faint, is not a shocking experience at all.

       I have explained so far why, in my opinion, media cannot desensitize young people to violence or teach them violent behavior. Now I will refer specifically to video games and I will explain why I think that they not only are harmless, but also that they may have some positive effects on young people.

     Video games  are considered a part of low culture but, as I see it, they are here to serve a need; the need for a substitute for the lost physical activity in modern society. Video games are actually simulated physical activity, where the player is not doing the muscles part of action but only the brain part of it. Every kind of action can be found there but, our discussion being about violence, I will refer to fighting games in particular. Titles like: Streetfighter, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Grand Theft Auto, Doom, Blade of Darkness, Alien vs Predator are indicative of their content. In all these games the player is required to fight, outsmart, and defeat an enemy. The enemy is usually human (soldiers, spies, gangsters, knights, evil people) but there are also aliens, ghosts, creatures and other things. Every possible form of fighting is used; martial arts, gun fighting, air fighting, submarine fighting, spacecraft fighting, anything we can imagine. Yet all this mayhem has nothing to do with violence. Violence means harm, pain, suffering. There are no such elements in video games. The pain is never shown and the victim can be completely run over and then pop back up without harm. The characters do not look realistic either by technical or by artistic standards. They are not given a substantial personality and they lack real life motivations and emotions. They remind more of toys than of living creatures. The player cannot get emotionally involved (nobody cries when playing Max Payne, although the game’s story is supposed to be very tragic). The whole thing is a juggling experience rather than one of watching a movie. After all, the game is there to be played, not to be watched, and fighting is just an excuse for practicing quick response, accuracy, strategy, and other skills. But if it was to be watched, one would see in it images, colors, motion, speed, sounds, special effects and music; definitely not violence and pain. In the few instances were gore is shown, an imitation of the unrealistic choreography like violent scenes of action films is obvious (in real life, people do not explode screaming when shot). In any case, the result of all this “violent” experience is a happy player who has had  a very good time testing his reflexes and practicing various skills, while at the same time, nobody got hurt, nobody got sad, nobody lost anything.

     By this, I don’t mean that simulated violence is a good or even acceptable subject for games or films, but this is a completely different matter having to do with the poverty of original ideas and the inadequacy of dominant value systems, characteristic of our society, not with the mechanisms behind insensitive or violent behavior. 



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