A recent talk pointed towards the pervasiveness of violence, and predominantly gun violence, in video games as a medium. It drew attention to the prevailing notion that this is desensitizing gamers to violence.
Why is violence such a prevalent mechanism for carrying a narrative?
Many storytellers have the fabled Hero's Journey bored into their consciousness as the single best way to approach storytelling. And The Call To Adventure, the exposition of the story, needs to present some form of conflict or danger for the protagonist.
The fact that guns come so naturally to storytellers is simply because it is the most prevalent form of violence in the real world. Games (ostensibly board games) in the pre-gunpowder eras naturally featured conflicts based in swords and archery. The only difference is that video games have a much thinner layer of abstraction, and can depict such conflicts very (too?) realistically.
In essence, the fact that so many games have shooting violence is simply a reflection of the current state of the world. If by some miracle, shooting became obsolete tomorrow and was replaced by politics as the greatest cause of deaths, most games would probably employ governance in their mechanics of conflict.
Is shooting detrimental to the development of a child/human?
It is easy to argue that shooting games promote violent thoughts and behaviours. It is equally easy to show research that points out the inverse correlation between shooting games sold and crime rates. So, socially atleast, it is clear that violent/shooting games have positive, or atleast no impact on crime rates and criminal tendencies.
The more pressing concern is the desensitization of a person to violence after playing violent games. What effect this has on a person's empathy is not well researched. It is easy to claim that this reduces a person's ability to feel compassion for a victim of violence, but there is no research backing this.
Even in games that employ copious amounts of gun violence, is it really what players remember after they finish the game? Someone who played Mass Effect will not remember all those people he killed, but will remember the genocide that he averted. Even for Call of Duty, the primary attraction for gamers is not the bloodshed of the campaign more, but the playground that is the multiplayer modes. It is simply a way for them to play with their friends who may be in another continent, not relish in the sensation of killing someone.
There will always be outliers who savagely enjoy mashing skulls in Manhunt or running over people in Grand Theft Auto, but even then, it's a good thing those people have an outlet that is fictional.
Either way, I firmly believe most people's behaviours and outlook towards society/life will not become more violent because of playing a violent game.
So when is it ethically wrong to portray violence of any form in a game?
Violence itself, as a concept, is too prevalent in nature to truly shield anyone from it. The best we can do is not mask violence as something else. The talk gave an example where a child was given a Hello Kitty game, and the child was upset because the game depicted Hello Kitty in a violent manner. The issue here is not the violence, but the false portrayal of the brand. Was it truly the fault of video games as a medium? Or just a moronic brand management group, who failed to uphold the image of a brand? If the child was presented a video game that was clearly and obviously violent, would the child have been mad after playing it? More likely, she would probably be completely disinterested and would not even bother with it.
So what do I think?
Violence is simply a (lazy) tool to carry any narrative conflict. The claims that video games as a medium are responsible for anything are a farce. Is it possible to make good games that are not about violence? Of course. But can all narratives be created without violence? Nope. Even in games that have tons of violence, what players take away from the game generally has nothing to do with the violence executed during the play. In most games, violence is simply a construct to make the player exert effort for some outcome, so that the player feels some sense of achievement about it. That sense of achievement can be critical to how memorable a message is. After all, what leaves a better impression on a child about genocide? A small article in a textbook, or playing Mass Effect?