Published Saturday, January 2, 1999
Are we training our kids to kill?
H.J. Cummins / Star Tribune
It was his career turn from soldier to psychologist that helped David
Grossman assemble his answer to the mystery of murderous children. Like
most Americans, Grossman has been tracking the homicide headlines: In
Burlington, Wis., five students' plans for a killing spree are foiled; in
Springfield, Ore., the 26 victims of Kip Kinkel weren't so lucky, and in a
Jonesboro, Ark., schoolyard two boys started sniping during a fake fire
drill, killing five and wounding 10. Grossman lives in Jonesboro.
Suddenly it seemed so clear: This is happening because we are training our
children to kill, Grossman concluded. And the training device
extraordinaire is none other than video games, the kind found on home
computers and in mall arcades all across the country. Grossman's
background brings new meaning to the idea of "war games." His theory is
startling, and there are plenty who disagree. But Grossman believes that
every video game that rewards children for shooting characters on their
video screen -- shooting quicker than they can think -- is no different
than the kind of reflex training that armies across the world use to
improve their "kill" rates. "Military training is a powerful thing,"
Grossman said, "and that's exactly what kids are getting when they play
the point-and-shoot games."
'Killology' and Wars
Grossman retired from the U.S. Army last February as a lieutenant colonel.
He teaches psychology at Arkansas State University and directs his
Killology Research Group in Jonesboro. He describes "killology" as the
scholarly study of killing, including how people can be trained to kill,
or trained not to. It's a subject he has explored in magazine articles and
his book, "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War
and Society," published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1996. These are his
basic points: Throughout military history, the difficulty with soldiers
has not been teaching them how to use a weapon; it has been persuading
them to use it. That's because people, like most animals, resist killing
their own kind. Ancient battles were mostly "great shoving matches," he
said. The killing didn't start until one army tried to flee, because even
enemies couldn't bring themselves to attack while looking one another in
the eye. That's why most war wounds were stabs to the back. After the
Battle of Gettysburg, in the U.S. Civil War, 90 percent of the 27,000
muskets taken from the dead and dying were loaded -- most with multiple
charges. That's evidence that the soldiers would load their weapons, but
would not shoot. The U.S. Army did some organized research during World
War II and discovered a "kill" rate of only 15 percent among its battle
soldiers. That means that for every 100 soldiers who got a clear shot at
the enemy, only 15 actually fired. "From the military perspective, a 15
percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate
among librarians," Grossman said.
Modern militaries concluded they had to find some way to overcome this
human impulse against killing. They turned to something called "operant
conditioning," a process of
stimulus-response-stimulus-response-stimulus-response that, over hundreds
of repetitions, conditions a person to do just as the trainer wants --
without thinking, simply as a reflex. It's the same process that airlines
use to condition pilots whose planes are in trouble to calmly and
automatically move through a prearranged sequence of recovery attempts
even as their planes fall from the sky. In the military, the operant
conditioning took the form of ever-more sophisticated target practice:
first with bull's-eye targets, then human silhouettes, then pop-up human
forms, and finally with video simulations of combat. Grossman says that
all helped raise U.S. military kill rates to 55 percent by the Korean War,
and 90 percent by the war in Vietnam.
Killology and kids
What does this have to do with video games? Some of them are no
different than the military simulators, Grossman said. Quarter after
quarter, game after game, the play is the same stimulus-response process
that conditions soldiers to shoot people. In some ways, Grossman said,
video games are worse. "At least the military puts up some important
safeguards," he said. "The Army also teaches soldiers when not to shoot.
When you pick up a gun, you only fire when the guy in the tower tells you
to fire and only in the direction he tells you. Otherwise those drill
sergeants are all over you. "But with video games, you never put a quarter
in that machine and then not shoot." Bruce Siddle's PPCT Management
Systems near St. Louis trains soldiers and police officers in the use of
"deadly force." Siddle agrees with Grossman's analysis. "People can be
conditioned to shoot," Siddle said, "and the best way to do that, which
law enforcement learned 20 years ago, is to use video simulations [of
crimes]." That's why he's especially concerned about the violent video
games that have ever-more realistic characters and authentic video
"shooting" equipment -- some of them molded replicas of real guns, even
down to angle of grip. "I don't believe every child would be 'turned' by
video games," he said. "But when you have a certain set of variables -- a
weak [religious] faith, and a weak family and maybe some aggressive
tendencies -- the games are definitely not going to help."
A debatable theory
There's plenty of research on the effects of media violence generally,
but it comes down to a story of dueling data. One question is how often
youngsters play the most violent video games. A video industry group, the
Interactive Digital Software Association, says a big audience for videos
is not youngsters, it's adults: In three-fourths of the households it
surveyed, the person who spends the most time playing video games is older
than 18. But in a survey of 900 fourth-through eighth-grade students,
often cited in medical journals, almost half the youngsters said their
favorite games involve human violence or "fantasy" violence. Another
question is how much violence in any media can turn youngsters violent.
Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association
shows that children generally become more aggressive after
Viewing violent material.
But the software association's president, Doug Lowenstein, cautioned
against certain assumptions based on that. "There is a profound
difference between running around your house and pretending you're killing
aliens, and going into a schoolyard and killing students," Lowenstein
said. He also argued that there are other, clearer causes for violence in
youngsters. And, in fact, national studies have linked youth violence most
directly to access to guns, drug and alcohol use, and recent suicides
within the family. Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media
Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that
blaming video games is just the latest social cop-out. "The focus on
video-game violence seems to be the most recent strategy our culture has
adopted to shift focus away from the obvious root causes of violence,"
Jenkins said, "whether they are urban conditions, poverty, or simply the
ready availability of guns in our culture." At the National Crime
Prevention Council in Washington, executive deputy director James Copple
said that the current evidence is basically backwards. In other words,
research shows that youngsters who've committed violent acts have on
average watched more TV and played more video games, Copple said. But
there's no definitive research going forward in time -- that is,
demonstrating that exposure to violence turns average youngsters violent.
The correlation is significant and warrants more research, he said, "but
from a scientific perspective, you're hard pressed at this point to make
claims of a direct connection."
At the arcade
Son Truong was playing "Area 51" with his friend, Dao Chang, at the Mall
of America arcade one recent afternoon. The game involves shooting down
aliens that are invading Earth. "It's just fun," said Chang, who's 15.
"It's probably just our way of killing time," said Truong, who's 16.
Asked about Grossman's theory of violent conditioning, both young men
disagreed, arguing that they know fact from fantasy. "For little kids
who don't know truth from reality, that could be trouble," Truong said.
"But we're old enough to know the difference." That same afternoon,
however, Air Force Capt. D.J. Vanas stopped in the arcade to play "Time
Crisis II," a game where the hero races to save the Earth from the
villainous launching of a nuclear weapon. As admissions adviser at the
Air Force Academy in Colorado, Vanas talks to lots of young people. And
Vanas, 27, feels the appeal of video games, too. "It's a challenge, it
moves fast, it's a lot of fun," he said. But Vanas also spends time
giving motivational speeches to young students. And these days he makes a
point to include warnings about video games. "It's OK to do this stuff,"
he tells the youngsters, "but know that it's a video game and not real
Could youngsters get swept up in the play?
"Yeah," Vanas said. "That is my worst nightmare."
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