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.

Enter psychology

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 life."

Could youngsters get swept up in the play?

"Yeah," Vanas said. "That is my worst nightmare."

Copyright 1999 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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