It’s Not A “Game”
Only 15 to 20 percent of soldiers in World War II fired at the enemy. That is to say one in five actually shot at a Nazi when he saw one, and in most combat situations troops were reluctant to kill each other.
Man, to his credit, mostly defaults to an unwillingness to kill his fellow man.
“If you truly dwell on the magnitude of what you are doing when you kill another human being; if you truly dwell on the reality of another living, vital person, who is loved, and thinks and feels; that’s a very difficult thing to do,” explains Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.), a former U.S. Army Ranger and West Point professor.
If you’re the military, of course, this presents a “problem” to be overcome. The Pentagon’s brass realized that training a recruit to fire at a bullseye on a paper target does not translate into a willingness to fire upon another human.
Soldiers were subsequently, and successfully, desensitized and trained to fire at targets that more closely resemble the human form.
“You’ve got to separate yourself from the humanity of the person you are killing and turn them into just a target,” Grossman continues. “The best mechanism we ever found for doing that was this killing simulator in which, instead of using bullseye targets as we did in World War II, we transitioned to a man-made silhouette and we made killing a conditioned reflex.”
It defies credulity to claim that an adult soldier can be desensitized toward killing another human being via the relatively primitive, static means above, but that a far more sophisticated, dynamic and vivid first-person shooter game wouldn’t accomplish the same thing on a child in his formative years.
Grossman: “When children who’ve never played a violent video game before confront killing somebody in one, they’re thinking about it. It’s a conscious, thinking effort. But with children who’ve played the games a lot and are very good at them, there is no conscious thought.”
Above 175 heartbeats per minute the forebrain shuts down and the midbrain engages. The former performs the brain’s intellectual functions, and the latter is indistinguishable from that of an animal, operating on instant and stimulus-response. Researchers have performed sophisticated brain scans on children participating in different activities—reading a book, hearing a story, watching a violent movie and playing a violent video game.
“The development of the brain when you play the violent video games and the impact on the wiring of the brain when you play the violent video games is stunning,” Grossman explains. “It’s totally different from any other medium. Instead of being the passive receiver of human death and suffering, now you actively inflict it upon another human being.”
Throughout the history of childhood, kids have swatted each other with wooden swords. In today’s hyper-realistic video games they blow their playmate’s head off with bloody explosions countless thousands of times. Instead of getting into trouble, they get points.
One need not be Tipper Gore or Bill Bennett to have a problem with this. Let’s hope we can have an intelligent discussion about it without defaulting to a cartoon of it. There is a rather wide spectrum between doing nothing and being a prudish schoolmarm imposing censorship across the land.
“The variables are many. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This will be decided at the margins,” historian John Meecham succinctly characterized the drivers of mass shootings.
As is true of the regulation of guns, if the bar for doing something is “will just doing this magically solve the problem,” then we will never do anything—not on high capacity assault weapons, not on mental health issues, and not on the indoctrination of simulated murder experienced by developing brains for hours each day.
Let’s be perfectly clear about what the question here is. It is not whether there have been mass murderers who weren’t violent video game enthusiasts—there have been. It is not whether there are many people who play these games and never harm anyone—there are.
But as one factor in the mayhem, we must ask what effect a violent video game culture has on young people’s brains in general, and on the clinically depressed and the already distressed in particular. It is not unreasonable to ask whether the regular immersion in simulated murder can be the difference between a mopey afternoon listening to Joy Division and Newtown, CT. The perps in such cases are not a terribly diverse group. Were you really surprised that the shooter was yet another young white male who spent his days engaged in simulated murder?
If we want to get to the right answers, we must first ask the right questions. Framing the inquiry in absurd ways in order to guarantee the answer is “no” (ie, “what—should be ban steak knives too?”) ensures that we never get to “yes.”
It’s also easy to demand “the other side” do all the heavy lifting. We nod approvingly when rural, pro-gun legislators like Senators Manchin and Warner show the moral courage to raise the NRA’s ire.
But what will demonstrate how serious we are is how willing we are to do things that are difficult for ourselves and our own culture. If one hails from a large, very liberal urban area near Silicon Valley, where your friends work for video game programmers, developers and publishers, and where the prevailing vibe is very permissive and libertarian on social issues, speaking out against the simulation of murder is a bit more uncomfortable than just blaming everything on the NRA.
It’s time to stop thinking of something like Call of Duty as a “game.” The reason the military uses flight simulators isn’t to entertain pilots with “games.” It’s to teach them how to destroy their targets. It is simulated killing to teach you proficiency at it. Do we stand for video “games” that simulate rape, teach proficiency at it, and reward the “gamer” with points for each rape? If not, why do we tolerate the teaching of effective mass murder?
Not being a law professor, I’m not sure what range of solutions would pass Constitutional muster. I do know that, like the Second Amendment, the First Amendment is not absolute. We’ve thankfully mananged to keep child pornography illegal, collectively deciding that protecting kids takes precedence over someone’s perverse notion of “entertainment.” Or it could be that some of what has worked to reduce smoking—astronomical tax levies, social pressures, making an activity declassé—may be as effective as legislation. Many single people won’t date a smoker. Maybe, hopefully, someone who spends hours each day simulating the graphic murder of human beings will also become damaged goods on Match.com.
But let’s not ignore or dismiss this factor in a national epidemic. We invariably invoke the word “senseless” when attempting to describe one of these massacres.
The meanings of “senseless” and “desensitized” aren’t that far apart.