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September 24, 2021

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.”


The evolution of a target.

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.


Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.), author of “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill”

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

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.



13 Responses to “It’s Not A “Game””
  1. JHypers says:

    I don’t disagree with the premise that it is not a human’s innate urge to kill another human. There is a degree of mind training that needs to occur in order for this to happen. However, the reasons for this, at least in the military’s view, are obvious. Do you want your soldiers thinking about firing on the enemy while the enemy is about to, or already, firing on them? Those 15 to 20 percent of soldiers (and Marines?) would likely have had a much higher casualty rate than they otherwise did. The reality here is that war is essentially brainless…or perhaps I should say thoughtless (after all, you do need a brain to aim and pull the trigger).

    Here is what amuses me about the whole argument presented in the article. Granted, this is based on empirical evidence (my own life), but in all the times I have pointed a gun at another living creature (all game animals) my heart is always racing, and when my shot has been true, and the animals has died, it is a process that certainly is not void of emotion. All of this, after YEARS of violent video game playing and movie watching.

    What people fail to realize here, is that kids are actually intelligent creatures, by and large. We adults tend to forget that sometimes, and are always led to believe the contrary. What kids do (stupid things) are from a general lack of life experience. Granted, some make recurring mistakes, but what percentage is this? How many operate under the same cultural/value system which defines those in judgment of what a good or bad decision is? The more you look at it, the more complexities reveal themselves.

    So…in my experience, from what I have seen in myself and many others growing up…violent video games are just that: games. A problem only presents itself if/when a child cannot differentiate the game from reality. What is the conscious problem here? A kid who thinks the game is real life…or that life is a game? Is it both?

    Of course, the scientific way to test this theory would be to have a group of kids subjected to graphically violent military-style video games…then take those same kids to a slaughterhouse…or better yet, have them visit a crime scene where a murder has taken place, preferably one gun-related, to actually show the kids real violence. Compare their reactions and reflections on the experience to a control group (one that’s never played violent video games). But none of this would really compare to giving them a loaded weapon and telling them to shoot someone. My hypothesis is that these kids would be nearly pissing themselves.

    My theory, is that in order for you to be truly desensitized to violence, you have to have actually witnessed real violence firsthand, repeatedly. Where does that ever happen though?

    Oh wait…I forgot we live in a society where husbands get drunk and beat their wives and kids. Anyone ever care to equate experiencing domestic violence, or outright physical abuse, with being prone to this desensitization?

    I’m not going to sit here and say that games like Call of Duty aren’t promoting violence (they obviously are) and if you don’t want your kids to play them, don’t let them. But let’s look at reality here – what is actually going on in the lives of children that might cause them to become people like these disturbed mass-shooters?

    It has to be more than just a game. To me, that’s just trading one boogey man for another.

  2. Library Lady says:

    I’m saving this article for future reference as this debate continues. It is excellent. Thank you.

    • Megaduck says:

      A lot of statistics in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill” is based on SLA Marshell’s “Men Against Fire”. The opening statement in this article,

      “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.”

      Is based on the following statement from “Men Against Fire”,

      “A commander of infantry will be well advised to believe that when he engages the enemy not more than one quarter of his men will ever strike a real blow. … The 25 per cent estimate, stands even for well-trained and campaign-seasoned troops. I mean that 75 per cent will not fire or will not persist in firing against the enemy and his works. These men may face danger but they will not fight.” – SLA Marshall, “Men Against Fire,” 1947 Chapter 6.

      You should however be aware however that this statement has been highly controversial ever since it was written. If your interested in this, I’d suggest reading “Men Against Fire” or googling SLA Marshal to learn more.

  3. RJ says:

    I hadn’t heard of Grossman or his work until now. I’m really glad I read this post, he is doing important work and I hope we can address these issues constructively.

  4. Mo says:

    Meanwhile, in Juneau, the games continue:

    “Though an Alaska Department of Fish and Game indoor range currently operates in Juneau, Swendsen said the Armory would offer gun enthusiasts and hunters certain benefits. Most striking might be the rental for onsite use of fully automatic firearms.

    “You can rent a machine gun go downstairs and get the barrel hot,” Swendsen said.

    And what kinds of machine guns can a customer expect to find? Not wanting to give away the surprise, “lets just say there will be a variety of belt fed machine guns,” Swendsen said. And the classics. “Everybody needs to shoot an AK 47 and a Tommy Gun.”

    [I didn’t want to post two links, but further developments can be followed by searching the Juneau Empire site]

    • Mo says:

      Here’s one recent local response:

      Dear Planning Commission members,

      I want to see the Planning Commission deny the Juneau Mercantile and Armory owners a permit to have fully automatic firearms for their customers to use. Given the horrific events in Connecticut where so many women and children were slaughtered with round after round of automatic weapon fire, I strongly urge you to not approve their use at Juneau Mercantile and Armory, the proposed gun range.

      There is only one use for weapons like this: killing a lot of people in a short amount of time. In a September 25, 2012 Juneau Empire article on the permitting process, Sloan Swendsen said, “You can rent a machine gun go downstairs and get the barrel hot.” He also said, “Everybody needs to shoot an AK47 and a Tommy Gun.”

      While 99.9% of the men and boys who go there to shoot an AK47 might be there for “fun”, this country has a long history of a small percentage using guns to slaughter innocent people. Why encourage it? Why enable it?

      As a mother and grandmother, I ask you to deny any permits to Dan Miller and Sloan Swendsen for automatic weapons. Enough is enough.

  5. mike from iowa says:

    It is not a game,it is a very profitable enterprise which means rethuglicans will protect the profits above all else. rethuglicans are born without a conscience and consider tjat a virtue,not a character flaw.

  6. BeeEss says:

    Thomas has the guts to say it. Tipper Gore was basically vilified for this stance. I hope it can be talked about now.

  7. John says:

    No one diputes that a steady diet of pornography is bad for 12 year olds even when it depicts an act of love between consenting adults. Why then can’t we accept that acts of violence shouldn’t be viewed by young children?

  8. aeroentropy says:

    A few nights ago, I watched a colleague’s 6 yr old daughter playing a game on a Wii system that involved swatting down humanoid characters one after another with a sword or somesuch, as they ran at the player. The child was totally and gleefully absorbed, as she downed the characters one after another. All in all I guess that sounds pretty tame, but (pacifist quaker) spouse and I were both quite shaken, and had to leave the room.

    Something has really changed, and I doubt there is any way of changing it back.

  9. ndjinn says:

    Can I still let my kids play with swords or is that out? Wife long ago banned Call of Duty and other war games on the kids Playstation. She likes guns, but does not like violent video games.

    • Happy Place says:

      He mentions that very distinction above:
      “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.”

  10. John says:

    Very important post. Thank you.

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