Violent Video Games and Automatic Pilot

From Dave Grossman’s book On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace:

Violent video games have been in existence for several decades now, and many kids who played them years ago are now in their mid to upper teens and even into their 20s—the exact age group of the average perpetrator our law enforcement officers are confronting every day out on the streets. When talking about conditioned reflexes, we must also talk about violent video games, because to understand how we can make killing a conditioned reflex—stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response—it is important to understand how the average opponent has been trained. This topic was outlined briefly in On Killing , and more extensively in Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill , co-authored with Gloria DeGaetano. Once again, I will only recap and slightly update this information here.
Does a kid playing a violent video game shoot at blank, man-shaped silhouettes? How about bull’s-eye targets? No, he shoots at people—that is, vivid, realistic depictions of people. The holy grail of the video game industry is realism, and every year they get ever more realistic. The incredibly lifelike characters bleed, twitch, sweat, beg, fall, and die, all before the eyes of the very impressionable young players.
Today’s video games offer a completely different type of play than my generation engaged in as kids. When I was little and playing cops and robbers, I said, “ Bang, bang , I got you, Jimmy.” Jimmy said, “No you didn’t.” So I said, “Well, bang, bang . Now I got you.” Again he argued that I didn’t. So, I smacked him with my cap gun, and after he went crying to his mother I got in big trouble. Along the way I learned one of life’s important lessons, a lesson that usually had to be taught over and over again: Jimmy is real, Sally is real, and Fido is real, and if I hurt them, I’m going to get into big trouble.
For thousands of years kids have whacked each other with wooden swords, or played “Bang, bang , I got you.” This was healthy play because as soon as someone got hurt the play stopped, and all the kids gathered around and tried to convince him not to tell momma. Today, kids are immersed in a virtual reality environment where they repeatedly blow their virtual, hyperrealistic, playmates’ heads off in explosions of blood and gore. Do they get into trouble? No. They get awarded points! This is pathological and dysfunctional play.
When kittens or puppies play they gnaw at each other’s throats. When one of them gets hurt, though, the play stops and mama walks over to see what is going on. When a player gets hurt in a basketball or a football game, the play stops and the ref hurries over to deal with the injured and the one who caused it. The purpose of healthy play is to teach the young how not to inflict serious harm upon their fellow species.
The video game industry says that the images on the screen are not real people. This is true, but puppies and kittens are not real human beings either, and we know that the way a child treats a puppy or a kitten predicts how they will treat real people. Think of a puppy as a virtual human that is used to teach kids how to interact with real people. What if you awarded a child with a cookie every time he made that puppy cry in pain? Would you consider that sick?
Our kids today have virtual playmates in the form of realistic characters that populate the video games. Many kids live in a dark, gray and depressing world, and for them the video games are more real than reality. Dr.
Marshall Soules, at Malaspina University in Canada, calls this the “hyperreality effect,” meaning that some kids “begin to think of the hyperreal as more meaningful than the thing or event it relates to.” Kids playing these games make the puppy cry, that is, they make virtual human beings die in what the child deems to be a vivid and intense reality. Then they are given a cookie, a reward. This is pathological play.
In July 2000, the American Medical Association (AMA), American Psychological Association (APA), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)—all of our doctors, all of our pediatricians, all of our psychologists, and all of our child psychiatrists—made a joint statement to both Houses of Congress. They said that, “Well over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.” Words such as “cause” or “causal” are powerful scientific terms that are not used lightly. In this statement they also concluded that, “Preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact of interactive electronic media [violent video games] may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies or music.”
That statement by our medical community was reinforced in 2001, when the National Institute for Media and the Family released their research involving a database of over 600 8th and 9th grade students from four schools. They concluded that:
. . . children who are least aggressive in nature but are exposed to violent video games, are more likely to get into fights than children who are very aggressive but do not play violent video games.
The study found that children who play violent video games:
– See the world as a more hostile place.
– Argue with teachers more frequently.
– Are more likely to be involved in physical fights.
– Don’t perform as well in school.

The American Sniper Association’s training periodical published the following “Training Tip” from a law enforcement sniper in the April 2000 edition.
After the incident in Littleton, Colorado, much was made of the fact that teens are using graphic video and computer games to train and condition themselves to kill. There is some truth to this. However, we do not and should not, allow them to have a monopoly on this training “tool.” Video games can be used as a unique and inexpensive method for honing your skills as well.
A new video game, Silent Scope , is the latest rage in the local arcades. This game puts you, the sniper, behind a scoped rifle, interacting in an unfolding scenario in which your talents are needed to help rescue the President’s daughter from terrorists. The game will help you work on observations skills, tracking and identifying targets, snap shooting, and moves. It will never replace real range time, but it is a nice variation, and it’s fun.
Violent media games are murder simulators, except when police officers and soldiers use them for training, in which case they are combat simulators. Remember that old point-and-shoot Nintendo video game called Duck Hunt ? It was such a good marksmanship trainer that the United States Army bought several thousand of them. They replaced the plastic pistol with a plastic M-16, and instead of ducks popping up on the screen, the Army changed them to man-shaped silhouettes. The game was renamed the Multipurpose Arcade Combat Simulator (MACS). Of course, the troops were not fooled by the name; they just called it “the Nintendo game” since it has a big Nintendo stamp on it. By whatever name, it was a powerful and effective combat simulator for our men and women preparing for battle.

For the first time in human history we are dealing with a large scale epidemic of preteen and teenage mass murderers. The autopilot impact of the mass murder simulators was particularly obvious in the earliest of the school massacres. (These occurred before the frenzied national media coverage of the Jonesboro massacre established a national game in which the goal was racking up the “high score” in school massacres, with the “winner” getting his picture on the cover of Time magazine.) In the school massacres in Moses Lake, Pearl, Paducah and Jonesboro, the kids appear to have set out to kill just one person— usually a teacher or a girlfriend. But once they began, they shot every living creature in front of them until they ran out of bullets or were interrupted. Afterwards the police would ask something like, “Okay, you shot the person you were mad at, but why did you kill everyone else? Why did you kill the rest of them? Some of them were your friends.”
One kid is reported to have said: “It just felt like I had momentum.”
Why do these kids keep on shooting after they have gunned down the initial person they went after? Could it be their “training?”
When kids use these games they are not just murder simulators, but mass murder simulators. Is there a kid anywhere in the world who puts his coins into a video game machine, picks up a realistic-looking gun, shoots only one virtual person, puts it back down and then walks away? No. They are trained to kill all the virtual people, to rack up a high score.
In these school massacres, the kids kept shooting for the same reason that police officers, under the old training regimen, put their spent brass into their pockets in the middle of real gunfights without conscious thought. The kids kept on killing for the same reason that police officers fired two shots and then reholster in the middle of a gunfight when the deadly threat was still in front of them. These officers responded the way they had been trained on the firing range, and the same holds true for kids trained on violent, video game, mass murder simulators.
Once a kid makes the decision to cross that tragic invisible line and shoots his girlfriend, he earns one point. That is how the video games trained him. If his girlfriend is one point, then another kid is a second point, another garners him a third point, and then he gets a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and on and on. Once that line is crossed, they all become points and the kid wants to earn a high score, just as he does in training. The mother of the 13-year-old killer in the Jonesboro school shooting sat across our coffee table and told my wife and I, several months after the killings, that she finally told her son who he had killed that day. She said her boy laid his head on the table, and sobbed, saying, “Those were my friends.”
There are no friends in violent video games; there are only targets. Points.
Thus, by understanding how a conditioned reflex is developed in our professional warriors, we can understand what is going on in the minds of some of these killers.
We saw the killing-enabling effects of video games being intentionally applied by criminals in the “Beltway Sniper” attacks that terrorized the Washington, D.C. area in the fall of 2002. Soon after the suspects were apprehended, sources close to the investigation told reporters that the killers had used video game sniper simulators to desensitize and mentally prepare themselves for their crimes. This effect is not limited to the U.S. The German media reported extensively on the influence of video games on the boy who committed a school massacre in Erfurt, Germany, resulting in 17 tragic deaths.
As video game technology gets distributed to third world nations, our military forces that are fighting terrorists and serving as peacekeepers around the world, will also face opponents who are trained with mass murder simulators provided by the video game industry. In 1999, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) invited me to Switzerland to be a member of a team of international experts studying the effects of media violence and violent video games on atrocities and war crimes around the globe. One Red Cross official told of a gang operating in one war-torn, Central African nation, in a city without electricity. The only electricity was provided by a generator, which the gang used to keep their beer cold and to operate the violent video arcade game that they used extensively as a training device to psychologically prepare them to kill and to enhance their marksmanship skills.
Many competitive shooters practice by using “dry firing” to improve the necessary body mechanics required to shoot accurately. To dry fire, you simply point an unloaded firearm at a target, cock the hammer, and pull the trigger, keeping the sight picture as steady as possible. By concentrating on the technical elements of shooting—sight picture, grip, trigger pull, arm position—you get a better idea of what you are doing right and wrong without having to go to the range. There is also a highly effective way to dry fire with laser feedback, an innovation that requires a laser to be placed into your weapon so that each time you pull the trigger, it emits a bright, visible beam. When a realistic, human target is hit, it falls. It is a dynamic and effective simulation system used in the military and law enforcement communities. It is considered state of the art training. Frighteningly, our kids have it too when they play violent video games. The marksmanship training these games provide our police officers, soldiers— and our kids—is stunning.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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