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When confronting the widespread military conditioning across our society - one that is rarely recognized and, for all intents and purposes, accidental - it's impossible to assess its effects without facing the specters of shootings like Columbine and Virginia Tech. In the first case, the killers had been known to play violent videogames; in the second, the killer played nothing more violent than Sonic the Hedgehog. There is at least some correlation in the first case, but is there causation?
It's a scientific question that has been met mostly with knee-jerk answers, but the nature of the mammalian brain may have some insight. In both incidents, the murders were premeditated, which means that their planning involved the higher, logical brain - not the mammalian brain. Violent videogames may have made the Columbine killers more capable of carrying out their crime, but they weren't the root cause.
That doesn't absolve game makers entirely of blame, however. Simply promoting the capability of using deadly force under duress could be a problem, no matter how vehemently we deny that this capability exists. In a society where more than 90 percent of the people who play violent videogames are capable of using deadly force under life-threatening conditions, there are implications across the board, from law enforcement to education.
When Grossman described this situation in his book, he called violent games "murder simulators." It may sound extremist, but it makes sense once you realize how Grossman differentiates between "killing" and "murder." A killer is disciplined, and only uses lethal force in appropriate, rigidly defined circumstances - for example, a cop in a firefight with a criminal. A murderer lacks this discipline. When somebody enters law enforcement or the military, they are taught discipline as well as how to kill. While violent videogames may provide the conditioning, they rarely teach restraint.
So long as we fail to recognize that these games are imparting a killer instinct in the most literal sense, there is the risk of uncontrolled, excessive force in situations that require self-defense. Few of us who play violent games will ever kill in our lifetimes; but it's important to know we have that capability, and to teach the appropriate discipline to control it in a crisis. That doesn't mean putting everybody who has ever played a violent game through boot camp; but teaching ethics, and having a penalty in games for killing non-combatants could have a noticeable impact on the outcome of this conditioning .
The preponderance of violent media - not just videogames - in our culture should encourage us to be more vigilant in what we teach about right and wrong, and force us to be more thoughtful about when violence is necessary. In the right hands, lethal force is a useful tool that protects the rest of us from harm. That tool has now been placed in everybody's hands. Denying it can only hurt us in the long run, while accepting its presence and coming to understand what it means could ultimately deter violence - and save lives.
Robert B. Marks is an author, editor, publisher, and civilian MA student in the war studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada. You can view a full list of his published works here.