153: The Anatomy of Violence

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The Anatomy of Violence

"Despite the heated rhetoric from both sides of the debate about violent games, it's a truth not generally recognized or discussed. To some degree, we can blame Jack Thompson and his ilk - the moment he starts talking about games as 'murder simulators,' the field polarizes, and any useful discussion is lost. Indeed, the mere suggestion itself is unbelievable, and who can blame the public or the average gamer for being suspicious when so much of the debate has been fear mongering?

"But it's a well-documented fact; and to know why, you have to understand a discovery that was made more than half a century ago."

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Very, very well done. It's a tightrope topic and you made it.

My only question is the issue of whether shooting with a controller (pressing X, etc) is the same thing as shooting a gun. Since we're now saying games condition us to pull the trigger in violent situations, doesn't a game controller still inhibit that literal connection?

L.B. Jeffries:
My only question is the issue of whether shooting with a controller (pressing X, etc) is the same thing as shooting a gun.

So the Wii is a murder simulator, but not the Playstation? ;-)

L.B. Jeffries: Thank you!

To answer your question, there is a difference between the ability to do something and actual skill in doing it. What Grossman says is that there has to be a transition session, where somebody who has the conditioning picks up a gun and fires it. That transfers the skills over from the controller to the firearm.

That being said, I think that without this transition period one is still likely to be conditioned to be able to use deadly force - it just doesn't make one GOOD at it. (Along the lines of "How do I turn off the safety?", for example.) During my research (which is about my great grandfather's experience in the Great War - he was in the Imperial Russian cavalry) one of my friends in the Canadian military was kind enough to let me fire a rifle. After years of playing games like Counterstrike, Medal of Honor, etc., the good news was that I could hit the broad side of a barn - the bad news was that I could barely hit the broad side of a barn. So, the transition where you take out an actual gun and fire it is important in regards to defending yourself with skill, but it's the conditioning that gives you the mental capacity for deadly force.

At least, that's how I understand it. Your mileage may vary.

Nicely handled. I think it would be naive not to recognise that what people spend a long time doing affects how their mind works.

I do have to wonder whether because the targets in military training have become more realistic, this means that games are having the same effect. After all, the people in military training are well aware that they are being trained to effectively kill. Their goal, whether conscripted or not, can only be to become an effective killer. So it's no surprise that the better correlation between what they see on a target range and what they do on a battlefield, the more effective they are. More often than not, a gamer's goals are a lot more benign. They're trying to get to the end of the level, or trying to find the key, or even 'just messing around'.

I don't know the significance of this, or whether I've even explained the difference very well (I suspect not). EDIT: The simpler way I could have put it, I suppose, is that we cannot simply assume that the primary variable affecting 'killing effectiveness' is what images we have been desensitised to. The context in which those images are seen/interacted with may also have a large effect. The context of being in a military training camp is a very different one to that of being in your home looking at your TV.

Anyway the only thing I really wanted to put out there is that I don't think the shift in the argument from military training dummies to computer games is not necessarily an automatically valid one, and that there are too many variables involved to automatically assume that that 90% statistic can be simply transferred from the one thing to the other.

I really don't believe the fight-or-flight instincts can be counteracted by shooting imaginary CG images. There is no danger, neither to you nor your targets, and I've never felt an actual fear of 'oh my god that guy is going to shoot me' while playing even the most detailed games. If it came to a real situation, I can guarantee you one hundred percent that I would choose Flight without even thinking about it.

This is Jack Thompson. Col. Grossman and I are dear friends, and we agree on all of this science in every detail. The writer has foolishly believed everything written about me to the contrary. If he weren't so lazy, he would have picked up the phone and called me at 305-666-4366 to ask me what I really believe and what I have really said, rather than take a cheap shot at me officially endorsed by Take-Two.

There are a number of errors here, not the least of which is the fact that Cho of Virginia Tech was a chronic player of CounterStrike Half-Life in high school. That was documented by the Washington Post. We know, based upon science not upon industry spin, that the effects of such violent game play are long-term, not short term. Read the postings in the last day or two at GamePolitics, and you will see corroboration that Cho was a computer game addict.

Next time, if you're going to do what purports to be a fact-based assessment, get your facts straight. Jack Thompson, Attorney

I am Spartacus....I mean Jack Thompson.

Jack Thompson, Attorney

Hijack!

...so somebody writes an article, on a games website of all things, that agrees with Jack Thompson in part, and JT himself- if it is him- whinges that it doesn't agree with every word he says, throws insults at the writer and claims there's a big anti-him conspiracy. Odd.

It's also funny how there doesn't seem to be much discussion of how good this science is. With even a cursory glance I can see at least a few points that I'd have serious questions about.

Hi Jack Thompson, Attorney. I'm not sure where you got your definition of the word 'fact' from, but I'm pretty certain it doesn't mean 'shit I just invented to support my own deranged opinions'.

"Virginia Tech gunman Seung Hui Cho did not play any video games with violent or war-related themes, according to Virginia governor Tim Kaine's final report on the killings in April."

http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/blogs/index.cfm?entryid=1231&blogid=4
http://www.bit-tech.net/news/2007/08/31/virginia_tech_no_link_to_violent_games_/1
http://www.theinquirer.net/en/inquirer/news/2007/04/23/virginia-tech-killer-played-no-games

Now I'm no fancy city lawyer, but I'd have thought they would teach you the basics at attorney school. Or did your qualification come through the mail after you sent off a cheque?

Jack Thompson, both of you, LOL.

Cho did not play Counter-Strike, a fact that was widely testified after the shootings at Virginia Tech.

As for Columbine, I don't really remember many of the details as I was rather young.

Also, there is far more to military training than just learning to shoot at human shaped targets. If you've ever seen Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead, you get a pretty good idea of what Basic Training is like. They not only have to get people used to shooting at other people, but also take away their mental blocks in higher order logic. Remorse is a powerful motivator. Even if someone were to kill they're first target easily enough, if they aren't trained properly, they won't kill the next target due to remorse. All these guys who go about killing multiple people on sprees already have something broken inside of them.

I just looked at some period articles about the Columbine shooting. There is also the point that after the fact, video games were merely an afterthought to movies, TV, and music. It is only more recently that the Columbine tragedy has been used as an example of what video games can "do" to kids.

Anyway, excellent article. I remember hearing about this book earlier and someone citing it as a source that supports the idea that games actually train kids. Total crap article. This one is quite good.

I have in the past stood in a line and yelled "I PLAY VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES!!" in an effort to shorten the line. It's only worked once, and I got to have a nice chat with a security guard. Thankfully he was a GTA fan.

"This is Jack Thompson. Col. Grossman and I are dear friends, and we agree on all of this science in every detail. The writer has foolishly believed everything written about me to the contrary. If he weren't so lazy, he would have picked up the phone and called me at 305-666-4366 to ask me what I really believe and what I have really said, rather than take a cheap shot at me officially endorsed by Take-Two."

Well, I am honored to get a comment from you - it means that my words are being read by the people who need to read them. However, this piece was not about you - it was about the ramifications of the science. You're mentioned in a single line, and that line is about the polarization of the discussion, which not only is a very real issue, but also one that I have observed on numerous occasions.

The problem is this - when anybody crusades against anything, they take an extreme viewpoint. The more attention they are able to receive, the more the field polarizes. When it comes to psychological conditioning, it is there, and it needs to be discussed and understood.

What has happened in the discussion so far is that all we have really seen are extremes. One side says that violent first person shooters are responsible for murders like Virginia Tech and Columbine - which isn't really true. The other side says that they have no impact whatsoever - which also isn't really true. The truth is in the middle.

Both Columbine and Virginia Tech were pre-meditated mass murders. The killers planned them in advance and executed them. The pyschological conditioning from first person shooters (and if I was incorrect about Cho not playing Counterstrike, I apologize - my information hadn't covered high school, and I had some sources that said he really only played minesweeper in university) certainly made the killers more able to commit their crimes. But, they didn't cause the killers to plan them. Blaming the conditioning is just like blaming the guns - for most of understanding how these crimes happened, we have to take a close look at the people.

Now, there are two issues that I really think need to be explored when it comes to this conditioning, and neither one can be so long as the field is polarized. The first is in regards to excessive force in self defense - how likely is this? The second is the possible benefits - if you have a generation of people trained to be able to use lethal force in self defense, how do you turn that into a safer society? Certainly, the potential for a generation of "sheepdogs," as Grossman calls police and soldiers, has now been made possible.

We need to face these issues - I don't think there's any doubt about that. I personally think we can use this to make our society a safer, better place, too. But, in order to do all of this, and truly understand the ramifications of the science, we need a middle ground in which to explore things. And there the extremism is very problematic.

Best regards,

Robert B. Marks

I disagree with the statistics presented, how would we know how many truly fired their weapons? it is quite possible responders simply gave the answer that is expected of them. perhaps after the shockingly low fire rates were published after ww2, military training was modified to discourage people from behaving in that way (not firing and especially not admitting to not firing), beyond just trying out different targets?

Yanarix:
perhaps after the shockingly low fire rates were published after ww2, military training was modified to discourage people from behaving in that way, beyond just trying out different targets?

This all feeds into the 'too many variables at work' thing. I don't doubt that the change in targets had some impact on effectiveness but I do doubt that was the sole factor - they surely must have made many other changes to military training too. And I do doubt that we can *simply* translate from the way it affects someone's psyche in a military training camp to the way it does in someone's lounge. Context is extremely important.

Hmm - especially in science, in fact. In a truly scientific enquiry, each situation would have to be as similar as possible. In this situation, each time a different war has been involved, with different fighting conditions and different enemies, in a different era with differences in their weaponry and training methods that go beyond just what targets were used. To compare the statistics when there are so many variables changing each time is extremely UNscientific. It's true that there have been other studies that have been of a more scientific nature, but I have looked at these, and generally the methods employed have been so abstracted from what they are actually trying to find out (how games affect violent behavior) that they're at best merely 'interesting' and mostly inconclusive.

I understand Yanarix's point there. Also in reference to the OP's article, I've not read the book he references but rather 'On Killing' by the same author. From your article alone it seems the content is much the same. Further to the increase in 'firers' the increase in those actually aiming for the target didn't increase as much if I recall correctly?

I play a fair few FPS titles online. I also suffer mental health disorders, incidentally it was my PTSD that led me to read Grossman's book in the first place. I also train in kung fu, this in itself is arguably more valid training for injuring and possibly killing people. The latter is socially acceptable on the grounds that it's a healthy activity that gets me out of my bedroom.

It's been mentioned numerous times before but why are video games often the first scapegoat? At least Grossman references other media in his books. I'd cite America's 'Viagra culture' and gun laws as the first area of investigation.

edit: Insofox, it was touched on in the article but the training regime did a lot to dehumanize both the individuals being trained and their targets. We all remember Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann's lines from Full Metal Jacket, his pet names for his men? Also all the terms for America's enemies at the time serve this purpose: Charlie, Zipperhead, Gook, Slope, Towelhead, Camel-jockey etc. It all serves to help the "them and us" mentality.

Well its no mystery that the old media is going after the new media, just as tv devoured radio, the internet/video games will destroy television... and movies... and sporting events: afterall why sit complacently watching a hero, when you can be the hero?

In the 80's, British TV news tried citing Rambo as the cause of Michael Ryan's killing Spree. The media needs to brand someone as guilty, easier to target the entertainment corporations rather than the failure of local health departments and authorities.

I'm not sure if you're agreeing with me or not, doomspoon. But what I was saying was not that the training had no impact. It clearly has impact, but I just wanted to mention that there are a lot of more complex issues involve than the way the targets look which will affect the statistics cited in the article. And that trying to then take that one set of stats and apply it to a different situation - someone playing games in their living room, for fun - complicates it all even further.

Hope that clarifies.

Never mind, don't want to get into it.

I agree that there are a lot of complex variables, warfare has evolved a lot since WWII. There hadn't been a great deal of change from the American Civil War and Napoleonic era until WWI with the advent of tanks and aircraft. Grossman's books explain how the training regime encouraged more soldiers to fire, this involved more than just the shape of the targets as you say. Without wanting to talk cross purposes here his books also differentiate between those that fire and miss intentionally and those that fire and aim to hit. I do agree that there's no real fair comparison due to the evolution of warfare.

In respect of videogames teaching people to be shooters I disagree, short of the common sense understanding that when you point a gun at someone and squeeze the trigger there's a likelihood they'll fall over dead. There's been very little in the way of games that have dealt with the scientific aspects of shooting, wind speeds, air density/humidity, visibility, background noise etc. If modern armies took your average Counterstrike/COD/Halo player into a combat situation it would be a scary prospect. Lots of people running at each other firing with gay abandon, jumping from side to side, marksmen standing on the highest object for all to see etc. FPS titles are to me nothing more than an evolution of childhood games of soldiers. Seemingly paintballing or airsoft are the socially acceptable alternatives.

huh.... i think i might go play some time crisis.... ;-) lol

So if the FPS override the middle part of the brain and makes you more liable to kill if the correct situation comes around, the what about the rest, what about the non violent games, what do they do to you, and i play FPS and i like to play the real time strategy, would a real time strategy game have the same effect..? or would a RTS make you some sort of tactical genius..? i like to play these games, and i was in the army cadets, where i shot a rifle every other week, so does that constitute as training enough to have a little discipline to know how to kill someone..? Also some people say its down to the music that a person listens to.. and its the rock genre that gets slated for that, not all rock music enrages people and makes them commit heinous acts. take me for example then, i like rock music and a lot of FPS's so does that make me more likely to go out and randomly kill someone...?

Great article, and long overdue. If gamers expect our opinions to be taken seriously in this debate it's time for us to start taking an objective, realistic look at what videogames actually do rather than flatly denying every accusation leveled at them.

On the other hand I have a large amount of contempt for the tendency to blame videogames when someone actually does go on one of these senseless rampages that have occurred lately. That's just scapegoating and it's distracting people from examining the MUCH more important underlying causes of such violent and depraved behavior.

nicknacks666:
So if the FPS override the middle part of the brain and makes you more liable to kill if the correct situation comes around, the what about the rest, what about the non violent games, what do they do to you, and i play FPS and i like to play the real time strategy, would a real time strategy game have the same effect..? or would a RTS make you some sort of tactical genius..? i like to play these games, and i was in the army cadets, where i shot a rifle every other week, so does that constitute as training enough to have a little discipline to know how to kill someone..? Also some people say its down to the music that a person listens to.. and its the rock genre that gets slated for that, not all rock music enrages people and makes them commit heinous acts. take me for example then, i like rock music and a lot of FPS's so does that make me more likely to go out and randomly kill someone...?

It doesn't make you more likely to kill someone. It makes you more able, to put it simply. What is being said is that violent games train the human to be ABLE to commit them. It doesn't mean that they will. There still usually needs to be some catalyst that makes them WANT to commit crimes. Be able to, and wanting to are two very different things. If being able to kill meant that the person would automatically start killing, then every cop, martial artist, and military person would be a murderer, killing indiscriminately on the street.

Its about finding that boundary between being able to do something, and wanting to do it. That's why the so-called polarization of the debate is such a problem. One says claims its all videogames' fault, one side claims videogames aren't at fault at all. When the truth is, neither one is at fault. Videogames, helped make the person ABLE to murder (i say "helped", not "caused"), and then some societal catalyst made them WANT to murder. So when it comes to playing the blame game, the only person who can really be blamed is the one who did the crime...wait...isn't that how the justice system was supposed to work anyway.

Trying to persecute developers for these events is pointless anyway because its all in the past. Sure we throw the killer in jail or execute him (whatever your preference) for his crimes, but what good does trying to blame the developer do. You've already punished the killer, and persecuting the developer won't undo it. These events, though tragic, are so seemingly rare that i don't see how you could blame video games solely anyway. How many years were there between Columbine and Virgina Tech? How many kids played violent video games in that time? And how many of those kids made the moral choice to NOT act on seeing those violent images?

ok well i was only using myself as an example, but that still doesn't answer the other questions that i have mentioned, what about the non - violent games, they must have some effect. and the RTS i read that playing RTS games makes a person think more tactically.

I don't think those types of games would have much of an effect because those games are never personal. FPSs are just that, First Person. So the player is going to get that feeling that they are the one doing the killing. Since all those other games are basically third-person, it doesn't have as much of a psychological impact.

Unfortunately, S.L.A. Marshall's conclusions and methods have been brought into strong doubt of late. Evidence has been put forth that seems to indicate that Marshall did not actually do any systematic research into the subject of fire ratios, and that he was just stating an opinion and presenting it as research instead. A bit of basic searching on the web will show that his conclusions are being strongly disputed today.

To bring a bit of personal information to the subject, my grandfather served in the European theater as part of a recon company. His unit was not part of the Normandy landing, they arrived about a month later. They saw very heavy combat in the push to Berlin, however, and his people were no strangers to the sound of gunfire and the hammer of artillery. His opinion of Marshall's writings would be summed up with the word "Bullshit!". If Marshall was correct and the number of soldiers who actually fired was 15% or so, then there were at least 4-6 companies of men who never fired a shot, because according to my grandfather, every man in his unit shot themselves dry on a couple of occasions, a statement borne out by the unit's official history. Frankly, I have a hard time believing that WWII could have been won with so few guns firing on the lines. The death tolls in some of the battles were a little high for a bunch of guys shooting to miss.

It's interesting that the author makes no mention of the controversy that currently surrounds Marshall's and therefore Grossman's works. It would be one thing if it was mentioned and then argued against, but here it isn't even mentioned. Almost as if he knows the current discussion would weaken his position, and that he can't successfully argue against it. Not the most convincing article I've read.

jackthompson:
Next time, if you're going to do what purports to be a fact-based assessment, get your facts straight. Jack Thompson, Attorney

Ironometer... pegging... she canna take much more, cap'n...

I'm not entirely sold on the premise that video games act as desensitising agents do, though I can see how some such stimuli could act that way. I'd want better research on the issue before deciding either way in any case, as the current studies really are inconclusive.

-- Steve

nicknacks666:
ok well i was only using myself as an example, but that still doesn't answer the other questions that i have mentioned, what about the non - violent games, they must have some effect. and the RTS i read that playing RTS games makes a person think more tactically.

Without knowing which genres you're referring to by saying "non-violent", it is hard to comment? If you're talking about Solitaire, I think we'd all generally agree that it is irrelevant. Katamari Damacy? Also probably irrelevant.

Your average RTS may very well encourage the tactical tendencies of your brain, and if under duress, when the middle brain took over, you might be more tactical because of that.

And finally, to get at what I'm guessing you're alluding to with "non-violent" despite your vagueness, the author does point out that games which punish the player for harming NPCs can have the opposite effect. I would extrapolate from there to say that a game where you were never encouraged to shoot human-ish creatures (despite having the ability to do so, and encouragement to shoot non-human/homonid creatures), you would be unlikely to condition your middle brain to be okay with shooting people.

Very good writing. Bravo.

It's so rare that actual science is brought into the video games violence equation. And it isn't that people aren't trying; a lot of it is just conflicting reports. Just as Royas says his grandfather's company shot themselves empty, I can say my grandfather went through World War 2 without firing a shot. And he was infantry, a sargent maybe, but infantry nonetheless. So who is right?

My belief is not so much that games desensitize; that argument is outdated and there is plenty of other media that is equal to the level of violence in games. It's that games reward, points, experience, items, money, for commiting acts of violence. It teaches kids that violence is an acceptable means to resolve a problem instead of working through it logically and keeping emotions in check instead of just exploding. In games, you can just shoot the person who is frustrating you and they go away, and there is no consequense for it, and in fact, you are generally rewarded for it. That is my beef with game violence.

And it's true that first-person games suck people in and make them feel involved, but I've yet to find or be pointed to any meaningful scientific conclusions regarding it.

Excellent article.

I remember watching a documentary on S.L.A. Marshall and his findings that on the WW2 battlefield only a small percentage of soldiers were "gun-ho". His report lead the U.S. Army to institute new methods of mentally conditioning soldiers to basically become emotionless killing machines that acted out orders without pause. These methods were just about perfected come the Vietnam war hence why so many Vietnam vets are so fucked up upon returning home.

Considering how much time gamers spend running around shooting people in video games you have to wonder what the accumulative effect of such is on their minds and emotional disposition. Especially if they are not getting out and experiencing the world, other points of view and other points of reference. To say playing hours and hours of violent video games over the course of weeks, months, years, has no effect whatsoever on a person's mentality is ludicrous. People have been killed over words read in books, so it's not outlandish to think that someone's mental state may deteriorate by playing an interactive game that has them going on a murderous rampage for hours on end.

Not to mention the propaganda that can be found in video games. Pro military-industrial-complex, pro American war on terror, pro post apocalyptic world. The fact that many gamers see nothing wrong with video game violence in any extreme and will defend their "right" to play the most violent and nihilistic video games possible already proves that the brainwash is in full effect.

One relevant thought, one I keep forgetting to mention in debates on videogames and violence; can we measure a difference in aggressive tendencies after playing video games and after other, more traditional forms of entertainment? We need to find out whether games are more, or less, or equally as rousing as watching football, playing cowboys-and-indians (pow pow pow!), or running a race.

-- Steve

L.B. Jeffries:
Very, very well done. It's a tightrope topic and you made it.

My only question is the issue of whether shooting with a controller (pressing X, etc) is the same thing as shooting a gun. Since we're now saying games condition us to pull the trigger in violent situations, doesn't a game controller still inhibit that literal connection?

Well no. He did say in the article that the condition for the capacity to kill is there. Just not the training to. It is just similar conditioning that soldiers go through. A soldier does not know how to use a gun until he is taught.

Also one thing i believe not mentioned in the article (probably because of room to write). Is that soldiers who go through this conditioning and kill. Alot more of them end up with psychological disorders, due to the afore mentioned mammillian switch not liking being turned off. The brain cannot deal with the stress of killing another human.

Now give a child this psycho conditioning, teach him/her how to use a gun, then give them aggression training. That would be disastrous. As it is, games on their own are not enough to cause psychosis and an inherent need to kill.

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