While looking for literature on how human beings react under stress in deadly situations, I found a fascinating book, titled On Combat, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. On Combat makes a seemingly reactionary claim, made many times before; namely, that violent videogames are creating a generation of killers. What’s startling, however, is that this time, it’s true.
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.
It was thought up until the end of World War II that if you fielded an army of 100,000 riflemen, you would have 100,000 combatants. In practice, however, there were some discrepancies suggesting this wasn’t quite the case. This led General S.L.A. Marshall to publish a book in 1947 titled Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, where he revealed that in combat only 15 percent of soldiers unsupervised by an officer had fired their weapons.
The theory goes: In extreme stress, the logical part of your brain shuts down, relinquishing control to your middle brain, or what Grossman wryly calls the “puppy brain.” The middle brain is not at all logical – it relies on instinct – and by forgoing the process of rational thought, it can react faster to situations in which a moment of hesitation could be deadly. In around 85 percent of trained soldiers up to the end of the World War II, there was a part of their middle brain that recognized that the enemy was another human being, and refused to kill him. This social consciousness even under extreme duress is normal – we are born this way. The natural reaction to “fight or flight” is usually flight, making violence a “universal phobia,” as Grossman states.
This new understanding led to the realization that if you could train soldiers to override the part of their brain that wouldn’t allow them to kill, you would have more effective combatants and, therefore, a more deadly and efficient army. Training for the armed forces slowly began to incorporate measures to “dehumanize” enemy combatants. First, they replaced the circular targets at firing ranges with human-shaped silhouettes. The result was dramatic – in the Korean War, around 50 to 55 percent of soldiers would fire their weapons at the enemy. The army then changed the targets again. Instead of silhouettes, they now looked like human beings, had faces, and were rigged to fall down once they had been shot. During the Vietnam War, the percentage of soldiers who would fire their weapons at the enemy rose to more than 90 percent.
This training reached into the middle brain and flipped a switch. The part of the mammalian brain that wouldn’t allow a person to kill another human being was reset, making soldiers more capable of doing their jobs, routing the enemy faster and, in the end, saving lives.
Unintentionally, this training regimen has migrated from the firing range to the living room. Take Counter-Strike or Crysis, for example. Players fire a weapon at a human target that falls down when it is “killed.” It’s the same type of training used to raise the firing rate of the army from 15 percent to more than 90 percent. With many tech-savvy kids and adults growing up playing first person shooters, this means an entire generation has unwittingly undergone this military conditioning.
But have we become killers?
People who raise the point that violent videogame players have received military combat conditioning often equate it with committing acts of violence, but correlation is not causation. It has never followed that going through this conditioning means that one is guaranteed to employ it.
This has to do with the part of the brain in which the conditioning occurs. What stops a normal, unconditioned person from killing another human being in combat is the mammalian brain, which is pure instinct – the higher, rational brain has nothing to do with it. An unconditioned person can want to kill someone, only to be rendered unable as his middle brain takes over during the moment of crisis.
It takes a high level of stress – whether out of anger, fear or any other source of adrenaline – for this transition to occur. If that stress does not exist, your higher, more rational brain remains in control of your actions. Even under the most stressful circumstances, there has to be the right context.
To demonstrate the importance of context, Grossman offers the case of a police officer who had his family and friends hold a fake gun so that he could practice disarming criminals. Each time his disarmed his subject, he would hand it back so that they could repeat the process. Later, when he found himself in a store as an armed robbery began, he struck out at the criminal and took away the handgun. Then, just as he had practiced hundreds of times, he handed it back. His middle brain did exactly what he had trained it to do, regardless of how irrational it was under the circumstances.
Violent videogames may have made us capable of killing – under a very specific set of circumstances – but they haven’t conditioned us to be killers. It would be more accurate to say we have been psychologically enabled to use deadly force in a combat situation, whereas before we were not.
While we haven’t been conditioned to be murderers, however, the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings prove that some of us are capable of committing heinous acts of violence under ostensibly mundane conditions. There is a very serious problem here that needs to be addressed.
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.