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Does Trump have a point about video games?

How do soldiers learn to kill? Credit: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

How do soldiers learn to kill? Credit: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


August 8, 2019   5 mins

Is there a connection between the mass killings that have become a regular feature of life in the United States and video games? Donald Trump thinks so: “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” said the President.

“This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately.”

The outcry against this connection was swift, with many pointing out that young people in other countries – Japan, for instance – enjoy playing first person shoot-em-up video games without taking to the streets with semi-automatic weapons to kill in real life.

No, these people argue, the charge against video games is a deliberate distraction from the real enemy: the availability of military grade weapons at the local gun store. Trump is so in hock to the NRA that he wouldn’t dare confront the original sin at the heart of the American mind: that guns mean freedom – freedom from outside interference, freedom from colonial oppressors (the British), freedom from big government etc.

It was 20 years ago this year that a pair of students from Columbine High School murdered twelve of their fellow students and a teacher using automatic weapons and sawn-off shotguns. A connection was later made between these murders and the amount of time both students had spent playing Doom and Quake, and other first person shooting games.

Those who resist any causal connection here describe the reaction as “moral panic”, and in 2011 the video games industry in fact won a significant victory at the US Supreme Court, against those who would restrict the sale of violent video games. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association concluded that: “studies 
 do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively 
 and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology”.

So where does this idea originate that video games cause young people to be violent? One surprising tributary that has been influential in establishing this connection can be traced back to a controversial report written long before video games had ever been invented: S. L. A. “Slam” Marshall’s much discussed Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, published in 1947.

Slam Marshall was the army’s chief historian of the European theatre of operations during the Second World War: his astonishing thesis was that, in an average infantry company, no more than one in four soldiers actually fired their weapons while in contact with the enemy. Later historians have challenged his methodology. But notwithstanding this challenge, this was the root of the moral panic, and it originated within the military: most soldiers are reluctant to kill.

On 10 June 1944, one battalion of the US 502nd Parachute Infantry started receiving enemy fire. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole, described the behaviour of his men. “I found no way to make them continue fire,” he explained:

“Not one man in twenty-five voluntarily used his weapon. When I ordered men who were right around me to fire, they did so. But the moment I passed on, they quit. I walked up and down the line shouting “God damn it! Start shooting!” But it did little good. They fired only when I watched them.”

It was testimony like this that prompted a complete re-think within the US military about how to train soldiers to overcome their natural resistance to killing. Turning to the work of the popular behaviourist psychologists of the day – especially B F Skinner – the military set about transforming their training programmes, using behaviourist principles to desensitise their troops to the effects of killing other human beings. The key idea was simply that the empathetic connection between human beings needed to be broken by the constant practise and repetition of killing in a situation that, as closely as possible, simulated the feel of the combat environment.

The combination of repetition and desensitisation, underscored by a strong sense of group absolution, enabled the natural human instinct against killing to be overcome. Using these basic techniques, the firing rate of ordinary soldiers was transformed. By the time of the Korean War in 1950, the rate had more than doubled.

How does this connect to video games? Perhaps the most influential exponent of the Slam Marshall line is former Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman, whose book On Killing (1996) has become required reading at military academies around the world. According to Grossman, first person shooter video games replicate exactly the same techniques that the military have used to get soldiers to kill: repetition and desensitisation. Thus, for Grossman, video games can act as “murder simulators”.

“They act just like police and military simulators, providing conditioned responses, killing skills and desensitization, except they are inflicted on children without the discipline of military and police training.
 If we intentionally tried to raise a generation cocked and primed to kill, we could not have done a better job.”

These conclusions issued in a whole host of influential studies, including Grossman’s co-authored Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill (1999) and Assassination Generation (2016).

The case against these books is pretty straightforward. Many millions of young people play Grand Theft Auto without turning into psychotic killers. And gamers have a strong case when they argue that the NRA point to the video games industry as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the real cause of the epidemic of mass murder that blights the US: the simple availability of military-grade weapons.

But both intention and opportunity need to be considered here – and video games relate to intention whereas the availability of weapons relate to opportunity. It is perfectly conceivable that both may shoulder their fair share of blame.

As I watch my sofa-rooted teenager, console in hand, blasting his way through the summer holidays, I know perfectly well that he will never act out in reality what he plays out on the screen. But I retain a residual commitment to the idea that we become what we practise to be. And the real world experience of the military, whose job it is turn naturally empathetic children into professional killers, gives me some pause to wonder what it would take to turn him into a fighter.

The problem with the various pet theories that people have about the causes of gun crime is that they have become both so reductive and so highly politicised that one explanation is too often set against another. The interplay of societal breakdown, a culture that celebrates violence, weak gun laws, white male resentment, the role of alcohol and mental health: one could go on – and most social scientists tend to say that there still isn’t enough data to really work out what is really going on.

In 1996, and under pressure from the NRA, Congress withdrew public funding for the study of gun violence; there is a national database of car crash deaths, for example, but still no such equivalent for gun violence. Given the epidemic proportions of mass shootings in the US, the idea that even its study is a political football is totally absurd.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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simon taylor
simon taylor
4 years ago

Quite frankly bloody terrifying. I can find nothing to disagree with in my own experiences.

Peter KE
Peter KE
4 years ago

An aspect not mentioned is that the ccp have released onto the world the covid-19 virus. This is a biological warfare attack either in error or intentional. We need to hold the ccp as a state that has committed foul war crimes against the world. Investigation and trials need to be held and reparations for this attack and the last 25+ years of evil need to be made.

William meadows
William meadows
4 years ago

I read years ago, that before WW2, France and Germany were each others biggest trading partners. Make what you will of that.

Neil Baird
Neil Baird
4 years ago

Thanks very much for the article. Recently, I read a paper titled China’s Vision
for a New World Order. (The National Bureau of Asian Research NBR special report #83 | January 2020) by NadÚge Rolland. This enlightened me with a better understanding of the concept of the Chinese “tianxia” system and a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture.
However, this idea of real politik seems to get in the way, notwithstanding, that we lack world leaders who have the skills and knowledge to engage effectively and empathically with the CCP with hope of influence and change.

T J Putnam
T J Putnam
4 years ago

A lot of the early airborne transmission research focused on droplets, lacking the technology to capture nano particles. As these have been included it’s become clear that 4m dispersion is not unusual and that the virus continues to circulate indefinitely in enclosed environments and ventilation systems as these particles are not heavy enough to sink. The question then is how much exposure triggers infection. If 2m is no longer a magic number neither is any distance in a shared space.
Sticking to 2m in the UK has been the product of a dance between politicians and health authorities involving the wish to relax restrictions despite higher remaining levels of infection and less developed controls and countermeasures than other European countries. Additionally some around No 10 don’t think mask wearing fits with their idea of Britishness, and for quite a while there haven’t been many around. Few constraints left, apart from 2m, now that’s going too the warnings are pouring in, including from those with key roles in the system.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

In the early days there were a relatively small number of fairly simple rules for the masses to follow. This was backed up by more detailed guidance, which few people read or even knew existed. Dominic Cumming probably had a hand in reviewing some of the guidance and most certainly knew what it said, which is why he got away with doing what he did from a legal perspective and had he been sacked could have successfully sued for wrongful dismissal.

As things have moved on the rules have become more numerous and complex, necessarily so if you are going to do it by rules. The most sensible thing Boris said was we need to trust the British people to use their common sense to manage the risks. As someone who does risk management in various forms for a living, I am entirely happy. The problem is we are a nation of rule followers and we have a mainstream media that likes to make big deals out of inconsistencies in the rules and politicians who think they can score easy points and make themselves look clever by doing the same.

Rather than messing around with rules that fewer and fewer people are following (why have the police not broken up the various protests which have been illegal under the Covid social distancing legislation, issuing fines to thousands of people a day as they are empowered by law to do?) but instead clearly explain the risks and provide advice on how best to manage them in practical situations.

Peter KE
Peter KE
4 years ago

A load of rubbish, this is about individual responsibility not just the state. A few large warehouse hostels can provide a place for a cot/z-bed. Let’s stop the left wing drivelling and get some responsibility above the next high.

Peter KE
Peter KE
4 years ago

Sorry let’s not over complicate this. The people advising the government were at best useless. Five a day in the right direction is a great analogy for 2 metres distancing as being fairly arbitrary but great as an initial idea that could be revised. Overall the science support for the government has been pathetic, with poor modelling and rigidity in moving to the next stage. Our approach should have been like Sweden, the immediate death rates no worse and the real point the long term economic and death rates much better. How can anybody have thought closing schools was necessary or flooding care homes with infected people would be a good idea. All of the SAGE committee should be sacked along with PHE and various other NHS quangos and the department of health.

Michael Yeadon
Michael Yeadon
4 years ago

I’d love to comment, because if I did, it would be to commiserate about the SSC shutdown & the wider point – that it’s almost impossible to have a civil debate with someone who takes a different view – yet, if I did, I’d probably be cancelled by teatime.
An example. I’ve only recently used Twitter, although I registered an account some years back. Early on, almost every comment drew criticism that “I must be a troll, virtually no followers yet been registered for years”. Explaining how that happened cut no ice. Still a Nazi/ homophobe / denier etc.
Anyway, I’ve been in the thick of it on covid19. As someone with several decades senior leadership experience in quantitative, applied bioscience, I’m qualified to read into new areas, assess the quality of evidence & data and to write coherent pieces. I’ve developed certain views on the topic which have the handy feature of prediction which leads to ready invalidation, which so far hadn’t happened. Perhaps I’m correct, or at least not so grossly in error that deviation from what I expect hadn’t yet occurred.
Time & again, even though I don’t, I’m accused of making things up (I include published, peer reviewed articles), not having any idea “how science works” & as usual, being a troll / alt-right / murderer / sociopath etc. I might be any of these things (I don’t think I am) but it certainly wouldn’t be possible to infer them from anything I’d written.
The point of drawback came after a few, particularly unpleasant account holders decided I needed to be silenced & their approach was to find out who I was IRL and to then publicly attack that real person online. If you’ve not had that happen, it might not be easy to explain how that feels. But it certainly prompted me to consider whether the (almost certainly) low risk of something real happening to me or my family was worth taking, in order to continue the online debate. I’ve not decided yet.

John Lewis
John Lewis
4 years ago

I first became aware of Scott Alexander as the author of the excellent web fiction UNSONG (United Nations Sub-committee on Names of God). A very entertaining read which thankfully is still online.

Good luck Scott. You’ve given a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

http://unsongbook.com/

Iliya Kuryakin
Iliya Kuryakin
4 years ago

A poor article. Fails to distinguish between homelessness and rough sleeping (they’re very different) and no explanation of what drives either.