Lt. Col. David Grossman

Lt. Col. David Grossman (U.S. Army Ret.), an expert on the psychology of killing, has written On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. He also teaches psychology at Arkansas State University, directs the Killology Research Group in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and has coined the term "killology" for a new interdisciplinary field: the study of the methods and psychological effects of training army recruits to circumvent their natural inhibitions to killing fellow human beings.

Grossman, who has appeared on numerous news programs to discuss his views, agreed to be interviewed by SKIRMISHER Editor-in-Chief Michael J. Varhola. Most of the following questions were inspired by statements about video games that Grossman has made in his writings and in the media.

SKIRMISHER: How can games like Doom be "mass-murder simulators" when the opponents in such games fight back, are often non-human in appearance, and are always armed and dangerous, rather than unarmed, human, and helpless?

Lt. Col. Grossman: That is a little like asking how can a flight simulator be a flight simulator even if it is used to fight aircraft that fight back (they don't really of course, they have no real ability to kill you), and those "enemy" aircraft are (sometimes but certainly not always) non-human in nature. Certainly the ones where you fight humans are more egregious, but the basic skills being taught apply across the board. If this is your defense, then you must accept that games like Postal are guilty. (In Postal the player "goes postal" and wanders around town gunning down unarmed citizens including cheerleaders and the school marching band as they moan and beg for mercy.) If you accept that Postal has gone too far then we agree that there are some of these "games" that are "beyond the pale," in which case we agree; we just disagree about where to draw the line.

Remember, these games (especially the "fire arms trainers" where you hold a gun in your hand) will almost definitely not be found to have 1st Amendment protection. They are appliances, simulators. Even a book, such as The Assassin's Handbook when its guidance and training was followed to commit real murders, was found to be subject to civil liability by the Supreme Court. If they are willing to hammer the written word (which clearly does fall under the 1st Amendment) when it teaches you to kill, how can you possibly expect these killing simulators to fall under the 1st Amendment?

I was on TV with a prosecutor who told how a father taught his 8-year old how to use and fire a gun. When the kid used that training to kill someone, the father was charged with manslaughter and convicted. The father was using free speech to train his son, but what he trained the son to do was not acceptable by society and he is now a convicted felon because of it. The extension of this legal process to the designers, manufacturers, and distributors of killing trainers should be obvious.

Whether you like it or not, you must recognize the direction that the law is likely to go in this instance, and start doing what you have to do to protect yourself from the reasonable demands of your society to seek redress when you helped to bring about (I believe the legal term is "proximate cause") a violent criminal act. Everyone in the United States has the right to shout "fire" but if you do so, negligently, on a crowded plane, you will be sued for the pain and suffering that results from your action. Again, even the 1st Amendment does not protect you from such predictably harmful speech, and it is very doubtful that this will even be accepted as free speech. These are, in fact, fire arms trainers, and those who put them in the hands of children will be treated by our society, in the years to come, in the same manner as those who give children unrestricted access to guns.

SKIRMISHER: You mentioned on one news program that Doom was not the worst video game available today, just the one that the Littleton killers played. Which games are worse than Doom and why? Are such games more dangerous for younger people than for older ones?

Lt. Col. Grossman: Postal is an example of a far worse game (shooting innocent victims) and certainly the ones where you actually hold a gun in your hand are doing a more precise degree of teaching motor skills. Although remember, many "mouse/keyboard" games (such as Doom) are now played with joysticks, which can be essentially a pistol grip, complete with a trigger. One recent ad for such a joystick that provides feedback (thus the gun can "kick" in your hand when you pull the trigger) said, in Sports Illustrated For Kids: "Psychologists say it is important to feel something when you kill." You think that a jury of 12 Americans are not going to start foaming at the mouth when they see that? This is just one example of how, in their advertising, the industry is selling their product as "killing simulators."

This whole industry is very liable, and now the genie is out of the bottle with these law suits, I fear that the video game industry may well become the new tobacco industry, except that the tobacco industry (like the alcohol and gun industries) never overtly marketed to kids. The other real condemnation of this industry is that the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms industries have no choice but to market those products. That is, if they cannot sell alcohol, tobacco, or firearms, they cannot sell anything and must go out of business. But the video game industry can market nonviolent games (we all know of many good ones) and they can thrive and prosper without the violent games. They just choose not to do so. These are two reasons (marketing to minors and viable alternatives) why this industry is truly in deep trouble when they find themselves before an American jury in product liability law suits.

Violent games are particularly dangerous to children, just like, guns, tobacco, firearms, pornography, and drugs; we all agree that there are products that adults can handle (or at least the risk to society from these products is considered acceptable) but kids can not. That is why we have ratings on movies: there are certain things we all agree kids under 13 or 17 may have trouble digesting and only a parent has the authority to let the child do so if they are under the prescribed age. This concept of needing to protect children is completely imbedded in science, law, and common culture. An industry that tries to go against science, law and culture is quite simply "Doom"ed.

SKIRMISHER: Does the U.S. government/military actually use games or interactive video simulators to train or desensitize personnel? Does anyone use such devices for training? Should government or military agencies use such training aids for certain purposes?

Lt. Col. Grossman: These devices are used extensively. You are a journalist, do some journalistic investigation. Start with flight simulators. Then look at tank crew simulators. Then look at the MARKS trainer the Army uses (generally it can be found in any National Guard armory) which is essentially like "Duck Hunt" except with a plastic M-16, firing at typical military targets on a screen. It is an excellent, ubiquitous, military training device and it is manufactured by Nintendo. Now, Nintendo cannot market this product to the Army as a training device and then claim that the device is harmless when they sell it to your kid. The Marines did the same thing with Doom, with a license from Id Software to produce "Marine Doom," and use it as a tactical training device (as opposed to teaching motor skills, although when used with a pistol grip joystick it has some value there too).

SKIRMISHER: In your writings you have demonstrated that U.S. military personnel have become increasingly more willing to kill on the battlefield. Does anyone benefit from this? Does it contribute to U.S. military preparedness or effectiveness on the battlefield?

Lt. Col. Grossman: Of course having soldiers who are able to pull the trigger is important and useful. And having soldiers or cops who cannot pull the trigger to save their lives or the lives of others is really not a very good thing. There is a vast gulf, a leap, between being an ordinary citizen and gunning down an unsuspecting human being in an ambush, even in war. The military recognized this after WWII when we discovered that firing at bullseyes in training did not properly prepare soldiers for combat. Soldiers needed an intermediate step to bridge that "gulf" between "good citizen" and "killer," and so they began to develop simulators. The first simulators were just "simulated people" as targets, and that was pretty much sufficient to increase the firing many fold. But pop-up targets and firing ranges are expensive, and bullets are expensive, and so we developed simulations even further, until today the entire event of killing is simulated in the military and the law enforcement world. Go to your local law enforcement department and tell them you would like to look at their FATS trainer (fire arms training simulator). Then go to the local video arcade and play Time Crisis complete with guns that have the slides slam back when you pull the trigger. Now can you understand why cops around the world are enraged by people who put these in the hands of kids? And the juries are not far behind.

By the way, in the Paducah law suit, the heads of every major national and international law enforcement training organization have personally told me that they are willing to testify (for free, no hired guns here) to the effect that these "video games" are identical to law enforcement firearms training devices, except with the safety catch turned off. Sure, there are "no shoot" targets in some video games, but if you try to use this logic to defend the games then you accept that they are like cop trainers (which should not be in the hands of kids), and oh by the way, if a cop or soldier shoots at the wrong target, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong direction, ultimately they can and will be fired. This is the kind of real discipline and the kind of real character development that makes this generally safe in military/cop hands, but absolutely unacceptable in the hands of children.

But we are not judging the military or the law enforcement community here. They are not and will not be on trial for teaching people to kill. (They have this funny discipline and character development that comes with the package.) And yet many people do have qualms about that, and if so then believe me those qualms will be magnified many fold when faced with people who do the same thing to children.

SKIRMISHER: Do you think non-video games like Dungeons and Dragons or Magic pose the same dangers as video games?

Lt. Col. Grossman: No. You cannot operantly or classically condition someone with a book or a deck of cards unless you hit them with it, but the violence simulators are doing to kids what flight simulators do for pilots. Not every kid who plays violent video games will become a killer, but the risk is unacceptable. There are (supposedly) 16 million kids in the United States with access to guns. In any given year 15,990,000 of those kids do not do any harm, but the potential harm presented by the remaining .0006 percent is so great that our society, from the NRA to the ACLU, all agree on restricting child access to guns. The same kind of restriction is now needed for the killing trainers as is needed for the killing instruments. And if I give a kid a gun I can take it away and lock it up. If I give him the ability and the desire to use the gun, I can't take that away.

SKIRMISHER: What do you recommend as a solution for the problems posed by violent interactive video games?

Lt. Col. Grossman: The solution is education, legislation, and litigation.

Education. The American Medical Association has stated "Media violence is America's number one health care emergency." The AMA, the APA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Attorney General, the Surgeon General, and the United Nations (in a major UNESCO study) have all linked violent visual media with violent behavior. In the United States, per capita aggravated assault has gone up almost sevenfold since 1957. (You must use assault to gauge the problem since medical technology saves ever more lives every year.) In Canada the assault rate has gone up fivefold since 1964. In the 15 years between 1977 and 1993, the per capita "serious assault" rate went up approximately fivefold in Norway and Greece, fourfold in Australia and New Zealand, tripled in Sweden, and doubled in seven other European nations including England. Media violence is the only common factor in all these nations and every major national and international medical and scientific body that has studied this issue has identified the effect of media violence on kids as a key factor in this virus of violence. Parents must be educated about the risks posed to their children by media violence. Psychologically speaking, violence is the single most toxic substance any person can take in, and parents must be educated about the desperate need to protect their kids from this toxic substance.

Legislation. Keeping your kid away from violent entertainment is the parent's responsibility, and those who fail to do so will end up on the wrong side of lawsuits in the years to come when their kids commit violent crimes. But keeping kids away from alcohol, tobacco, firearms, drugs, and pornography is also a parent's responsibility and our society helps the parents protect their kids with laws and regulations that say anyone who gives kids unrestricted access to these substances is a criminal. In the same way, we need to help parents protect their kids from this substance. In particular, violent "first person shooter" video games should be for adults only.

Litigation. Finally, the answer to this problem is as American as apple pie. Sue the bums. Because of our litigation system we have the safest cars and the most well-trained cops in history. The real answer is to hit the whole violence industry right where they live: in the wallet. They sell violence in order to make money. (And don't say they have the right to sell it because people will buy it, that is drug dealer logic.) If they are full members of the market place, then the health of the society demands that they be fully liable to law suits just like anyone else who provides a product or service in our nation.

E-mail a response to this interview

Can Games Kill?

Read "Trained to Kill" by Lt. Col. Grossman

















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