Video Born Killers

by Yolanda Corduff

The brave new world of computer-generated virtual-realities, blockbuster action films and violent video games has spawned many new industries, most reaping financial benefits many of us can only dream of. Training people in the use of violence has also seen the birth of a new arm of science, known collectively as KILLOLOGY, the study of methods used to teach humans to overcome their innate aversion to killing other humans. The training methods identified through Killology are used by the world’s military to prepare modern combat troops for warfare and, later, for their safe return to civilian life. However, many of the same training methods now used by the military and law enforcement agencies are also being exploited by the makers of violent computer games and other simulated-violence entertainment, breeding a generation of combat-ready civilians that no-one’s deprogramming.

Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman is an expert on killing -- what he doesn’t know about the subject isn’t worth knowing.

Grossman has studied most aspects of the psychology of killing, from the physiological effects of being in a life-and-death situation to the commonality of wetting and soiling your pants when under fire. Grossman can tell you how fast your heart beats during combat, up to 300 beats a minute, and the effects such accelerate heart rates can have on your body, like the heightening of animal survival instincts at the expense of higher human functions such as logical reasoning.

Yep, when it comes to understanding the act of killing, in all its glory and all its depravity, Grossman is your man.

As the founder and director of the Killology Research Group in Arkansas, it was Grossman who first coined the term ‘killology’ for the new interdisciplinary field that studies the destructive act, methods by which humans are trained and enabled to kill other humans in order to be more effective on the battlefield. He’s even written books about it including the Pulitzer-nominated On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and the more recent Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill.

So when someone from the kind of background Grossman has, which includes being a West Point psychology professor, professor of military science and an expert in the field of human aggression, when someone like that tells you our society is in deep shit, you’d better listen.

“It angers me more than I could possibly say to know that our children are learning to kill and learning to like it so that some corporation can put money in their pockets,” says Grossman emphatically. “It is the single, vilest, most despicable act that is occurring in our civilization today as far as I’m concerned.”

Grossman is talking about the new, ultra-violent video and computer games that are now readily available to anyone who knows how buy through the internet, has a home computer or playstation and the stomach to spend hours and hours simulating murder sprees in the comfort of their own home.

Violent computer games are also sold in local computer stores for as little as $9.95, many with advertising slogans like ‘More Fun Than Killing Babies With An Ax’ and ‘The Killer In Me Is Just Beginning’.

Some games, like Kingpin: Life of Crime, boast arsenals of lethal weapons that include lead pipes, pistols, sawed-off pump shotguns, Thompson sub-machine guns (a.k.a. Tommy Gun), multi-grenade launchers, rocket launchers, flame throwers and concussion rifles that “basically blow the Hell outta yah”.

Globally, video game revenue exceeds $US18 billion annually and the technology improves daily, making each new game that much more graphic and that much more violent.

But if you think these new forms of violent entertainment are just games, think again. Most mimic the exact training methods used by US military and police organisations to prepare their recruits for armed combat, specifically teaching them to have the will to kill another human being when, and if, that becomes necessary. Similar training methods, such as Firearms Training System (FATS), are also used by some Australian military and law enforcement agencies.

"These [computer simulation] devices are used extensively,” says Grossman, who believes the character building and discipline that goes with military and police training provide safeguards to society that the civilian use of similar games do not. “The MARKS trainer the Army uses is essentially like the computer game ‘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 the computer game ‘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,” adds Grossman, explaining that increased research into the effectiveness of combat troops after WW2 led to new training strategies.

The first strategy the military introduced was pop-up man-shaped targets, in the 50s and 60s, that raised firing rates from the dismal 15-20 per cent rate of WW2 to the 95 per cent firing rate of the Vietnam war. The civilian world soon copied the military but did it cheaper and better with video simulators. Then the military took some of these civilian simulators right off the shelf and began developing ever better simulators, working in conjunction with civilian video game companies, never dreaming this technology would eventually end up as mainstream as Super Mario Brothers.
In the hands of children, these new computer ‘games’ are nothing short of ‘murder simulators’ that can desensitize users to the act of killing as well as increasing their skills at aiming and operating a weapon. For evidence of the effectiveness of these computerised murder simulators, you need look no further than the succession of school shootings occurring in the US with increasing regularity.

One school shooting in particular rang warning bells so loudly, it’s a wonder violent computer games are even still on the market.

Not many people had heard of Paducah, Kentucky, back in 1997. Not until 14-year-old, Michael Carneal, went on a shooting rampage at his local high school, murdering three students and wounding five others. The December 1st killing spree left another American community grief stricken but the details of the shooting may be even more chilling than the aftermath of the event.

You see, Carneal had never shot a handgun in his life before he stole one from a neighbour. When he got to school with his gun, Carneal planted his feet and never moved them at all during the entire ordeal. His face held a blank expression as Carneal began to shoot, just as a prayer meeting was breaking up, the participants becoming his unwary victims.

As he emptied the gun, Carneal never shot far to the right or far to the left, just straight at the targets that came up in front of him. He could have been shooting into a video screen but he wasn’t ‘playing’ on this occasion -- he was shooting real people and with a level of accuracy that has rarely been repeated in the annals of law enforcement, military or criminal history. His eight bullets hit eight different targets, five of them were head shots, the remaining three were hits to the upper torso. This from a boy with no experience in the use of guns but a whole lot of experience on point-and-shoot video games that he’d played for hundreds of hours in local arcades and at home.
According to the FBI, an average experienced law enforcement officer, in an average shoot-out within a range of approximately seven yards, generally hits one target for every five shots taken. Hitting eight out of eight targets, with one bullet for each, was literally unheard of before the Carneal incident.

That’s how good the new violent computer games can be at teaching the theory and practise of killing.

“The more realistic the simulator, the better the ability to transfer the simulation to reality,” says Grossman, noting that many of the newer computer games allow users to scan their own backgrounds and ‘morph’ the faces of people they know into their computer game simulations. “Realism is the ‘Holy Grail’ of this industry. You ain't seen nothing yet, when it comes to realistic video simulators. And you ain't seen nothing yet, when it comes to mass murders either. We have not even begun to see the impact of bombs in mass murders. THAT is the wave of the future, something that video games also ‘script’, since in all the violent ones, at the highest levels, the big rewards are usually bombs, rocket launchers, grenades, pipe bombs, sticks of TNT, barrels of gunpowder, or some other instrument to rack up a really big body count. Remember, you heard it here first.”

Perhaps the most infamous of the many school shootings that have occurred recently was the April 1999 Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado, that left fifteen dead. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the suicidal killers involved, were avid violent computer game fanatics. They had both played hundreds of hours of Doom, Harris reprogramming his edition of the game to look like his neighbourhood, complete with the houses of the people he hated.

As the boys went from room to room stalking their prey in a killing spree resembling the cyberworld of a typical Doom scenario, both laughed as they shot everyone in sight. The Columbine killers, who had planned their mission a year in advance, hoped to rack up a score of 500 dead, using pipe bombs and other explosive devices to increase the death toll. And they were even willing to die in the process.

That level of fanaticism might be expected from a radical terrorist, not from two school boys in a well-to-do suburb of middle America.

Shocking as these school shootings may be, the designers of violent computer games are not convinced the blame for these kinds of atrocities lie with their products. Many even suggest there’s a need for some simulated, virtual violence in our society so people can satisfy their aggressive fantasies without acting them out.

Responding to criticisms about violent computer games made on the SKIRMISHER website, Robert Atkins, from Ritual Entertainment, writes in part, “It’s not real. Those are polygon models that I saw someone create. That’s an illusion -- this is a key point. There are sick people out there who maybe can’t make the distinction. That’s unfortunate. But I just think it’s entertainment.

“All we can do is rate these games ‘mature.’ Other than making it illegal, what can the industry do? In a perfect world, we could say, ‘Okay, we’ll stop feeding this hunger people have for violent stuff.’ But it isn’t going to happen. Hollywood will continue to make this stuff, and video gamers will continue. We’re going to continue to make the games we want to play,” he adds.

Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, defends his products on ZDNET website, saying, “Video games are not the source of violence in our society. That’s like blaming illiteracy on television. Its time we look at the availability of guns and dysfunctional families as the source of violence-not games.”

Others in the industry point to the existing ratings system, which classifies computer games as being suitable for specific audiences, and suggest parents hold the responsibility for ensuring games don’t get into the wrong hands.

But Grossman isn’t swayed by these arguments and he doesn’t think the rest of us should be either.

“By embracing violent computer games as children’s entertainment, we’re breeding a generation of combat-ready civilians,” says Grossman resolutely. “The problem is I do not know of any way to ‘deprogram’ people. There is a ‘decay’ of the skills if we stop doing it, but the effect is like smoking or child abuse. Stopping the behaviour reduces the risk, but you can never completely undo the harm.”

So, in an effort to keep our kids entertained in a ‘safe’ way, it appears we may actually be cultivating lethal tendencies in them that few could consider safe.


© Yolanda Corduff
First published in Australian Penthouse, January 2001

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem