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Programmed to kill: Violent video games teach players to kill without any ramifications or remorse, a formula for disaster when the game ends and real life begins, says a professor of "killology."

By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000

[Times photo: Paul Connors / AP]
Retired U.S. Army Ranger Dave Grossman says violent video games are a threat that should be taken seriously.
On Dec. 1, 1997, Michael Carneal inserted a pair of ear plugs, strode up to a student prayer circle at his high school in Kentucky and opened fire with a stolen .22-caliber pistol.

As if in a trance, he squeezed off eight to 10 shots, killing three students and wounding five others.

"He ... got eight hits on eight different targets, five of them head shots," said Dave Grossman, a retired Army Ranger and former assistant professor of psychology at West Point. As a feat of marksmanship, it was "truly, truly stunning."

By comparison, Grossman cites FBI statistics that from a distance of seven yards, the average police officer hits the target in a shootout with only one of five shots. The New York officers who fired 41 times at Amadou Diallo hit him with fewer than half their shots.

So where did Michael Carneal learn to shoot?

Grossman thinks he knows. He reviewed Carneal's psychiatric evaluations and was not surprised to find that he played violent computer and video games, including Quake, Redneck Rampage and Resident Evil. The games, which Grossman refers to as hypnotic "murder simulators," are unnervingly similar to combat trainers the military uses.

"This boy was doing exactly what he was drilled to do."

During 23 years as an Army Ranger, Grossman, 43, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He never killed anyone but has made the psychology of killing his life's study.

He published On Killing in 1995 and co-authored Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill last year. He contends that point-and-shoot video games and other forms of violent entertainment give a small number of troubled teens the skills to kill -- and teach them to enjoy it.

"These killers seem to manage a high degree of denial, a rehearsed callousness," he said. "They play these video games not twice a year, but hours every night, and they shoot every living creature in sight until they run out of bullets or run out of targets."

He calls his field "killology," and he is a killologist on a crusade: He wants to roll back what he describes as a tidal wave of violent entertainment that he says smoothes the way for the kind of violence that he saw in his hometown, Jonesboro, Ark., where two middle-school boys killed four girls and a teacher.

Soldiers who won't kill; kids who will

With his high-and-tight military haircut, Dave Grossman looks a little like Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. But he sounds more like Tampa's own Bob Buckhorn.

Tidy packets of moral argument tumble out, along with an avalanche of statistics, anecdotes, psychological jargon and military slang.

It was in military history that Grossman found evidence for his theory that school shootings are a predictable byproduct of computer games and video arcade games with names like House of the Dead.

[AP photo 1998]
Michael Carneal was amazingly accurate with a handgun when he killed three students and wounded five others at his high school in Kentucky in 1997. He was also a fan of violent video games.
Grossman starts with the observation that, like most animals, humans are born with a hard-wired resistance to killing their own kind. Rattlesnakes and piranhas bite virtually anything else, but among themselves, piranhas fight with raps of their tails and rattlesnakes wrestle.

Even soldiers under fire have an aversion to killing. After the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered from the battlefield. About 24,000 of them were loaded, and about 6,000 of those single-shot weapons were found with three to 10 loads of ball and powder in the barrel.

To Grossman, it suggests that rather than kill, many soldiers pointed their guns in an attack posture, did not fire, and reloaded. One rifle was found with 23 loads in the barrel.

During World War II, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall commissioned mass interviews with soldiers from more than 400 infantry companies; only about 15 to 20 percent ever fired at the enemy.

Marshall's findings were profoundly disturbing to the Pentagon, Grossman says, so the Army changed its training. Recruits who once shot at paper bull's-eyes began shooting at pop-up targets shaped like humans while drill instructors fired machine guns overhead.

More recently, the Marine Corps has used a version of the popular computer game Doom, modified by scanning in pictures of real weapons and a G.I. Joe set in different poses.

It worked. By the Vietnam War, the rate of U.S. soldiers who would fire at the enemy had risen to more than 90 percent.

Grossman contends that the same methods that work in basic training also work on impressionable youngsters.

In South Carolina, teenager Wesley Shafer spent hundreds of dollars on point-and-shoot arcade games before he and a friend held up a convenience store. Shafer pointed a .38-caliber pistol at the clerk and, when he turned his head, shot him between the eyes.

Photo by Paul Connors / AP]
Dave Grossman calls violent video games “murder simulators.” Here he lectures students at McClintock High School in Tempe, Ariz.
"It was a mistake," Shafer told police. "It wasn't supposed to happen." Grossman, hired as an expert witness by the defense, believes Shafer's gaming taught him to shoot reflexively.

Citing studies by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Medical Association, he says young children have trouble separating fantasy from reality when they see violent depictions of suffering in movies and on TV.

It's worse, Grossman says, for kids who play games that award points for racking up high body counts or shooting victims in the head. The most susceptible are white suburban and rural boys who have "immersed themselves in a fantasy realm" and have never seen the consequences of real violence.

He stops short of blaming media violence alone for murderous "classroom avengers," who he says are influenced by factors from child abuse or neglect to peers who endorse, even abstractly, the idea of shooting up the school.

"You've got to get a lot of variables to come together to get a jackpot."

'It's just candy'

Most studies of media violence focus on the effects of television and movies, but Grossman contends those results apply to computer and arcade splatter games, too.

Even some people generally sympathetic to Grossman's larger theories say he skips lightly over gaps in the research.

University of Toledo psychologist Jeanne B. Funk began researching the link between video games and violence after her 4-year-old begged her for a Nintendo game. That was during the Persian Gulf War, when much was being made of the similarity between video games and the film coming back from American missiles and smart bombs.

Funk, who never did buy her son a Nintendo game, said Grossman makes a "decent case," but she notes there are more than 1,000 studies on TV violence and maybe only 50 on video games.

Based on the studies, she said, "you can say that there's beginning to be some support, at least for a small group of kids, that playing violent games has a measurable (negative) impact" on behavior. But Grossman doesn't stop there.

"My reading of his statements and his two books, especially his most recent book, is that he feels that things are completely proven and are completely self-evident," she said. "Many of his statements sound like there's volumes of data to back him up, and there's really not."

California sociologist Mike Males, author of the forthcoming book Juvenile Injustice: America's Youth Violence Hoax, is more skeptical. Because white kids are the ones most likely to have bought and played violent computer games in the 1990s, Males says, if Grossman is right, the rate of juvenile homicide among white teenage boys should have increased the most during that time.

It didn't. From 1990 to 1997, the number of white, non-Hispanic boys arrested for murder dropped between 12 and 52 percent in seven of the eight states that keep such records. Only in Minnesota did the number of white boys arrested for homicide go up, from four to seven.

"This is what's troubling about all of this," Males said. "Everybody will pull out the influences that they feel are wrong with society: Abuse. Psychiatric drugs. Violence in the media. Whatever you think's wrong with society is what causes the school shootings."

Dan Snyder comes to the debate from another angle. As a Marine Corps sergeant and expert marksman, he modified the computer game Doom to create a battlefield simulator to teach Marines to make quick decisions in stressful situations.

The idea that a video game could give someone the skill to shoot another person squarely between the eyes with a real gun is bunk, he said. Each kind of gun has a balance and feel all its own, and "plastic rifles and things simply don't teach marksmanship skills."

"There's a nuance to handling every one of those weapons," said Snyder, now a senior designer at Digital Sandbox, a Virginia software company working on, among other things, anti-terrorism simulators for the U.S. government.

Snyder does think that video games "that glorify violence as a problem-solver and dehumanize" targets are bad.

"You don't have to stop and consider what's going on" in games where violence has no meaningful context. "It doesn't require you to make any judgment at all. It's just candy."

'An appetite to kill'

Not surprisingly, the people who make and sell video games dispute Grossman's theories.

"The fundamental positions that he takes are not supported any by any empirical research, and he's certainly done no research of his own," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Washington-based Interactive Digital Software Association.

The association has compiled records to challenge many of Grossman's arguments, including his assertion that Michael Carneal was inexperienced with weapons. Its documentation indicates that Carneal learned to handle guns from a neighbor and a 4-H summer camp, but it also suggests he had never fired a pistol before stealing the gun he used so efficiently in his attack.

Sales of violent video games rated M, not for anyone under 17, accounted for less than 5 percent of the industry's $6.1-billion in U.S. revenues last year, Lowenstein said; 9 percent of the titles available are rated M, while another 18 to 19 percent are rated T, for teenagers, and 70 percent are rated E, for everyone.

"The rating system, if people choose to use it, can be a powerful, powerful tool to regulate access to games," Lowenstein said.

Grossman says video game makers should stop touting the violent appeal of their games, such as the marketing for the home version of the arcade game Time Crisis: "It's time we got the handguns off the streets and back where they belong -- in the hands of America's youth." Ads for a computer joystick that provides a handgun-style kick say, "Psychiatrists say it's important to feel something when you kill."

Lowenstein said calling video games "murder simulators" is nonsense, but conceded, "In the pre-Columbine period, some advertising for some games was over the line."

That industry recently enacted a voluntary code of advertising conduct.

Some people have adopted Grossman's theories as a basis for action. Coral Gables lawyer Jack Thompson represents three families of the students Michael Carneal killed in Kentucky. Thompson filed a $130-million federal lawsuit against, among others, the makers of the interactive games Redneck Rampage, Quake, Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat.

Combined, Thompson contends, Internet pornography, the school-shooting scene in the movie The Basketball Diaries and video games gave Carneal "an appetite to kill" and "made it appear to be consequence-free and glamorous."

Thompson contends that Carneal did something most people shooting a gun don't: He fired one round at each target and moved on instead of firing until the person he was shooting fell down.

Without playing games where time and ammunition are limited, he said, "there's no way to explain this marksmanship and the rapid-fire technique."

'Get used to it'

Since the shootings at Columbine High School, Grossman said, many schools have added armed school resource officers and created a "no humor zone" when it comes to talking about school violence.

But Grossman said the rest depends on keeping children away from the movies, the games and role models that would lead them to violence.

On March 1, the day after a 6-year-old shot and killed another first-grader in Michigan, the boy's father said "a cold, sinking feeling" came over him when he heard about the shooting because his son liked violent movies and television shows.

"What do I make of it?" Grossman said. "We know what ... causes this, and we know exactly how to stop it. Until we take action, get used to it."

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