by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Kristine Paulsen with Katie Miserany. Little, Brown and Company: New York, Boston, London 2016. Reviewed by Rose Dyson.
This book is a must read for every peace activist, parent, grandparent, educator, doctor, member of the helping professions, and policy maker. It is Grossman’s fifth and an update on his first, On Killing, which has been translated into seven languages. It reveals how violent video games have ushered in a new era of mass homicides and what, collectively, we must do about it.
He and his co-authors draw on crime statistics and scientific studies to show how the expanding video game industry has precipitated an epidemic of mass murders world-wide.
Video games are now widely estimated to offer some of the best investment stock options because, like tobacco, they are so addictive. Postal III, Halo, Call of Duty, School Shooter, V-Tech Rampage, which followed the real life massacre at the Virginia Tech Campus in 2007, are just a few of the examples given. Grand Theft Auto V, a game in which you cannot play the good guy because the entire premise is based on criminal behaviour, made more money in 2013 than the entire global music industry. It helps explain why so many children are dying in senseless acts of violence.
In writing On Killing Grossman concluded that, despite historic engagement in violence and war, people have an innate aversion to killing one another. To overcome this reluctance on the battlefield, psychological conditioning has been introduced into military training, based on B.F.Skinner’s stimulus-response-reward techniques. Interactive shooter video games have proven useful for this purpose. They help troops turn off their avoidance of killing but this is done in strictly controlled circumstances.
The video game industry, on the other hand, is marketing these games to the youngest, most vulnerable people on the planet. with no regard for the consequences. None of the safeguards required in the military are available at the video arcade or the home recreation room. Millions of players are being taught from an early age that killing is fun. The interactive engagement rewards players with points for blowing off the heads of as many virtual enemies as possible. Therefore, school shootings consistently demonstrate a pattern in which victims are shot directly in the head or face with an extraordinary degree of skill and marksmanship. Forensic research indicates that only a very small fraction of murderers shoot victims in the head or face. It is also rare amongst soldiers in battle.
In the first chapter we are told “It’s Worse than It Looks…”. We get a list of 23 multiple homicides committed in a school beginning in Paducah, Kentucky in 1975, and growing in frequency ever since. Video games for many kids have become mass murder simulators. But this list only includes perpetrators under the age of 18. In 2015 The New York Times investigated mass shootings and concluded that, in the U.S. alone, they now occur more than once a day. And while Grossman favors better gun controls and more attention to mental health issues, as a psychologist, he separates the B.F. Skinner psychological conditioning techniques provided by first person shooter video games from problems such as depression. He also attributes reductions in deaths to advances in medical technology and more effective emergency response measures.
He rejects the misleading classification criteria developed by the video game industry, especially the “mature” category, which is like a magnet for teenagers. Children are drawn to imitate powerful people in their environments. We call it social learning. But movies and video games that glorify violence provide violent role models. Grossman calls it “frightening” to watch a child seek to imitate these criminal antiheroes. Children around eight years of age have difficulty separating reality from fiction. From violent entertainment, they learn early that we live in a cruel, mean, violent world. One result of such constant exposure to death and destruction is “the mean world syndrome.”
The horrors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in Newton, Connecticut, those in the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre, Virginia Tech, and numerous others, all indicate common characteristics similar to those described in coverage of the 2017 Quebec Mosque massacre. Young killers’ parents frequently report an obsession with computer games. Some have been murdered by their own children when they have tried to take the games away. In Sandy Hook, the killer had shot his mother before going to the school. His computer hard drive had been intentionally damaged. Video games located in his home included Left for Dead, Metal Gear Solid, Dead Rising, Half Life, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Shin Megami Tensei, Dynasty Warriors, Vice City Team Fortress and Doom.
Killers themselves give detailed reports if they survive their rampages. A manifesto written prior to a killing spree in Isla Vista, California on May 23, 2014, resonates with the mayhem in Grand Theft Auto V. And for this killer, it all began at age six when he received his Nintendo 64, for Christmas. At age ten it was replaced with the new Playstation Two and gaming opportunities at community centres. His obsession with gaming continued until, as an adult, he killed six people and wounded 13 more.
The book cites the 1998 UNESCO review of research on media violence from 25 countries that expressed conern about a “growing aggressive culture” and the 2015 UN report, Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls, which discusses violence against women in video games and other media. Video games are becoming increasingly realistic and macabre, often including thinly veiled real life shootings such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Also there is more racism and sexual violence.
The games inspire terrorists. ISIS found it easy to recruit young people in Western democracies and there are also more right wing terrorists now. People are being taught to derive pleasure from death and suffering. Rather than being repulsed by watching a video of ISIS operatives cutting a person’s head off, they are attracted to it. Grossman cites statistics indicating that 250 Americans traveled or attempted to travel abroad to join ISIS. Some 900 active investigations against sympathizers were running in all 50 states as he was writing.
Researchers now study brain scans of young players; video games retard their ability to develop rational thinking. Grossman also shows the tragic results of addiction in older players, including their inability to develop healthy marriages or successful bonding with children. Sometimes parents and children bond over these games. Addicted adults have actually killed their own crying babies who were interrupting their gaming. Other results include bullying, cyberbullying anddysfunctional relationships.
Many familiar solutions are listed, including detox centres and summer camps. Massively Multiple Layered Online Role-Playing Games (MMO-ROGs), such as World of Warcraft, considered the most addictive kind, have led to establishment of websites such as WoWaholics Anonymous. World of Warcraft players, who pay $15 per month, now number around ten million worldwide. Media literacy programs in schools include a “Take the Challenge” program in which children learn to pressure their addicted parents to join them. Such media literacy programs have already demonstrated that if media violence is removed from a child’s life, school violence and bullying can be cut in half, obesity and nagging for toys is reduced , and test scores can be raised by double digits.
Grossman mentions the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court 7-2 ruling, which struck down a California state law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors. He urges new attempts to bring forward regulations and criticized “naive judges conned by bozo industry lobbyists in $10,000 designer suits,” as one of the dissenting judges put it. He compares “babbling” media scholars who claim to know better than the medical community to holocaust deniers. He estimates that ten percent of students suffer from pathological video game use.
Grossman calls for policy reforms and scientifically based classification criteria for media entertainment. Otherwise, he says, we all have blood on our hands.
And as we go to press, there’s a new case: The Christchurch killer’s mother explained that he had been obsessed with computer games from an early age. We have received a split-screen video showing the video of that massacre side-by-side with identical scenes in the video game Call of Duty.
Reviewed by Rose Dyson, a media analyst livng in Toronto.