Technology: Violence and Video Games

Phi Delta Kappan, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Technology: Violence and Video Games


TO BE honest, I have been avoiding the issues of violent video games and nasty Internet sites for a long time now. It seems to me that most people who discuss either topic seem to hold extreme views at one end or the other of the liberal/conservative spectrum. And I must admit that at heart I am an advocate of First Amendment rights who falls just short of being a civil libertarian. For instance, I believe that requiring public school students to wear uniforms is a violation of their right to free expression. However, in the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy and the resulting frenzy of legislative activity designed to enact new laws about video games and Internet sites, I feel compelled to discuss these issues in my column.

Polarized views on controversial topics are not new, especially in the U.S. Fortunately, several new research studies are available that help us understand video games, "gamers," and related topics.

The Famous Grossman Quote

Here are some words about the sensational remarks (published nearly everywhere) of Lt. Col. David Grossman. Specifically, what follow are two differing views of Grossman and his comments. The first is taken from a paper at the website of the National Institute on Media and the Family.

Perhaps the most significant report to date comes from Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing. Before retiring from the military, Grossman spent over 25 years learning and studying how to enable soldiers to kill. Because killing does not come naturally, the armed forces have developed specific programs to train soldiers how to kill. The biggest barrier to killing is the psychological resistance, not technical skills involved in firing a weapon accurately. Grossman explains how psychological conditioning techniques were systematically applied to successfully eliminate that resistance.

As an acknowledged expert on "kill-ology," Grossman's insights are particularly valuable. In recent writings and interviews, Grossman has been very clear. The techniques used by the Army to enable soldiers to kill are the very same techniques used in today's violent video games.1

Here is another, quite different view of press coverage of Grossman's statements, by Greg Costikyan, a designer of board, simulation, and video games, as reported in the online magazine Salon.

The press has reported that Lt. Col. David Grossman claims that games like Quake are good training for murder, because they teach you to "clear the room" by moving quickly from target to target and aiming for the head. They teach you to avoid the novice hunter's or soldier's mistake of shooting repeatedly at the same target until the target drops, and instead use only a single shot.

On the basis of this, I have my doubt that Grossman has ever actually played Quake. No monster in Quake can be killed with a single shot: at least two hits are required. It is impossible to make a "head shot"; Quake makes no distinction between shots that strike at different locations on a target's body. And if you stay still long enough to pick your targets and get off head shots, you're dead. You must keep moving to evade enemy fire. You snap off shots when you can.

Costikyan goes on to argue:

They're blowing up pixels. They're killing bitmaps. They're shooting at software subroutines.

They're not a threat to public order. . . . What they're doing makes them less likely to be a threat to public order. They're getting their jones - they're satisfying their antisocial impulses in a completely harmless way.

Violent computer games don't spur violence; violent computer games channel antisocial behavior in societally acceptable ways.

Games are good.2 Two New Studies

Because of the unrelenting advance of technology, research on video games conducted as little as five years ago is ancient. Fortunately, amid all the media hysteria, two new studies have recently been published that offer insights into the phenomenon of video games. …

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