Makin’ a List, Checkin’ It Twice

"Makin' a list and checkin' it twice" is a better idea than ever this year as parents get ready for Christmas. When your kids compile their wish list, you need to be aware that some games may not just be a choice between "naughty and nice." Some could actually be lethal. Am I exaggerating? Not according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor and Army Ranger who now teaches at Arkansas State University. In his research in "killology," the study of killing in combat, Prof. Grossman has found that the vast majority of soldiers, even in "kill or be killed" situations, are very reluctant to shoot. But kids today, he warns, are learning just the opposite: that killing is okay and that a well-aimed bullet solves problems. Grossman documents his findings in two books: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, published in 1996, and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, co-authored with Gloria DeGaetano in 1999. During warfare, Grossman says, a small minority of soldiers -- about 15 percent -- actually do any killing. And most of these feel revulsion when they do it. The other 85 percent either refuse to fire or deliberately miss the target. In recent years, the military has devised techniques to raise the firing rate to 90 percent -- using techniques based on the behavioral psychology of Pavlov and B. F. Skinner. Pavlov, you may recall, taught dogs to salivate when they heard a bell ring. Combat training uses the same kind of conditioned response to make soldiers stop thinking with the forebrain and react with the midbrain: the reflexive, animal-like portion of the brain. In other words, they're conditioned to respond to a moving target with a "don't think, just shoot" reaction. How does that work? Grossman says, "The soldier stands in a foxhole with full combat equipment, and man-shaped targets pop up briefly in front of him. These . . . eliciting stimuli . . . prompt the target behavior of shooting. If the target is hit, it immediately drops, thus providing immediate feedback." But here's the scary part. Many video games use the same techniques, but without the controlling restraints of the military environment. Soldiers only shoot and kill on orders, and firing without orders brings serious punishment. But what happens when kids play violent video games? They learn the same hair-trigger behaviors and an us- versus-them attitude -- but without the context of obedience to a command. One expert calls violent video games "murder trainers." And Grossman agrees, saying that violent media are not just conditioning people to be violent, but are also developing hand-eye coordination of the trigger finger -- teaching the very mechanics of killing. So parents, when your kids make that Christmas list, check it twice. And you might want to visit our BreakPoint website, which will tell you how to get a printed copy of The Family New Media Guide -- covering not just computer games, but also films, audio tapes and online services. These resources will help you shop wisely for Christmas -- to know which games on your children's "must have" list, are actually dangerous devices they "must NOT have!"   For further reading: Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996. Grossman, David and Gloria DeGaetano. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.


Chuck Colson


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