Various media sources have been giving a lot of attention recently to the role of violence in video games and its effect on the players. The two basic positions are that either the worst of these games have an undesirable and negative effect on the player or that no, the players can separate fantasy from reality and have no problem from playing these games. Perhaps it can be either, depending on the player but it’s clear that we should continue to collect the data and document the results.
To understand some of the effects of video games, you need to go back to debriefings conducted by the U.S. Army after WWII. Interviewing soldiers returning from battle, researchers discovered a disturbing fact. A significant number of soldiers had been face to face with an enemy soldier, rifle in hand, enemy in their sights, gun not jammed, and had not fired. Something deep in their being, some sort of innate humanity, or values instilled early on, had prevented them from actually pulling the trigger.
This was very disturbing to the military. They began a research effort to figure out what to do about this problem. They discovered that in the heat of battle, under the incredible physical and psychological stress of being faced with another human being you were supposed to kill, the higher mental functions were largely absent. Under such conditions, the mind reverts to much simpler modes of operation, to deeply wired, almost instinctive behaviors. In other words, no amount of target practice and classroom lectures about how you’re supposed to kill the enemy had much effect when it counted.
Over the following decades and wars, the Army learned that the way to get soldiers to reliably pull the trigger was to use very basic, repetitive operant conditioning, along the lines of standard behaviorist theory. Behaviorism provides a poor model for how humans act in everyday life, but it turns out to be a fairly good model for how humans act when they are under stress and have to act quickly, and are responding primarily to fear. Under stress, fearful people do what they have been conditioned to do. That is one reason we have repetitive fire drills, so that we know how to react in an urgent situation.
The Army’s solution was to replace dry target practice with realistic training grounds, complete with pop-up targets, loud noises, smoke, stress, the works. The goal was to condition the soldiers: if it moves, shoot it now, don’t think about it. Repetition, repetition, repetition: Target pops up, you shoot. Target pops up, you shoot. Do that often enough, and, research shows, next time you see something pop up, you are more likely to shoot it, even if it’s a real human in a real battle. Sometimes it’s called “friendly fire” when it is a mistake. This is not just a theory, it is documented by exit interviews from soldiers in later wars: The Army got what it wanted.
What does this have to do with video games? The answer should be obvious. The whole point is, if it moves, shoot it. Again and again and again. The military uses all kinds of expensive simulators, basically high powered video games, similar to what kids use every day, to train its recruits and to overcome the aversion to killing. And there is evidence to suggest that those who are expert at gaming are some of the best and most effective fighter pilots and soldiers. In the end, if you believe in war, maybe video gaming is a good thing for survival! The downside is that, in most cases, the enemy is also trained in shoot to kill. Is it that he who presses the right buttons faster wins?
The cost for soldiers who survive, as witnessed by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating. As many as one-third of the homeless men in the U.S. are Viet Nam veterans, most of them suffering from PTSD and we are only beginning to count the cost from the years of human destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
What can we learn from this? Whether or not violent video games cause aggressive behavior may not be the real issue. Perhaps the real question that needs to be explored is whether video gaming might contribute to an acceptance of the need to destroy the “enemy” without any need to feel anger or anything that can be consciously identified as aggressive behavior. After all, it’s just a game.
Here is a sample:
Not every child or adult playing video games will develop aggressive behaviors and only a small percentage will become soldiers who are trained to do what soldiers must do. The point is that both children and adults can be easily influenced by the media and high powered, well- conceived video games. What the short and long term results are will continue to be debated but there is compelling evidence to suggest we better take a hard look at what is happening as a result of violent video gaming.