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Can video-games train you to kill? I found out

I was just on the BBC, talking about a story I wrote — in which I shot a gun for the first time, to find out whether all my years of playing shoot-em-up video games has trained me to be a killer. In case you were listening and wanted to read the piece, here it is! (Click “more” when you get to the bottom to see the rest of the piece …)


I’ve played videogames all my life. And for just as long, I’ve defended their merits against the public outcry over everything from maladjusted teens to the killings at Columbine. Then I met Dave Grossman, an army lieutenant-colonel with a psychology degree. In the backwoods of Mississippi, he handed me a gun. This is what happened next.

by Clive Thompson
Originally in Shift magazine

The sun beats down like a hammer on the Mississippi firing range as Lt.-Col. Dave Grossman crouches on the ground. The heat is furious and he’s beginning to sweat a bit, his army crew cut glistening as he punches in the combination to open his safety box. Inside are two guns. Grossman pulls out a .22-caliber pistol.

This, he tells me, is the same model that fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal stole from his neighbor’s house in Paducah, Kentucky, on December 1, 1997. Carneal took the gun to a high-school prayer meeting and opened fire on the group. “He fired eight shots and got eight hits on eight different kids. He killed three and paralyzed one for life,” Grossman notes grimly in his slight Arkansas accent. It was an astonishing piece of marksmanship—a hit ratio that many highly trained police officers can’t achieve. Last year, for example, four experienced New York City cops shot at unarmed Amadou Diallo, firing forty-one bullets from barely fifteen feet away; fewer than half hit their mark.

But perhaps more startling about Carneal is another salient fact: He’d never shot a handgun before. “So how did he get such incredible aim?” Grossman asks. “Where did he get that killing ability?”

His answer: videogames. In his controversial book, “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” Grossman details how Carneal had trained for hours and hours on point-and-shoot games. The teenager had practiced killing literally thousands of people virtually; he’d learned to aim for the head in order to dispatch each victim with just one shot.

Videogames have long been blamed for provoking violence, but rarely by someone of Grossman’s background and expertise. A military man and Pulitzer-nominated authority on the psychology of killing, Grossman shot to prominence after the Columbine school massacre. In countless media appearances, he has argued that modern videogames are eerily similar to the training tools that military and law enforcement agencies use to teach soldiers and officers to kill. Kids learn these skills, he writes in his book, “much the same way as the astronauts on Apollo 11 learned how to fly to the moon without ever leaving the ground.” The proof, he argues, is in the profusion of mass high-school shootings in recent years, where kids with limited experience in using guns have displayed excellent aim and tactical maneuvers, not to mention a view of murder as fun.

I am here to test Grossman’s theory. I have never even held a gun, let alone fired one. But for two decades, I’ve been avidly playing videogames, including the wickedly violent arcade shooters that Grossman considers the most military-like “murder simulators.” I’m particularly good at these—I can usually finish Area 51 or Time Crisis for only about three bucks in quarters. If Grossman is right, I should be as deadly as Michael Carneal.

I look down the range at my target, a human-shaped silhouette. It’s twenty feet away, roughly the same distance from which Carneal shot his victims. In the blazing heat sweat drips slowly down the small of my back.

I raise the barrel of the gun.


The videogame debate has been going on for years, but Grossman has arguably brought it to a new level. He is a peculiar combination of ultra-pundit (known for his crisp sound bites on violence) and career soldier. Unlike other critics, who typically hail from the media-literacy or family-values camps, he has direct experience in the domain of killing. During his twenty-three-year stint in the army (from which he retired in 1998), he participated in the Panama invasion. He has taught the psychology of killing (“killology”) at the West Point military academy and the University of Arkansas. Today, as founder and director of the Killology Research Group in Arkansas, he works full time training police officers—and remains an enthusiastic ambassador of military culture. He says “roger” and “check” instead of “OK,” and calls everyone “brother.”

Grossman’s epiphany about videogames came through a circuitous route. Research for his psychology PhD eventually became the source of his 1995 book On Killing, which examines a little-known aspect of war: that soldiers, even highly trained ones, are profoundly resistant to shooting people.

As Grossman points out, surveys of World War II veterans show that eighty percent of riflemen never once fired a gun during active combat, even when enemy bullets were flying around them. During the American Civil War, according to data collected after battles, many soldiers only pretended to fire their weapons, loading them again and again without actually discharging a shot. On some level, it seems, they simply couldn’t bear the prospect of shooting other human beings. Had they done so, casualties would have obviously been much higher.

Faced with armies full of reluctant gunners, the U.S. military began devising new techniques to definitively train men to shoot—and shoot to kill. The answer lay in classic “operant conditioning” methods made famous by American psychologist B.F. Skinner in the fifties. In a series of experiments, Skinner trained rats to push on a bar, after which they were rewarded with food. Positive or negative reinforcement, he argued, could make any form of activity virtually automatic, overriding conscious objections.

For the military, this meant setting up realistic shooting simulations. Soldiers were put into mock combat situations, filled with noise and riot; they were taught to fire at pop-up silhouettes until it became a twitch instinct. The conditioning worked well. By the Korean War, Grossman found, such training brought the firing ratio up to fifty-five percent. In Vietnam, the number skyrocketed to ninety-five percent.

In the eighties, the armed forces began using an even more powerful and cheaper training tool: video- and computer-graphics-ased simulations. Many were modeled directly on videogames. One popular military sim was a barely-modified version of the early Nintendo game Duck Hunt.

Which is when Grossman began to look away from the battlefields and into the arcades. If the army was using game-like sims to train its killers, were the arcades doing the same thing, inadvertently, to youth?

An incendiary chapter in his 1995 book blames Hollywood violence and the rise of super-realistic videogames for the seismic increase of “serious assault” cases in the U.S.—which had nearly doubled between 1977 and 1993, from 240 to 440 incidents per 100,000 people. In Grossman’s analysis, different forms of entertainment provide different elements of violence training. Hollywood and TV desensitize youth to the consequences of violence, a proposition generally backed by study after study. More controversial is the role he assigns to videogames as teachers of gun-handling skills. It is a theory supported by scant scientific evidence; Grossman bases his claims entirely on military research and his personal experience. In his own pistol-training classes at West Point, he says, some recruits displayed an uncanny facility with weapons. “Out of every class of about twenty kids, you’ll often get one or two that are extraordinary shots but who’d never fired a gun before. And almost without fail, if you ask them, Where did you get to be such a good pistol shot?, they’ll look you in the eye and say, Duck Hunt. Or Time Crisis. The skills transfer over immediately.”

Still, for all their explosiveness, Grossman’s ideas would probably languish in obscurity if not for the Michael Carneals of the world.

High-school shootings in the U.S. have been going on for years. In fact, the 1992 to 1993 academic year was the worst in sheer numbers, with nearly fifty deaths. But they were almost all one-on-one incidents, either revenge- or gang-related. In 1997, however, the peculiarly large-scale shootings began, during which the killers fired indiscriminately at groups of people they barely knew. Consider a partial list: In October 1997, Luke Woodham shot up his high school in Pearl, Mississippi, killing two and injuring seven. A few months later, Carneal went on his prayer-group rampage. In March 1998, two kids opened fire on a school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, killing five and injuring ten. Not long after, a student in Springfield, Oregon, cut loose in a crowded cafeteria, murdering two and injuring eighteen. And then came Columbine, which left a stunning thirteen dead and twenty injured.

Grossman figured his prophecy was coming true. It had also hit home. In a brutal coincidence, he actually lives in Jonesboro, across town from where its school shootings occurred; he was even summoned to the middle school to help counsel traumatized teachers. The ensuing weeks and months saw Grossman appear regularly in the media, from 60 Minutes to The New York Times. An expert strategist, he decided the time was ripe to strike. This summer, he and co-author Gloria DeGaetano (a media literacy consultant) quickly completed work on Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, which slams iolent games, movies and TV, and demands that they be legally restricted to adults only. Grossman has also trained lawyers nationwide in how to launch class-action suits against videogame companies on behalf of families whose children are killed in school shootings, as well as consulting on draft laws for videogames. The ripple effects are already here: This spring, the parents of three of Michael Carneal’s victims sued, among others, several videogame companies that they felt had incited the rampage.

Now, as the media prepare for still more shootings, Grossman has arguably become the most prominent player in the videogame debate. “This whole industry is going down, and going down hard,” he says with conviction.

But a question remains: Is he right?


I take a deep breath and start firing like mad, squeezing the trigger again and again until my finger aches, blasting round after round. Things are looking good: My aim is steady, my heart rate low. As I fire, bodies drop on impact—chunks of flesh flying off in all directions.

It’s the day before my meeting with Grossman, and I’ve decided to go for a warm-up at a local arcade in Pearl, the Mississippi town I’ve come to to speak with him. I’m holding a plastic pistol in front of Midway’s House of the Dead, blowing away endless platoons of zombies. A few days before, over the phone, Grossman spoke about the sheer physicality of guns like this one—arguing that they make games like House of the Dead preternaturally similar to a Fire Arms Training Simulator, which police officers use to hone their twitch-shooting instincts. Warming up on this stuff, he’d figured, would get me “really fired up” for the main event.

Indeed, from the time I first suggested this experiment, Grossman has displayed an almost perverse enthusiasm for it. He urged me to fly down from New York the following weekend to join him in Pearl, where he was due to guest-lecture at a police sharpshooter conference (taking place just a few miles from the high school that had its own shooting in 1997).

When we meet for lunch, he pulls out ads he has collected for various videogame companies, gleefully poking fun at them. One, for Quake, features a photo of a human foot with a toe tag; the caption says, HE PRACTICED ON A PC. Another, an ad for a force-feedback joystick, reads, “Psychiatrists say it is important to feel something when you kill.” He slaps his thigh. “These things are mass-murder simulators—and in their own ads, they’re saying so!”

I’m not so sure. I’ve been a long-time defender of videogames, on TV panels and in radio debates. Games need defending, I’ve always felt, simply because they’re the chief pastime of the young, unathletic geek, a cohort with whom I feel a personal sympathy. For these kids, gaming is a crucial refuge in a teenage world that glorifies physical power and beauty. Videogame critics frequently come from outside this geek demographic—as does Grossman—and thus inevitably err in their analysis of it. They ignore, for example, the social aspect of games—the robust culture of camaraderie and information-swapping that surrounds them. Or they focus on a few gory games that comprise a small portion of the market, such as Quake. During the Columbine coverage, clueless journalists cited Doom as if it were actually a current game, when nobody I know had played it for about four years.

Perhaps most problematically, critics assume that players are hopeless dupes of the videogame experience—that they are unable to critically assess what they play and are doomed only to be “influenced” by it. These critics rarely look at games as pieces of a living, breathing culture. In fact, you could argue that the tongue-in-cheek irony so prevalent in shooting games, and their cartoonishly over-the-top gore, are more of a comment on violence than a true enactment of it. Indeed, as gaming critic J.C. Herz once noted, the gun-toting protagonists of videogames are inevitably policemen, marines or soldiers—not mercenaries or lawless killers. What sort of social comment is that? As I sit here blowing away zombies in House of the Dead, my primary reaction is, as always, to giggle. Part of the fun is simply the deep surreality of the action.

To his credit, Grossman gives these arguments their due. Sure, games are useful socially, which is why he doesn’t have any problem with non-violent ones. He also sees the irony of the gorier titles. But he doesn’t think young children do. “They accept it on a different level,” he says.

I was skeptical of Grossman’s theory, but something happened at the Pearl arcade that gave me pause. I’m halfway through a round of L.A. Machinegunners when I notice a young man in fatigues watching me. I introduce myself, and discover that he’s Sgt. Scott Sargent, a U.S. military reservist out recruiting. A recruiter in an arcade? I ask him if he wants to join me for a game.

Soon, Sargent and I are merrily annihilating virtual terrorists on the streets of L.A., using throbbing, simulated machine guns. Watching him, I see that Grossman’s theory seems to apply in reverse. Sargent has had extensive training on real-life weaponry, but he’s never played Machinegunners until now. Nonetheless, he’s astonishingly good. And Machinegunners is one of the most difficult shooters to play—my wife becomes nauseated just watching the vertiginous, rapidly shifting angles. Despite my long experience playing this game, Sargent is better than I am, racking up more kills and sustaining fewer injuries.

As the round ends, I ask him how the game compares to real life. He pauses for a second, fingering the machine-gun controls that have a simulated recoil when you fire. I’ve always assumed the game recoil is a pale shadow of a real one. Apparently, this isn’t so. “It’s actually very similar to the kick of an M-16,” Sargent says. “I’ve trained with those things for years. It feels almost exactly the same.”


The next day, training is over. I’m at the range, holding one of Grossman’s pistols.

Several National Rifle Association officials and five police officers, here for a sharpshooting competition, stand in a semicircle behind me, eyeing me worriedly. I can hardly blame them: The prospect of a neophyte blasting away is clearly unsettling. It’s obvious that I don’t even know how to correctly hold the thing; one officer has to gently suggest a two-handed approach. He stands next to me to make sure I keep the gun pointed down-range and to tell me when to fire. Grossman looks on with excitement. “Imagine it’s House of the Dead,” he calls out.

After everyone is safely a few paces back, the officer gives the nod. He leans over and touches a lever on my pistol. “The safety is down,” he announces. “It’s ready to fire.”

For a second, I feel an odd sensation of danger, as if I’m only now realizing how deadly this thing really is. It’s like driving along the edge of a cliff and suddenly visualizing yourself veering off into space. I have a brief, unbidden thought that at any moment I could swivel around and shoot three or four of the cops in the gut. I banish the notion immediately, then grip the gun more firmly and focus.

I think: Guns are a peculiarly modernist combination of form and function, which is part of their allure. They have no extraneous elements — just point and shoot. I squint down the range at the silhouette target.

I squeeze the trigger.


A hole appears in the upper left shoulder of the target. Whoa: I’ve hit it squarely, though I aimed too high. I fire again, and again. I’m nervous, far more than I expected, and trembling like a leaf. Perhaps it’s because five cops are staring at me. Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to fire as quickly as possible, to emulate the speed of Carneal and the other teen killers, who had little time to line up their shots.

Yet for all my panic, it’s quickly become apparent that I’m actually doing quite well. After only a few shots, I have learned to correct my high aim. Within thirty seconds I’ve fired off every round and reloaded. Grossman urges me to try some head shots. This is harder, but again, after an initial error, I can see the holes popping in the head of the silhouette and the sun peeking through.

By now it’s clear that whatever else about his theories I might question, Grossman’s right about one thing: The .22-caliber pistol is remarkably similar in feel to an arcade gun—the kick is miniscule and it’s only slightly heavier. In fact, arcade guns have a heavy cord dangling from them, so after hours of playing, you feel an added weight. You tend to develop muscles that can clearly hold a .22 quite steady.

We decide to take things up a notch. “Now,” Grossman says, “I want you to try something with a bit more kick to it.” He hands me a much bigger gun—his .45-caliber Springfield pistol, the weapon carried by the FBI. A .22 is a potentially lethal gun, as Michael Carneal proved, but ultimately it’s pretty lightweight stuff. A .45, however, can really mess someone up.

Including me. The first shot shocks me with the power of its kick, and the bullet flies harmlessly over the top of the target. I swallow deeply. My hands are shaking badly. Far more than the .22, this gun is very, very real, and nothing like an arcade toy. The way it kicks around, it’s like it has a mind of its own.

Still, what happens next is revealing. Despite my nervousness, I automatically compensate for my panic. Even as my hands tremble, even as I sweat under the gaze of the cops, even as my mind races, my aim instantly improves. Some subconscious part of my brain takes over, and by the second shot I’m again hitting perfectly in the chest area. Shot after shot rips through the target, and I realize in a flash that, of course, this is what training is supposed to do—allow you to perform well even under great stress, or when your mind is occupied with other details. Some form of Skinner’s operant conditioning, it seems, is in effect.

Then the trigger clicks after the final bullet; the last shot has been fired. I hand the gun back to Grossman, and he races off to examine my targets.

According to Grossman, the accuracy of neophyte soldiers in training is relatively low. After one week of pistol training, fifty percent of recruits can hit the man-shaped silhouette “with some regularity,” and one-quarter can concentrate their shots in the central chest area. Only five percent can place their shots in a small, silver-dollar–sized area. I’ve checked these stats with other police trainers; they agree the estimates are sound.

As for me? Grossman brings my targets. The shots are all in the center-chest area, the “9” and “10” scoring rings. It’s unsettling, yet riveting to look at these close up. The bullet holes are clustered in what seems to be a shockingly tight radius. If this were a real person, hell, I’d have blown their torso to shreds with the first few shots alone.

Grossman seems thrilled. “I would say it was head-and-shoulders above the average first-time shooter.” I’m not on par with the best he’s seen, he says, but I’m shooting as well as a trainee would at the end of a week of training—a week. He gestures to the target. “That would be an A. You’re scholarship material. You were rocking and rolling!”

Now comes the inevitable question. Grossman grins at me. “To shoot like you did with that .45 is truly extraordinary. And you’ve never fired a gun before. Where did you learn to do that?”


On the flight back from Mississippi, my shooting targets crammed into a garment bag, I replay the experience in my head—what it means, what it doesn’t. I’m still relatively unsettled by my aptitude with deadly force, and impressed by how well Grossman’s theory has played out. But I’m also disappointed. On some level, I realize, I didn’t want to prove him even partially right. Too frequently, critics assume all gamers are sociopathic freaks. I hardly wanted to push that stereotype further.

But even if Grossman’s idea about gun training is correct, it still can’t explain what’s going on in American high schools—specifically, the motivations of the killers. Hand-eye co-ordination is one thing; seething rage is quite another. Sure, kids may be able to go on mass rampages, but why would they want to?

Investigators studying the Columbine shooting admitted that they were still baffled by what motivated Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The killers’ hatred, it seems, was freefloating in the traditional manner of persecuted teens. Jocks, gays, other nerds, popular kids, minorities, racists—everyone was up for grabs. None of this would shock anyone who went through an even mildly bad adolescence—they know that high school is, socially and psychologically, a shark tank, pitting clique against clique. In that context, it’s hard to finger House of the Dead as a singular cause of teen angst. On the contrary, teensploitation fare like Bring it On or Popular—with their phalanxes of glossy, milk-fed socialites and ugly, brainy losers—is probably more likely to blur your sense of reality. And though largely devoid of physical violence, shows like that are quite capable of training you in the art of teen psychological warfare, a battle in which no gun license is necessary.

Guns themselves, of course, are another obvious issue in recent shootings—and another wrinkle that makes Grossman’s theory seem overly pat. Videogame guns don’t kill people; real ones do. Yet Grossman, a soldier who wholeheartedly supports the NRA, isn’t out there fighting for enhanced gun-control laws. Rather, he thinks current laws are adequate. He also claims kids’ access to guns hasn’t increased, so guns can’t solely be responsible for the rise in shootings. “I grew up with a twelve-gauge shotgun in my bedroom,” he notes.

Perhaps most damaging to Grossman’s case, however, are academic videogame researchers, some of whom say he has no science to back up his theories. A recent survey by media think-tank Mediascope found that only sixteen studies exist that probe the relationship between videogames and aggression, and their results are mixed. Even if every study agreed that games are homicidal in their impact, sixteen studies is a scientifically insignificant number, say the scientists. It doesn’t yet prove anything.

Jeanne Funk, author of several videogame studies and a respected psychologist from the University of Toledo, sighs when I mention Grossman’s name. She admires On Killing, but thinks his videogame theories have no serious scientific foundation. “He says things have been proven when they haven’t,” she says. “The fact is, we’re just beginning to examine this issue. We don’t know. The data are so thin.” In pushing his ideas, Grossman relies instead on the thousands of studies that successfully link violent TV shows with aggression, and on the military’s experience using simulators. But neither, Funk argues, are easily applicable to gaming. Videogames could have benevolent effects; on the other hand, that could be far, far worse than Grossman’s worst nightmares. “But we have nothing to go on right now,” she insists.

This, ultimately, is the most frustrating part of the issue. Surrounded by all the firing guns, panicked parents and the media frenzy, simple answers are more seductive than further debate. But every time I’m tempted to dismiss Grossman, I open my closet and pull out those silhouette targets. I check out the cluster of holes in the chest. I remember the jolt of the .45.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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