How do soldiers learn to kill? Credit: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

August 8, 2019   5 mins

Is there a connection between the mass killings that have become a regular feature of life in the United States and video games? Donald Trump thinks so: “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” said the President.

“This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately.”

The outcry against this connection was swift, with many pointing out that young people in other countries – Japan, for instance – enjoy playing first person shoot-em-up video games without taking to the streets with semi-automatic weapons to kill in real life.

No, these people argue, the charge against video games is a deliberate distraction from the real enemy: the availability of military grade weapons at the local gun store. Trump is so in hock to the NRA that he wouldn’t dare confront the original sin at the heart of the American mind: that guns mean freedom – freedom from outside interference, freedom from colonial oppressors (the British), freedom from big government etc.

It was 20 years ago this year that a pair of students from Columbine High School murdered twelve of their fellow students and a teacher using automatic weapons and sawn-off shotguns. A connection was later made between these murders and the amount of time both students had spent playing Doom and Quake, and other first person shooting games.

Those who resist any causal connection here describe the reaction as “moral panic”, and in 2011 the video games industry in fact won a significant victory at the US Supreme Court, against those who would restrict the sale of violent video games. Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association concluded that: “studies 
 do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively 
 and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology”.

So where does this idea originate that video games cause young people to be violent? One surprising tributary that has been influential in establishing this connection can be traced back to a controversial report written long before video games had ever been invented: S. L. A. “Slam” Marshall’s much discussed Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, published in 1947.

Slam Marshall was the army’s chief historian of the European theatre of operations during the Second World War: his astonishing thesis was that, in an average infantry company, no more than one in four soldiers actually fired their weapons while in contact with the enemy. Later historians have challenged his methodology. But notwithstanding this challenge, this was the root of the moral panic, and it originated within the military: most soldiers are reluctant to kill.

On 10 June 1944, one battalion of the US 502nd Parachute Infantry started receiving enemy fire. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cole, described the behaviour of his men. “I found no way to make them continue fire,” he explained:

“Not one man in twenty-five voluntarily used his weapon. When I ordered men who were right around me to fire, they did so. But the moment I passed on, they quit. I walked up and down the line shouting “God damn it! Start shooting!” But it did little good. They fired only when I watched them.”

It was testimony like this that prompted a complete re-think within the US military about how to train soldiers to overcome their natural resistance to killing. Turning to the work of the popular behaviourist psychologists of the day – especially B F Skinner – the military set about transforming their training programmes, using behaviourist principles to desensitise their troops to the effects of killing other human beings. The key idea was simply that the empathetic connection between human beings needed to be broken by the constant practise and repetition of killing in a situation that, as closely as possible, simulated the feel of the combat environment.

The combination of repetition and desensitisation, underscored by a strong sense of group absolution, enabled the natural human instinct against killing to be overcome. Using these basic techniques, the firing rate of ordinary soldiers was transformed. By the time of the Korean War in 1950, the rate had more than doubled.

How does this connect to video games? Perhaps the most influential exponent of the Slam Marshall line is former Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman, whose book On Killing (1996) has become required reading at military academies around the world. According to Grossman, first person shooter video games replicate exactly the same techniques that the military have used to get soldiers to kill: repetition and desensitisation. Thus, for Grossman, video games can act as “murder simulators”.

“They act just like police and military simulators, providing conditioned responses, killing skills and desensitization, except they are inflicted on children without the discipline of military and police training.
 If we intentionally tried to raise a generation cocked and primed to kill, we could not have done a better job.”

These conclusions issued in a whole host of influential studies, including Grossman’s co-authored Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill (1999) and Assassination Generation (2016).

The case against these books is pretty straightforward. Many millions of young people play Grand Theft Auto without turning into psychotic killers. And gamers have a strong case when they argue that the NRA point to the video games industry as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the real cause of the epidemic of mass murder that blights the US: the simple availability of military-grade weapons.

But both intention and opportunity need to be considered here – and video games relate to intention whereas the availability of weapons relate to opportunity. It is perfectly conceivable that both may shoulder their fair share of blame.

As I watch my sofa-rooted teenager, console in hand, blasting his way through the summer holidays, I know perfectly well that he will never act out in reality what he plays out on the screen. But I retain a residual commitment to the idea that we become what we practise to be. And the real world experience of the military, whose job it is turn naturally empathetic children into professional killers, gives me some pause to wonder what it would take to turn him into a fighter.

The problem with the various pet theories that people have about the causes of gun crime is that they have become both so reductive and so highly politicised that one explanation is too often set against another. The interplay of societal breakdown, a culture that celebrates violence, weak gun laws, white male resentment, the role of alcohol and mental health: one could go on – and most social scientists tend to say that there still isn’t enough data to really work out what is really going on.

In 1996, and under pressure from the NRA, Congress withdrew public funding for the study of gun violence; there is a national database of car crash deaths, for example, but still no such equivalent for gun violence. Given the epidemic proportions of mass shootings in the US, the idea that even its study is a political football is totally absurd.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.