GTAIV finger-pointing: 'We're training our kids to be killers'

'And we are training our sons to treat women like whores'

CNN's Glenn Beck craves attention like any pop-media celeb, so naturally he couldn't help but point his wagging finger at Grand Theft Auto IV last week. "We're training our kids to be killers," opined Beck during the slickly produced portion of his nightly CNN primetime broadcast called The Point. "And we are training our sons to treat women like whores."

Here's how Beck claims he "got there," quoted from the above clip:

If you think that video games are just harmless fun, which everybody always says, you should know that our military, our leaders at the Pentagon, have never seen it that way. It started back in World War One. Young soldiers, we sent Americans out to the front lines over in Europe, and they wouldn't pull the trigger, even there on the front lines with people charging them, they would not pull the trigger. It seems hard to believe in today's world, but killing each other is actually not a natural human instinct. Senior officers found if they trained the soldiers by putting a human silhouette on the bullseye during target practice, they could actually condition men to shoot more easily.

The technology progressed. So did the training techniques. Paper targets evolved into electronic simulations, and welcome to the great great grandfather of the video game developed by the Pentagon. The method proved so successful, that the military's firing rate, first time you had to shoot a human being, went from 15% in World War 2 to 55% in the Korean War, to over 90% in Vietnam, and now that number is almost 100. I want to make one thing clear before we go any further. I am not blaming all of society's problems on video games. That would be stupid to do. It is the entire pop culture. It's music, it's movies, it's radio, it's television, it's all of it. According to the Journal of American Medical Association, just television, the introduction of television in the 1950s caused a doubling of the homicide rate in America. These are all just small pieces of the same small nightmarish puzzle.

Let's take a closer look at Beck's screed.

What Beck cites about wars and firing rates comes from "research" conducted by the highly controversial Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, author of the 1996 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, and someone who claims to be a specialist in "killology," a self-coined neologism purported to be "the study of the psychology of killing." Grossman calls first-person shooters "murder simulators" and believes there's an analogue between training soldiers to actually kill and playing video games, particularly first-person shooters.

The problem with Grossman's allegations about video games is that soldiers know they may actually have to kill someone, someday, that they're being explicitly trained to be capable of doing so. Whereas someone playing a video game clearly isn't playing that game for the explicit purpose of picking up a weapon — any weapon — and committing an act of violence — any act of violence — against another human being. Intentionality is the essence of the psychological difference, and completely alters the neurological relationship between stimulus, training, reaction, and sensitivity. If you don't view what you're doing as training to actually kill someone, it's not (training). Could it by the way make you a sharper shooter? Perhaps. But since when did being able to fire a gun more accurately become a bad thing? I'm personally a fan of neither the NRA nor guns in general, but since when did this become an indirect indictment of guns employed in a recreational capacity? What's next, skeet shooters as dormant criminal minds? Shooting clay pigeons for sport as training to harm (as opposed to hunt — note the crucially important distinction) the real thing?

I can't find good data on the JAMA article, but I'm researching it now. What Beck claims the article says appears to be what it actually says, but that study was published in 1992, and the latest media studies research appears to say quite the opposite, i.e. exposure to violent programming may actually reduce one's proclivity for violent activity.

Moreover, Beck fails to mention the fact that the rise of electronic gaming — now bigger than the film industry — has in fact paralleled the decline of violent crimes in the US over the past two decades.

Read that again: Some of the most violent games ever produced have steadily increased in popularity at the same time as violent crime has declined in the US, across the board. Explain that, Beck (and Grossman).

Beck's piece is so misrepresentative — and I haven't even gotten to the clip where he interviews Jack Thompson — that I'm embarrassed for serious researchers like Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner, who according to GamePolitics.com, will be appearing on Beck's CNN program to promote their new "violence in games" myth-busting book, Grand Theft Childhood.

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)
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