An Interview With Lt.
Col. David Grossman
Gorski's Review of Grossman's Book "On Killing">
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Col. David Grossman (U.S. Army Ret.), an expert on the psychology of
killing, has written On
Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.
He also teaches psychology at Arkansas State University, directs the Killology
Research Group in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and has coined the term "killology"
for a new interdisciplinary field: the study of the methods and
psychological effects of training army recruits to circumvent their
natural inhibitions to killing fellow human beings. Grossman has published
extensively and appeared on numerous news programs to discuss his
views about the role video games and media play in the increase of
How can games like Doom be "mass-murder simulators" when
the opponents in such games fight back, are often non-human in appearance, and
are always armed and dangerous, rather than unarmed, human, and helpless?
Col. Grossman: That is a little like asking how can a flight
simulator be a flight simulator even if it is used to fight
aircraft that fight back (they don't really of course, they have no real ability
to kill you), and those "enemy" aircraft are (sometimes but certainly
not always) non-human in nature. Certainly the ones where you fight humans are
more egregious, but the basic skills being taught apply across the board. If
this is your defense, then you must accept that games like Postal
are guilty. (In Postal the player "goes postal" and
wanders around town gunning down unarmed citizens including cheerleaders and the
school marching band as they moan and beg for mercy.) If you accept that Postal
has gone too far then we agree that there are some of these "games"
that are "beyond the pale," in which case we agree; we just disagree
about where to draw the line.
games (especially the "fire arms trainers" where you hold a gun in
your hand) will almost definitely not be found to have 1st Amendment protection.
They are appliances, simulators. Even a book, such as The Assassin's
Handbook when its guidance and training was followed to commit real
murders, was found to be subject to civil liability by the Supreme Court. If
they are willing to hammer the written word (which clearly does fall under the
1st Amendment) when it teaches you to kill, how can you possibly expect these
killing simulators to fall under the 1st Amendment?
I was on TV with a
prosecutor who told how a father taught his 8-year old how to use and fire a
gun. When the kid used that training to kill someone, the father was charged
with manslaughter and convicted. The father was using free speech to train his
son, but what he trained the son to do was not acceptable by society and he is
now a convicted felon because of it. The extension of this legal process to the
designers, manufacturers, and distributors of killing trainers should be
Whether you like
it or not, you must recognize the direction that the law is likely to go in this
instance, and start doing what you have to do to protect yourself from the
reasonable demands of your society to seek redress when you helped to bring
about (I believe the legal term is "proximate cause") a violent
criminal act. Everyone in the United States has the right to shout "fire"
but if you do so, negligently, on a crowded plane, you will be
sued for the pain and suffering that results from your action. Again, even the
1st Amendment does not protect you from such predictably harmful speech, and it
is very doubtful that this will even be accepted as free speech.
These are, in fact, fire arms trainers, and those who put them in the hands of
children will be treated by our society, in the years to come, in the same
manner as those who give children unrestricted access to guns.
You mentioned on one news program that Doom was not the worst
video game available today, just the one that the Littleton killers played.
Which games are worse than Doom and why? Are such games more
dangerous for younger people than for older ones?
Col. Grossman: Postal is an example of a far worse game
(shooting innocent victims) and certainly the ones where you actually hold a gun
in your hand are doing a more precise degree of teaching motor skills. Although
remember, many "mouse/keyboard" games (such as Doom) are
now played with joysticks, which can be essentially a pistol grip, complete with
a trigger. One recent ad for such a joystick that provides feedback (thus the
gun can "kick" in your hand when you pull the trigger) said, in Sports
Illustrated For Kids: "Psychologists say it is important to feel
something when you kill." You think that a jury of 12 Americans are not
going to start foaming at the mouth when they see that? This is just one example
of how, in their advertising, the industry is selling their product as
industry is very liable, and now the genie is out of the bottle
with these law suits, I fear that the video game industry may well become the
new tobacco industry, except that the tobacco industry (like the alcohol and gun
industries) never overtly marketed to kids. The other real
condemnation of this industry is that the alcohol, tobacco, and firearms
industries have no choice but to market those products. That is, if they cannot
sell alcohol, tobacco, or firearms, they cannot sell anything and must go out of
business. But the video game industry can market nonviolent games
(we all know of many good ones) and they can thrive and prosper
without the violent games. They just choose not to do so. These are two reasons
(marketing to minors and viable alternatives) why this industry is truly in deep
trouble when they find themselves before an American jury in product liability
Violent games are
particularly dangerous to children, just like, guns, tobacco, firearms,
pornography, and drugs; we all agree that there are products that adults can
handle (or at least the risk to society from these products is considered
acceptable) but kids can not. That is why we have ratings on
movies: there are certain things we all agree kids under 13 or 17 may have
trouble digesting and only a parent has the authority to let the child do so if
they are under the prescribed age. This concept of needing to protect children
is completely imbedded in science, law, and common culture. An industry that
tries to go against science, law and culture is quite simply "Doom"ed.
Does the U.S. government/military actually use games or interactive video
simulators to train or desensitize personnel? Does anyone use such devices for
training? Should government or military agencies use such training aids for
Col. Grossman: These devices are used extensively. You
are a journalist, do some journalistic investigation. Start with flight
simulators. Then look at tank crew simulators. Then look at the MARKS trainer
the Army uses (generally it can be found in any National Guard armory) which is
essentially like "Duck Hunt" except with a plastic M-16, firing at
typical military targets on a screen. It is an excellent, ubiquitous, military
training device and it is manufactured by Nintendo. Now, Nintendo cannot market
this product to the Army as a training device and then claim that the device is
harmless when they sell it to your kid. The Marines did the same thing with Doom,
with a license from Id Software to produce "Marine Doom," and use it
as a tactical training device (as opposed to teaching motor skills, although
when used with a pistol grip joystick it has some value there too).
In your writings you have demonstrated that U.S. military personnel have
become increasingly more willing to kill on the battlefield. Does anyone benefit
from this? Does it contribute to U.S. military preparedness or effectiveness on
Col. Grossman: Of course having soldiers who are able to pull the
trigger is important and useful. And having soldiers or cops who cannot pull the
trigger to save their lives or the lives of others is really not a very good
thing. There is a vast gulf, a leap, between being an ordinary citizen and
gunning down an unsuspecting human being in an ambush, even in war. The military
recognized this after WWII when we discovered that firing at bullseyes in
training did not properly prepare soldiers for combat. Soldiers needed an
intermediate step to bridge that "gulf" between "good
citizen" and "killer," and so they began to develop simulators.
The first simulators were just "simulated people" as targets, and that
was pretty much sufficient to increase the firing many fold. But pop-up targets
and firing ranges are expensive, and bullets are expensive, and so we developed
simulations even further, until today the entire event of killing is simulated
in the military and the law enforcement world. Go to your local law enforcement
department and tell them you would like to look at their FATS trainer (fire arms
training simulator). Then go to the local video arcade and play Time
Crisis complete with guns that have the slides slam back when you pull
the trigger. Now can you understand why cops around the world are enraged by
people who put these in the hands of kids? And the juries are not far behind.
By the way, in the
Paducah law suit, the heads of every major national and international law
enforcement training organization have personally told me that they are willing
to testify (for free, no hired guns here) to the effect that these "video
games" are identical to law enforcement firearms training devices, except
with the safety catch turned off. Sure, there are "no shoot" targets
in some video games, but if you try to use this logic to defend the games then
you accept that they are like cop trainers (which should not be in the hands of
kids), and oh by the way, if a cop or soldier shoots at the wrong target, or at
the wrong time, or in the wrong direction, ultimately they can and will be
fired. This is the kind of real discipline and the kind of real
character development that makes this generally safe in military/cop hands, but
absolutely unacceptable in the hands of children.
But we are not
judging the military or the law enforcement community here. They are not and
will not be on trial for teaching people to kill. (They have this funny
discipline and character development that comes with the package.) And yet many
people do have qualms about that, and if so then believe me those
qualms will be magnified many fold when faced with people who do the same thing
Do you think non-video games like Dungeons and Dragons or
Magic pose the same dangers as video games?
Col. Grossman: No. You cannot operantly or classically condition
someone with a book or a deck of cards unless you hit them with it, but the
violence simulators are doing to kids what flight simulators do for pilots. Not
every kid who plays violent video games will become a killer, but the risk is
unacceptable. There are (supposedly) 16 million kids in the United States with
access to guns. In any given year 15,990,000 of those kids do not do any harm,
but the potential harm presented by the remaining .0006 percent is so great that
our society, from the NRA to the ACLU, all agree on restricting child access to
guns. The same kind of restriction is now needed for the killing trainers as is
needed for the killing instruments. And if I give a kid a gun I can take it away
and lock it up. If I give him the ability and the desire to use the gun, I can't
take that away.
What do you recommend as a solution for the problems posed by violent
interactive video games?
Col. Grossman: The solution is education, legislation, and
The American Medical Association has stated "Media violence is America's
number one health care emergency." The AMA, the APA, the American Academy
of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Attorney General,
the Surgeon General, and the United Nations (in a major UNESCO study) have all
linked violent visual media with violent behavior. In the United States, per
capita aggravated assault has gone up almost sevenfold since 1957. (You must use
assault to gauge the problem since medical technology saves ever more lives
every year.) In Canada the assault rate has gone up fivefold since 1964. In the
15 years between 1977 and 1993, the per capita "serious assault" rate
went up approximately fivefold in Norway and Greece, fourfold in Australia and
New Zealand, tripled in Sweden, and doubled in seven other European nations
including England. Media violence is the only common factor in all
these nations and every major national and international medical and scientific
body that has studied this issue has identified the effect of media violence on
kids as a key factor in this virus of violence. Parents must be
educated about the risks posed to their children by media violence.
Psychologically speaking, violence is the single most toxic substance any person
can take in, and parents must be educated about the desperate need to protect
their kids from this toxic substance.
Keeping your kid away from violent entertainment is the parent's
responsibility, and those who fail to do so will end up on the wrong side of
lawsuits in the years to come when their kids commit violent crimes. But keeping
kids away from alcohol, tobacco, firearms, drugs, and pornography is also a
parent's responsibility and our society helps the parents protect
their kids with laws and regulations that say anyone who gives kids unrestricted
access to these substances is a criminal. In the same way, we need to help
parents protect their kids from this substance. In particular,
violent "first person shooter" video games should be for adults only.
Finally, the answer to this problem is as American as apple pie. Sue the bums.
Because of our litigation system we have the safest cars and the most
well-trained cops in history. The real answer is to hit the whole violence
industry right where they live: in the wallet. They sell violence in order to
make money. (And don't say they have the right to sell it because people will
buy it, that is drug dealer logic.) If they are full members of the market
place, then the health of the society demands that they be fully liable to law
suits just like anyone else who provides a product or service in our nation.
Buy "On Killing" by Dave Grossman - Click Here>