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_On Killing_, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
A frustrating, but ultimately important work.

My friend rickthefightguy strongly recommended this book to me. This surprised me, as I had previously heard nothing but mockery towards it. On further reflection, however, I realized that all of those reactions came from within the games industry, which tends to be reflexively defensive. I decided to see for myself, though I knew I would be going in with some strong biases.

I did find plenty to argue with, at least on a small level. The writing style is extremely repetitive. He relies on anecdotes as much as data, and makes frequent appeals to emotion. He often neglects to support his assertions adequately, or at all. He has his own (obvious) biases, and some gigantic blind spots.

Yet for all that, the material that *is* backed by data is vitally important. I will attempt to summarize.

Point 1: In their natural state, human beingss are *extremely* reluctant to kill each other. Even in the socially-sanctioned context of a war, only around 2% of soldiers actually try to kill the enemy. Up through WWII, around 95% of soldiers never even fired their weapons! And when comparing enemy injuries to bullets fired, it becomes clear that most of those who *did* fire were not actually aiming at the enemy.

Point 2: There are lots of methods to overcome the inherent reluctance to kill. The most significant seems to be distance (physical, emotional, cultural, or moral). Spreading out responsibility via orders and teamwork also makes a big difference. There are others, but those struck me as the big ones.

Point 3: Since WWII, the U.S. armed forces have hugely increased soldiers' willingness to kill via a variety of conditionning techniques. By Vietnam, 95% of US soldiers would at least fire their weapons.

Point 4: The act of killing up close creates massive amounts of psychic trauma in the killer. There are things which can help mitigate this damage, though not eliminate it. In Vietnam, almost all these mitigating factors were absent or reversed.

These points, drawn from scientific studies and military history, make up the bulk of the book. They seem to me to be true, and useful to know. The really controversial stuff is all in the last thirty pages, where he leaves off military history, and starts talking about modern social problems. Even here, he's not completely wrong, though I think he is far more wrong than not.

His basic thesis in this concluding section is that modern American media use some of the same conditioning techniques as modern armies, and that this makes modern Americans far more likely to kill.

Strangely, his own data don't very clearly support this conclusion. He includes a chart of the last half-decade or so, and the line for 'murders per capita' is nearly flat. He attributes this flatness partly to increases in medical technology, and partly to increases in imprisonment. His chart does show alarming increases in both violent assault and imprisonment, the two lines tracking closely enough to perhaps suggest some relationship between the two. But remember how I said he had som glaring blind spots? He never once mentions the phrase "War on Drugs", which I believe has quite a lot to do with the shape of that graph.

He does refer to games as 'murder simulators'. He equates them with advanced army training techniques. In this, he is either being deliberately over-provocative, or has never actually played them. He is most concerned about arcade shooting games where the player actually points a gun at human-shaped targets, who react to being shot. The 'human-shaped targets who react instantly' is a vital part of modern boot camp training, yes. But holding a light, plastic, fake gun, while standing upright in an entertainment hall, surely bears a lot more similarity to 19th century shooting drills (which were completely ineffective at kill training), than to the modern (and effective) 'in a muddy foxhole while wearing full battle kit and wielding a real weapon' training techniques. And how much more removed from real training is a mouse and keyboard while sitting in a comfy chair, or holding a console controller while sprawled on a sofa?

He does have a valid point that games let one vicariously experience a degree of killing that would drive any real human mad -- unless they were a sociopath to begin with. In this, games are hardly worse than other media, but I acknowledge that as a weak defense. I'm still trying to work out how I feel about that. I do note that it is nothing new; mega-violence on the part of the protagonist has been a frequent ingredient of popular fiction for as long as there has *been* popular fiction. Perhaps it fills some basic human need? Idunno...

Recommended overall, but keep your critical thinki cap on while reading.

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Thank you; this is interesting fodder for thought.

I am glad you read it - there is a lot there to talk about! (In person, and soon - maybe Thanksgiving!)

Also anecdotal, but I read an interview with a guy who was in Somalia in the 'Blackhawk down' operation. It was his first combat operation and he said "It was just like training - a bad guy pops up from behind cover, you shoot at center body mass, and he falls down, another pops up somewhere else, repeat."

To me, that sounds like for him, the core element of training was just like the training you get from the "light plastic fake gun, while standing upright in an entertainment hall".
This is the core of the difference between modern drills and 19th century ones. The 19th century drills focused on loading the weapon quickly. The modern ones focus on shooting for center body mass and dropping targets. Interestingly, lots of 19th century weapons recovered from battlefields find the weapon loaded upwards of 8 times without ever being fired.

Now, I am a big fan of shooting games, and I don't think I am unhealthy or a killer. But that's anecdotal too.
In the end, I am with you - we need a better defense for our beliefs that actually deals with what evidence there is to the contrary.

find the weapon loaded upwards of 8 times without ever being fired"

After loading it the third or fourth time, you can be damn sure there is no way _I_ am going to fire the thing. :-)


"Now, I am a big fan of shooting games, and I don't think I am unhealthy or a killer."

Which I don't think is (or should be anyway) the issue. Do these games turn average guys into killers? Most data would match anecdote. Do these games encourage or discourage people who are _already prone to committing violence_ to actually commit it? This is a far more important question, and I don't know anyone who has an answer.

The cognitive processing was similar, but the kinesthetics were totally different. I think both are important factors.

Absolutely true. I think my point was the guy _who_had_been_trained_ was commenting on how much like the video game the reality was. Now, he could have meant 'because of the weight of my kit', but he didn't comment on that. The part he found remarkable was the 'it pops up, I shoot it, it falls back down'. I should track it down if I can dig up the time - I can't remember if he actually literally compared it to a video game or if I am just seeing the parallel.

A lot more similarity than that

But holding a light, plastic, fake gun, while standing upright in an entertainment hall, surely bears a lot more similarity to 19th century shooting drills [...] than to [...] 'in a muddy foxhole while wearing full battle kit and wielding a real weapon' training techniques.

I don't think I can agree, actually. Um...in the following, I'm going to be making broad generalizations about games. I'm talking about shooting games, and I'm talking about the extreme case where the game is almost all combat. I know not all games are like that, but I'm pretty sure there are plenty—and many others approach the extreme.

So. In the 19th century, the targets would've been wooden cutouts or something; in a video game, they look like real people, scream like real people, and spurt blood like real people. In the 19th century, loading and firing your weapon could take, what, a minute? You had time to think about what you were doing. In a video game, your rate of fire is maybe two orders of magnitude higher, you may never run out of ammunition (depending on the game), there are enemies coming after you all the time, and there are probably loud noises all over the place. Your executive functions can't keep up; if you want to win the game, you have to train yourself into firing at every enemy you see. The game trains you to look at a picture of a person, see a target, and pull the trigger. With that training, it seems like it should be easier to look at a real person and see a target.

Similarly, in modern combat, you have a rapid-fire gun with a vast supply of ammunition—and so do your enemies (so you have to shoot fast) and your friends (so there's too much noise going on). Frankly, getting everybody to shoot their guns may be due less to modern training than to modern guns.

This doesn't mean that everybody who plays such games will kill. But it seems like it should mean that some people who would otherwise not be capable of killing will be, if they play shooting games.

I know it's not proven. But the extreme games these days are so extreme that I think we've reached the point where the burden of proof is on the video game industry. (Morally, not legally.) The industry needs to fund serious studies to determine whether these games are safe.


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