This is a post I wrote back in early 2011, and didn’t publish. Recent discussions of gun violence bring it back to the fore, so here it is…
In my Monday Wall Street Journal (the only edition I received after coming back from England until late Wednesday, which was really frustrating), I read the following about the Arizona shooter:
“All he did was play video games and play music,” said Tommy Marriotti, a high school friend.
And that got me to wondering: What sort of games did he play? Since initially reading that, I see he recently played Earth Empires, a strategy game. But I suspect he has at least at some time — maybe back in high school, maybe some other time — played another sort of game.
I find myself wondering whether he was into first-person shooter games…
I have two reasons for wondering that. First, there are the theories of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (ret.). Col. Grossman is the foremost expert in the field of “killology,” a term he coined. He wrote a fascinating book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which I recommend. It discusses the psychology of killing, mostly within the context of war. He explains that for most of military history, as long as we’ve had projectile weapons in the hands of the average soldier, the overwhelming majority of soldiers did not shoot to kill. Frequently, they didn’t fire their weapons at all, and when they did, they tended to fire over the heads of their enemies — to engage in a sort of threat display, rather than use deadly force.
They did this because for most humans, the reluctance to kill is deep and strong.
The U.S. military, realizing this (on the basis of extensive studies during and after WWII), started conditioning that reluctance out of soldiers starting with the Vietnam era (or perhaps a little earlier; it’s been awhile since I’ve read it). Soldiers started to be trained to quickly acquire the human target and fire accurately before thinking about it too much. The result is that the U.S. military is, soldier for soldier, the most deadly fighting force in the world, perhaps in history. (Probably the most dramatic demonstration of this was the battle of Mogadishu in 1993, in which elite soldiers faced mobs of Somali militias with a tendency to fire randomly and wildly with their AK-47s — the result was 18 dead Americans, but about 1,000 dead Somalis.) But soldiers who shoot now often pay a profound psychological cost later, and that was what Col. Grossman was motivated to study.
He has also ventured into related peacetime phenomena, such as the popularity and increasing sophistication of FPS games, which train the reflexes of the kids who play them to shoot quickly and accurately, without reluctance. He asserts that it’s not a bit surprising that we have Columbines given the ubiquity of such games. Kids have had conditioned out of them the hesitation that affected trained soldiers through most of history.
You may say Col. Grossman exaggerates. And indeed, some experts are far more phlegmatic about such games. I don’t think he does, but that’s because of the other reason I was interested: I’ve played these games myself. A decade or so ago, I had a copy of an early version of Wolfenstein. The violence was non-stop, but it was also cartoonish and unconvincing, only a step or two beyond Space Invaders. Now, it’s different…
Two years ago, I got myself a copy of Call of Duty: World at War. I was fascinated by the premise, which was to put the player in realistic scenarios from the Pacific and Eastern fronts in the Second World War. (Some of them weirdly realistic. When I saw some of the scenes from the Peleliu campaign in “The Pacific” recently, I thought, I’ve been there… It was weird.) But I was completely unprepared for two things: First, the realism. When I first booted up the game on my computer (and I had to get a more sophisticated video card to run it, even though my computer was almost new), I thought I was watching a video prologue — I didn’t realize the game had started. I couldn’t believe the graphics were that realistic, that high-res.
Second, the emotional manipulation, which was stunning. There are two story lines: In one, you are a U.S. Marine named Miller, fighting your way across the Pacific. In the other, you are a Red Army soldier. The designers of the game came up with their own way of overcoming any reluctance the player might have to shooting the enemy. The Marine scenario begins with Miller being a prisoner of the Japanese. As Miller, you watch the Japanese torture and kill your buddy, before one of them moves toward you with a knife, prepared to serve you in the same way — before he is stopped by the commandos who have come to rescue you. Your rescuers hand you a weapon, and by this point, you’re expected to know what to do with it.
In the start of the Russian scenario, you are lying still among dead and dying comrades in Stalingrad. As you lie there (the game won’t let you move at first), you watch German soldiers step around you, casually shooting the wounded as you watch helplessly. Somehow they overlook you. As the enemy moves away, a grizzled Red Army sergeant who was also playing dead whispers to you to follow him, and he will show you how to get your vengeance on the fascists, as he keeps reminding you, are raping your homeland. He hands you a sniper rifle…
Creepy, huh? At this point, you’d like me to tell you I didn’t go on and play the game, but I did. I’ve played it all the way through a number of times. It’s very seductive, because it’s challenging. But I wouldn’t argue if you were to say, “Yes, of course it is — like other forms of pornography.” I expect those of you who’ve never played such games will have all sorts of critical things to say about me for playing it, and I won’t argue with those assertions, either. I know how it looks. When my wife enters the room when I’m playing, I hastily shut it down. Because she is my conscience.
But that’s not the really creepy thing: Over time, I played the game less. I had mastered the easier levels, and the harder ones were just ridiculous. Also, well, I’ve tried to spend less of my life in nonproductive pursuits. But a number of months ago, I got curious about something: I had never played the “multiplayer” option, in which you fight against other players over the Internet. So I tried that.
And I discovered that either the world is full of unsuspected super-soldiers, with reflexes that are not to be believed, or there are a lot of geeks out there who spend WAY too much time getting ridiculously good at playing these games. The latter, of course, is most likely. And hardly surprising. But I discovered one thing that positively sent chills down my spine. I quickly accepted that I could not survive more than a few seconds against people whose reflexes were so finely honed to aggressive play of the game. Fine — I have trouble with basketball, too. And I figured that the guys who spend a lot of time on these games are 20-something, and an old guy like me can’t hope to keep up. But what got me was when I encountered a few players who had activated the feature that enabled them to speak with each other in real time as they shot and stabbed their way across the landscape.
The thing that got me was when I heard their voices.
They were little boys. They sounded like they were about 10. And they were very, very efficient, hyperaggressive and unhesitating virtual killers.
I quit playing at that point.
Anyway, that’s why I wonder — what sorts of games did Loughner play?