Tuesday, September 14, 1999

Violent video games teach skill to kill, ex-officer says

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My teen-age son likes to sit for hours and zap Storm Troopers on his Star Wars: Dark Forces computer game. Am I training a cold-blooded assassin?

        Retired Army Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor and weapons instructor, says I could be. I don't completely agree with him, but every parent should hear him out:

        “Certain types of these (video) games are actually killing simulators, and they teach our kids to kill in much the same say the astronauts on Apollo 11 learned how to fly to the moon without ever leaving the ground,” says Mr. Grossman, 43.

        Court TV airs a one-hour special, Virus of Violence (10 p.m. today), devoted to the theories of Mr. Grossman, author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (Crown; $20) and a consultant to school and mental health officials after teen shootings in Paducah, Ky., Springfield, Ore., and his hometown of Jonesboro, Ark.

Deadly marksmanship
        On the special, Mr. Grossman talks extensively about the deadly marksmanship of Michael Carneal, who was a 14-year-old freshman at Paducah's Heath High School when he was charged with fatally shooting three students and injurying five others on Dec. 1, 1997.

        “He held the gun up in a two-handed stance. He never fired far to the left. He never fired far to the right. Never fired up. Never fired down.

        “He just put one bullet in every target that popped up in front of him. What was he doing? He was playing a video game ... And he was racking up as high a score as he could,” says Mr. Grossman, who calls his study of human aggression and violence the Killology Research Group (www.killology.com).

        Mr. Grossman, a firearms instructor for numerous military and police organizations, says the “average law enforcement officer in the average engagement hits (a target) about one bullet in five.”

        The Paducah student, however, hit eight people with eight shots, he says.

        “It's hard to hit moving targets, real moving targets,” he says.

        “The reality is that the video games train you to put one bullet in every target. (But) it's not natural to put one bullet in every target. The natural thing to do is to fire at a target until it drops, and then go on to the next, and the next, and the next.”

Worst game of all
        The worst of all video games, Mr. Grossman says, is an arcade game called Time Crisis, in which kids use a gun similar to a .22-caliber pistol.

        Virus of Violence, narrated by Martin Sheen, also shows how some video games resemble military marksmanship simulators.

        “We're seeing military training being given to children,” Mr. Grossman says.

        “All you have to do is see what kids are being scripted to do (on the video games) to get the high scores, and you know that in a very short period of time, their dark fantasies are going to become your tragic realities,” he says.

        Doug Lowenstein, a spokesman for the video arcade game distributors, tells Court TV that Mr. Grossman's accusations are “nonsense” and irresponsible. Tens of millions of people have played violent video arcade games, while only a handful of kids have “committed unspeakable acts of violence,” he says.

        A spokesman for Namco America, which distributes theTime Crisis arcade game, could not be reached for comment.

        Mr. Grossman, in an interview, says he's only slightly less concerned about computer games kids play where bad guys are killed by squeezing a joystick, instead of a gun. But he warms all parents of kids playing Mortal Kombat, Doom or any game giving them a skill to kill.

        “If they are deriving pleasure from human death and suffering — or from inflicting human death or suffering, then turn it off,” he says.

        “As soon as violence is introduced, it becomes a toxic, harmful substance. It's a murder simulator. You wouldn't tolerate a rape simulator, would you?”

Parental guidance
        At what age should children be allowed to play violent video games? Not until the late teen years, or early adulthood, he says, noting that the government prohibits children having access to alcohol, tobacco, guns, cars or pornography.

        “We all understand that adults can have those things, and we can't restrain adults from having those things. But anybody that gives those to a child is criminal,” he says.

        Mr. Grossman echoes what educators, psychologists and TV violence experts have said for decades: Parents must supervise and control what their children watch on a TV or computer monitor.

        Parenting isn't easy, but it's our most important job. And it's far more complicated now, with the Internet and video games, since the American Psychological Association reported in 1992 that the average child witnesses 8,000 TV murders, and 100,000 other assorted acts of TV violence, before completing elementary school.

        So Mr. Grossman has added an incentive to his bottom line for his three sons, whenever they have grandchildren. (Two have completed college; the youngest is a high school junior.)

        “I told them I'd pay $1,000 a year for each year they keep their kids TV free, for their first five or six years,” he says.

        “I'm very glad the worst of these things weren't available when my kids were growing up,” he says. “I let my kids have access to all kinds of things (video games and guns). I didn't know. I didn't understand.”

        He says his kids have turned out OK. I hope mine do too.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.