Video games could be training troubled kids to kill, experts say

Other experts, players scoff at the notion that games lead to real killing

May 04, 1999|By Scott Shane and Devon Spurgeon | Scott Shane and Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

Scott Yinger stands in front of a video screen firing off three rounds at the chubby man with the comb-over.

He is no video-crazed teen squandering his allowance in the arcade. Yinger, 38, is a Maryland state trooper sharpening his shooting skills on the video simulator in the basement of state police headquarters in Pikesville.

Police and military trainers use high-tech video to reproduce shoot-or-be-shot scenarios. By shooting at make-believe bad guys in realistic scenes, officers can hone their marksmanship and improve their reaction time. Soldiers can learn to overcome the natural inhibition against killing.

But of the millions of Americans shooting digital guns at digital opponents every day, only a tiny percentage are in uniform. The overwhelming majority are teen-age boys, and in the wake of the recent rash of schoolhouse shootings, some psychologists say violent video games may be inadvertently training some troubled teen-agers to kill.

"If it works for law enforcement, don't you think this kind of training works for kids?" asked retired Lt. Col. David Grossman, who trains Green Berets and is a former professor of psychology at the U.S. Military Academy.

Grossman is scheduled to testify today at a Senate hearing on the causes of violent rampages such as the one April 20 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.

Repeatedly watching brutal killings on the screen numbs the player to violence, said Grossman, author of a 1995 book on how people learn to kill.

"Anyone who lets kids have unrestricted access to video games should be locked up," he said.

David Walsh, a psychologist and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minnesota, agrees.

"It's inconsistent to tout the benefits of the technology for training soldiers and police officers and then say it doesn't influence kids," he said.

Dueling experts

Not all experts believe the games pose a hazard to young players.

"If there's a real correlation between playing these games and school shootings, why aren't there hundreds or thousands of school shootings?" asked Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles child psychologist. "If all we're saying is one in 25,000 or one in 50,000 kids who play these games may shoot someone, how significant a factor can it be?"

Butterworth, who believes gun makers are quietly trying to shift public wrath to games from guns, said the games may actually reduce violence by allowing students "to get out their frustrations."

Walsh acknowledged that few teens who play the games become violent. But he said their participatory nature distinguishes the games from even the goriest movies. Together with the crudity and violence of some television shows, films, rock songs and Web sites, the games have shifted American culture's definition of what is normal, he said.

"If the norm is respectful and polite behavior, the extreme may be a punch in the nose," Walsh said. "If the norm is in-your-face, make-my-day violence, then the extreme can be something like Colorado."

`First-person shooters'

The two Colorado killers, like the boys involved in similar shootings from Bethel, Alaska, to West Paducah, Ky., were fans of what the video industry calls "first-person shooters." Bearing such names as "Blood Bath" and "Postal," they are games in which the player, represented on the screen by the barrel of his gun, shoots his way through a landscape of computerized terrorists, criminals, humanoids or aliens.

Some game makers don't apologize for the gore. In fact, they promote it. The Web site for "Reloaded," for instance, promises "gut-wrenching violence on a massive scale." The Web site says "Reloaded" surpasses an earlier version of the game, which it describes as a "deranged, psychologically brutal, senselessly violent, over-the-top, insane bloodbath."

Harris, one of the Columbine High School shooters, was a devotee of "Doom," an old favorite of the genre. "Doom" was adapted in 1995 for training use by the Marine Corps, whose programmer won a Navy Achievement Medal for producing a more realistic version in which the player wields an M-16.

Evan Ramsey, who was 16 when he killed a student and the principal at Bethel Regional High School in Alaska in 1997, told an interviewer last year that his real fury at school became blurred with video fantasy. "I played video games too much," he said.

Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old Kentucky boy who shot up a prayer circle in the lobby of his school, had never fired a real gun before he performed a ghastly feat of marksmanship 17 months ago. According to Grossman, the boy hit the running, screaming students with all eight shots from a .22-caliber pistol; half the shots were in the head.

A common thread

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