October 01, 2006

Military vs. videogames

From an Amazon user review of Killing Monsters, pitting it against Grossman's On Killing:

Considering the fact that "On Killing," which was published years before this, is perhaps one of the strongest opposing arguments against the author's thesis I expected a lengthy response. The author wrote less than a half page.(!) The author contends that Grossman is wrong because the military is a controlled environment whereas video games are not. [...] The idea that one needs a controlled environment to create violence in humans is just nonsensical. [...]

I grew up on Nintendo - Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, etc. Some violence, yes, but nothing compared to what we have today. Modern video games show with absolute detail the death and distruction of human beings in completey gorey detail. Spurting blood, screams, mayhem. There is no comparison between these games and _anything_ in previous human history. When we were kids out in the woods and "shot" each other no one's guts spilled open and our heads didn't explode. But that is what we have with many modern games. What we have is nothing less than a mass experiment in human behavior with our young children (mostly boys) as the test subjects.

Ah yes, those troublesome boys.

The vital difference between the military and a videogame is of course the penalty for leaving. On joining the military, you're in: once you see what it's actually like, most avenues for leaving will be called defecting, and punished harshly.   A video game always has an ongoing potential for quitting — in fact, the player will often be forced to stop playing by crashes, power failures and so on.

Videogames are a break from everyday life, whereas the military replaces everyday life. Is it really that difficult to see the vital difference here?

Apparently so. Let me elaborate.

Military training is a wholesale repurposing of a person's behavior by the most robust methods: rote, uniforming, homogenization, fear of punishment. After the initial choice to enlist has been made, subsequent choices rarely matter; the choice of joining is usually rationalized with a sense of duty, patriotism and/or opportunity. However, once in the military these reasons no longer matter, from a practical standpoint: if all other things fail, soldiers must be depended upon to keep performing from fear of punishment and, under extreme stress, to fall back on mechanically learned routines.

In stark contrast, videogames are purchased with the expectation that they will be fun: a game that doesn't provide fun will gather dust, because there are always other choices. The people that play a lot of games with depictions of violence chose to play shooting games and continued to choose them. This says something about a tendency with the person; he is not just a passive victim of the media. The violence is not created in the person by the game, it's created by the person, in the game.

So the underlying reason would be in the person, not in the game. The question of whether depictions of violence in games can permanently amplify violent tendencies is, well, another question.

(Does the fact that school shooters have played 3D shooters speak against them working as catharsis, or does the fact that murder rates are going down speak for them? Or do we need games that provide better catharsis?)