Game Hunting: A Former Soldier and Expert on Killing Sets
His Sights on Violent Video Games
Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
his black cowboy boots, jeans, and tweed sport coat over
a denim shirt, Dave Grossman looks downright disarming.
He laughs quickly and intensely and, when the situation
calls for it, dips into a deep well of quips that reporters
Dave Grossman also knows more about killing than just about
anybody. And, in particular, virtual killing. What makes
him newsworthy these days is his argument that ultraviolent
video games are helping transform children into unflinching,
deadly accurate killers. It's a point that elevates his
profile above almost everyone else in the debate about media
these kids would send me death threats," Grossman said on
a recent visit to Chicago. "It almost always goes like this:
'You say violent video games make kids violent. That's not
true and it makes me so mad, I'm going to kill you.' " And
Grossman started laughing that infectious, almost wild laugh
that suits his wild, wide blue eyes so well.
His message clearly is gaining momentum. President Clinton
last spring said Grossman bears listening to. He has been
profiled on "60 Minutes." Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan and
US senators are supporting his work to curb sales of violent
video games. His speaking schedule is booked for eight months.
As Grossman picks up speed, he poses a greater threat to
the $6.1-billion-a-year video game industry.
Until his retirement in February 1998, Dave Grossman was
Lt. Col. David Grossman, United States Army. As a teenager
and as a young adult, he now says, he was violence prone.
He enlisted in the Army in 1974. He rose through the ranks
to training sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division, then
to infantry company commander, where he led soldiers patrolling
the jungles of Panama before the US invasion in 1989.
the way, he earned a college degree with an emphasis in
military history, then a master's in education. He taught
psychology at West Point. He's a member of Mensa and the
author of two books: "On Killing: The Psychological Cost
of Learning to Kill in War and Society" and "Stop Teaching
Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video
So, what you have in the framework of an Arkansas hayseed
is a highly educated man who knows killing as thoroughly
as literature professors know William Faulkner. It makes
the experts uncomfortable.
For the last two years, Grossman has been traveling the
country, teaching about killing, while leading an institution
with the peculiar-sounding name, Warrior Science Group.
He teaches cops, teachers, superintendents, and physicians.
He talks to local Rotary Clubs and PTAs. He'll talk to anybody
about it, sometimes for free, sometimes for his negotiable
fee of $5,000 a day.
teach them what we know about killing," said Grossman, 43,
during a recent stop in Chicago, "what enables killing,
what our psychological responses to killing are. How we
turn it on and off in our soldiers . . . and how we're doing
the same thing to our kids.
fact, a significant chunk of "Stop Teaching Our Kids to
Kill," published last fall and co-authored by media consultant
Gloria DeGaetano, is something of a treatise on the dangers
of violent video games.
Essentially, Grossman starts with research that shows video
games are addictive. Then, he argues that the "first-person
shooter" games use "operant conditioning," a repetitive
stimulus-response training (think flight simulators for
pilots) that almost matches the military's method of desensitizing
humans' aversion to killing other humans while it hones
goes on to state that several military and law enforcement
training simulators--the Army's Multipurpose Arcade Combat
Simulator, Fire Arms Training Simulator, used by law enforcement
agencies--are more or less identical to violent video arcade
Then he cites the horrifying anecdotes of school shootings
in Paducah, Ky., and Littleton, Colo. In both cases, and
in other youth shootings, Grossman said, the shooters were
avid video game players.
his military training and education, the compelling aspect
of Grossman's theory is that you can almost see him as one
of those vulnerable kids who might have spent thousands
of hours playing Doom or Quake or any number of ultraviolent
video games he now contends are dangerous.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Grossman was an "Army brat"
whose family lived in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana,
Wyoming, and Nebraska--never in one place for more than
18 months. He brawled nearly everywhere he went and immersed
himself in Zane Grey novels and science fiction.
just would never take anything off anybody," Grossman recalled,
"and I didn't mind getting the daylights beaten out of me
if I could hurt the guy bad enough that he'd hesitate to
do it next time.
said he was a C+ high school student who left early and
worked on a wildcat oil rig in Nebraska for a few months
before returning to high school to graduate. Then, he enlisted
in the Army.
He got married, had three sons, and kept moving but stayed
married. He entered Columbus College near Ft. Benning, Ga.,
at night, and for his first college paper he wrote about
how the military uses operant conditioning and denial defense
mechanisms to enable killing. That started him studying
killing, he said. He wrote "On Killing" en route
to teach at West Point
in 1994, he took a teaching job at Arkansas State University,
in a town of about 46,000 people in the northeast corner
of the state. A town named Jonesboro.
years later, two boys gunned down 15 people in a local middle
school, killing five, and infamy descended upon Jonesboro.
Grossman found himself called on to brief teachers and administrators
on how to deal with the aftermath. The experience motivated
him to write "Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill,"
which he was working on when the Columbine High School shootings
occurred a little more than one year later.
effort served to illuminate his understanding of violence,
Grossman said. But over the years his work also has forced
him to come to grips with his failings as a parent.
blew it with my kids," Grossman said. "My oldest boy never
lets me forget how I let him sit there and watch some movie,
I think it was 'It.' They're up there in the Arctic and
this monster's coming. My boy's about 5 years old and he's
crying and he's crawled under the seat and I said, 'C'mon,
knock it off. It's just a movie.' And, today, I realize
that was shameful. I am truly ashamed of that. But, you
know, people don't just one day wake up and say, 'Wow, I
was a jerk!' It takes a while for you to sneak up on it
and say, 'Wow, you know, I shouldn't have done that! I'm
going to do a better job with my grand babies."
waiting for grandchildren and active in his local Baptist
church with his wife, Jeanne--when he's home. He's on the
road six days a week speaking against violence in the media.
But, for all the emotional and seemingly logical pull his
arguments have, Grossman seems to lack universally accepted
research that draws a direct correlation to violent video
games and violent behavior in children.
Even those who believe Grossman is on the right track said
the evidence is sparse.
think we're still at the if point," said Jeanne Funk, a
psychologist at University of Toledo who has been studying
the effect of video game violence on children and young
adults for 10 years. "I believe that we will find that it
is a factor, but I just don't believe we've found it yet."
She said her research indicates that "the effects are subtle,
and some of the relationships seem to be more long term
and built up over a period of time." She added that "it's
premature to start enacting laws and take severe or drastic
actions before we have more information."
Dan Snyder, a former Marine sergeant who designed training
simulators for the military, said the commercial games actually
teach bad training habits and are so lacking in context
that they are nothing like military training. "If your real
targets are sprites on a screen and you're handling a plastic
pistol that shoots beams of light," Snyder said, "these
games will make you ready."
And, those from the Interactive Digital Software Association,
the leading organization representing video and computer
game manufacturers, used even stronger language.
leap from taking animated characters out in a fantasy environment
to the fact that these games translate into real world behavior
involving real guns and shooting real people is something
that nobody comes close to," said Doug Lowenstein, president
of the association. He noted the Australian government's
five-year study of computer games found "at best only weak
and ambiguous evidence" that violent games bring violent
Many Grossman critics also argued that the games clearly
are fantasy, that other factors, including dysfunctional
parenting and children with delayed emotional and intellectual
functioning, are more serious factors in youth violence.
A few opponents said the violent games actually provide
a healthy outlet for aggressions and a harmless way for
adolescents to rebel.
maintains that most of the criticism is from media spin
specialists whose observations amount to snipping at the
fringes of his otherwise tightly woven principles.
concept of these things being fantasy is interesting," Grossman
said, "because the Holy Grail of this industry is realism,
seeking ever greater levels of realism. And, when the child
spends more waking hours playing the game than he does anything
else, what becomes fantasy and what becomes reality?
tell me, 'you can't tell me that a 6-year-old in Flint,
Mich., couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and
reality.'" Grossman said, recalling the Feb. 29 shooting
in which a 6-year-old boy shot and killed a classmate. "And
I say, 'Well, you know, how many adults do you know who
think professional wrestling is real?"
The thing that both sides agree on is that children should
not be playing the graphically violent games. In fact the
association six years ago formed the Entertainment Software
Rating Board, which places warning stickers on game packages.
The problem is getting retailers to enforce those ratings
guidelines. Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan is leading the
effort to pressure store owners. In the spring, he called
for stores to stop selling the most graphic video games
That call prompted Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck and
Co. to pull the most graphic games from their shelves. Legislative
action is pending in Tennessee and Indianapolis. And, on
May 24, nine US senators, Democrats and Republicans, sent
a letter to Target, Best Buy, Circuit City and K-Mart asking
them to follow Ryan's recommendation to stop selling violent
video games to children. Grossman believes more will follow.
And, he will keep traveling and preaching the gospel of
violent video vigilance wherever he is asked to speak. He
said he's booked for the next nine months. And, whenever
the grind starts to get to him, he recalls his days serving
I were in the Army," he said, laughing, "they'd be treating
me a lot worse than this."