AssassinationGenAssassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing

by Dave Grossman and Kristine Paulsen
Kindle version: 234 pages; $13.99
Hardcover: 272 pages; $21.87
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company, Nov. 15, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0316265935

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

While traveling in January, I used my airport and airplane time to read the most recent book from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, (US Army Ret.) famed for his earlier works on the psychology that prepares soldiers to kill the enemy, as well as an earlier study with parenting authority Gloria DeGaetano, that focused also on children and violent entertainment. This latest book, Assassination Generation, co-authored with educator Kristine Paulsen, is riveting, and I was surprised at how quickly I reached the end.

While most Americans struggled to understand massacres like the Newtown, CT school shooting and similar atrocities, Grossman writes that, “The objective of my life’s work has been to uncover the dynamics of killing. Over the last few years, my prime motivation has shifted from understanding the processes that take place on the battlefield to using the knowledge I’ve gained to understand the cause of the current wave of violent killing.”

Grossman explains, “People simply aren’t naturally inclined to harm or kill each other. Their brains must be conditioned to overcome these inhibitions.” The military teaches recruits to switch off the disinclination to kill, but military discipline also imposes “strictures against killing” that serve as safeguards. These are absent in the “insidiously addictive shooter role play video games” that expose game players to the same psychological manipulation. Grossman details video game “win” scenarios, violent enactments and audio tracks in popular games that are teaching that the most gruesome violence earns the most acclaim.

This explains a point Tom Givens made in our lead interview this month–the score-keeping common to spree shooters. The Newtown school shooter, Grossman writes, “kept a seven-foot-long and four-foot-wide spreadsheet of his extensive research on mass murders of the past…This morbid desire to join the ranks of ‘glory killers’ could explain why he targeted children and educators at the elementary school–he knew, first, that killing children would ensure the maximum shock value and, second, that victims who couldn’t fight back would provide the least resistance, helping him rack up the highest score,” he comments.

Assassination Generation explains how game designers apply classical and operant conditioning to teach the player to win the game. These psychological manipulations also lead to irrational reactions in real life. Grossman asserts that violent entertainment becomes linked in young minds to dinner, treats, and pleasant free time with friends. Add to that game depictions of extreme violence and the mass murder simulations required to win, he warns, and as a result, “When life overwhelms them and some of them decide to pick up a weapon, they won’t be murdering a single individual. In the heightened stress of that situation, their conditioning will kick in–and the outcome will be much worse,” he predicts. Advances in technology have added virtual reality goggles and some games integrate movement, such that as “a part of the progression of the game, you rehearse the actions involved in strangling, hacking, beating, and stabbing human beings to death over and over again.”

Given the popularity of these games, it is obvious that not everyone who plays violent video games or watches slasher movies becomes a spree killer. However, Grossman cites depression, isolation, bullying, increased aggressive thoughts and poor socialization, among the side effects of violent entertainment. As children and youth who are addicted to video games grow into adulthood, “Other interpersonal relationships are likely to deteriorate as well. A 2011 study found that 15 percent of all divorces were due to at least one partner’s video game use,” he reports.

These findings are much more than Grossman’s conclusions! He quotes study after study from authorities like the American Psychological Association (APA), American Academy of Pediatrics, the National PTA, UNESCO, and the American Medical Association (AMA), which “have made unequivocal statements about the link between media [movie and video game] violence and violence in our society.”

To avoid preaching to the choir, we won’t detail Assassination Generation’s explanation of why availability of guns is not the cause of mass shootings, or how murder and suicide statistics in various countries are slanted to make guns look like the cause of violence in America. Grossman also gutted one of my favorite blames–psychoactive medications–citing FBI and Secret Service studies to support his conclusions that drugs don’t create spree shooters. If we want to contend that guns are not the cause of school shootings, we also need to listen carefully to ideas that prescriptions are not to blame, either. Our arguments need to be accurate, and so I urge readers to buy Assassination Generation and absorb Grossman’s research-supported arguments.

Grossman urges the reader to ask why we don’t prohibit violent entertainment for young children who are vulnerable to psychological damage from games and movies. It’s odd, he muses, that parents now have more to fear from their children being killed by a spree shooter at school than from a school fire, when both are preventable. Millions of dollars are spent to make schools fire-code compliant, and children are regularly drilled in fire survival. To combat school shootings, about all we’ve done is put law enforcement officers in the schools and provide counseling, but “we never did anything to address the root cause of the problem,” he asserts. Instead, “An entire generation out there has been fed violence as entertainment from their youngest days, and they have been systematically taught to associate pleasure and reward with human death and suffering.”

Even children’s cartoons depict violence without showing any punishment for its use. Infants and toddlers exposed to television cannot distinguish real danger from what they view on the screen. The survival response to viewing violence literally damages their brains. “The violent visual imagery inflicted upon these children caused stress, which in turn prompted the release of fight-or-flight hormones, as if their brains were responding to real-life crises. The forebrain, which controls everything that makes us human, shuts down, leaving the midbrain in charge,” Grossman explains, later quoting research to show that, “prefrontal [brain] mechanisms for controlling emotion and behavior are altered by exposure to violent media. Therefore, long-term increases in aggression and decreases in inhibitory control due to excessive media violence exposure may result from impaired development of prefrontal regions.”

He cites research explaining that when left-brain functions are damaged “simple, logical, predictive reasoning” is severely limited. “This type of child requires constant nagging to do his homework because the implications of not doing his homework don’t exist for him. That level of reasoning had been shut down by his repeated exposure to media violence as his brain slipped back into fight-or-flight, mammalian mode. It’s not too far a stretch to imagine that this same child will be incapable of thinking through the consequences of bringing a gun to school, or to his workplace when he’s older,” Grossman predicts.

It sounds pretty gloomy, doesn’t it? Fortunately, Grossman suggests that with resolve and determination, the damage caused by media violence and virtual reality first person killer games can be eliminated, much like physically detoxifying from drug or alcohol use. Take the game addict away from the game, and after about 48 hours, the body chemistry begins to right itself and after another day of withdrawal, Grossman has seen complete reversals in behavior, he reports.

Removing TV and video games from youngster’s entertainment options has another unexpected benefit. “One of the major effects of media and video game addiction is sleep deprivation,” writes Grossman. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to “irrational violence, erratic and unpredictable behavior, an inability to attend and focus in school, depression, and, ultimately, suicide. In fact, we are learning that media-addiction-induced sleep deprivation is a major factor in suicides in the military,” he adds.

Relief from depression is another side effect of shutting off the TV and computer. “Numerous studies have linked depression with excessive television viewing, and several new studies have been launched to further examine the connection between depression and media consumption,” he reports. He recommends strict limits on television, movie or video game exposure for very young children, and only slightly relaxed accessibility to “screen time” for youths.

Is an individual determination to flush violent movies and games out of family life enough to stop spree killings? Other families may not be so careful in their entertainment choices. Assassination Generation’s co-author, Kristine Paulsen, has considerable experience with school programs to reduce “screen time” and many have worked very well. One school-based effort targeted students from kindergarten to fifth grade. “In the program’s first year, seventeen elementary schools implemented the curriculum. The average decrease in student aggression was 55 percent on the playground and 48 percent in the classroom.” In other states and in a juvenile correctional facility, the same outcome echoed these successes.

Do we violate the First Amendment by restricting violent games and movies? Grossman opines, “The research does show that the bodies and minds of young children are not prepared to handle the visual imagery in violent video games, just as they aren’t prepared for sex, alcohol, or the responsibility of driving a car. Even the most ardent libertarian doesn’t object to laws that prevent predators from sharing sex, drugs, and alcohol with their children. The time has come for education and legislation that will protect our children from the makers of these games along these same lines.”

In conclusion, Grossman outlines a ten-step program to address the problem that includes “parental education about the harmful effects of media violence on youth;” policy reform; legislation allowing restrictions on “the sale of violent video games to children;” more research; protections against predatory marketing; truthful rating systems; encouraging “development, evaluation, testing, and distribution of more prosocial products;” involving family doctors and teachers in efforts to stop violent entertainment; and opposing consolidation of large media corporations, since the bigger the company, the harder it is to rein in. He provides solid rationales for each step, and to better understand the problem and his solutions, I recommend buying Assassination Generation and reading it cover to cover.

To read more of this month's journal, please click here.