Murder Simulators?

Dayton City Paper

January 04, 2006

Railing against video game violence isn't just for Jack Thompson anymore

By John Lasker

Practically every serious video gamer knows of the Miami-based attorney Jack Thompson. His relentless public relations war against the video game industry has become the stuff of infamous legend. Thompson once labeled the proliferation of certain Sony games in the U.S. as “Pearl Harbor 2.”

Thompson is often interviewed on Fox News about violence and sex in media. He calls games such as Grand Theft Auto and first-person shooters such as Doom “murder simulators.”

But while Thompson has marginalized himself by assailing CEOs and game designers in the $10 billion dollar industry, a flurry of recent action by Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) is bringing more legitimacy to the theory that hardcore violent video games have a negative impact on individuals with certain risk factors, such as those that are young and growing up in an environment predisposed to crime and violence.

Clinton and Lieberman introduced a bill called The Family Entertainment Protection Act in December. The proposed law focuses on minors and, if passed, will crack down on retailers who sell them “Mature”-rated games, as designated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Sen. Lieberman recently stated at a press conference that there is “a growing body of evidence that points to a link between violent videos and aggressive behavior in children,” although the U.S. Surgeon General stated otherwise as recently as 2001.

But social psychologists such as Dr. Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University, who has made a career of studying media violence and whether it inspires real-world aggression, sides with Lieberman, stating that much has changed even in that short period of time.

“The research that shows violence in games increases aggressive behavior in minors is getting larger and stronger. I would say that, since 2001, half a dozen studies a year have been published showing (a link),” he said, adding there are now 20 to 30 teams across the globe publishing research that supports a conclusion that has long been dismissed by gamers and free speech proponents as existing solely in the aggressive imaginations of conservative watchdogs. Some of the research is based on psychiatric evaluations while others study brain patterns via MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans.

Anderson, who plays games with his own children, believes that many games enhance logic and problem-solving abilities. But he is also concerned about how realistic and violent a handful of games have become over the last several years.

Anderson likes to cite a University of Indiana study published in 2002 where MRI scans were used to view the brain activity from two groups of teenagers while they played violent video games — with one group having been previously diagnosed with Disruptive Behavior Disorders (DBD).

The teenagers with DBD showed reduced activity and blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, which controls impulses, decision-making and the sense of future consequences.
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a lobbyist group for the video game industry, counters by saying for every negative study there’s one that refutes the findings by Anderson and others.

Scientists and psychologists, however, aren’t the only ones worried about violence in video games. Thousands of police officers and detectives are actively keeping an eye out for a video game connection at shootings, especially those committed by young adults or minors.

“Are we cognizant that these games are out there and have a big influence over our youth? Absolutely,” said police chief David Hiller, who is also national vice president for the Fraternal Order of Police.

Hiller said that a major concern street-level officers have — one that’s become more tangible just in the last few years — is that young people are going to emulate what they do in these games. “Remember, these kids are being rewarded for pulling the trigger and killing people,” he said.
It’s not just word-of-mouth that’s keeping law enforcement on edge. One of the most in-demand speakers and trainers for law-enforcement departments and academies is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an ex-U.S. Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor.
Grossman has testified in front of Congress, been quoted by President Clinton, and wrote On Killing, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is now required reading at the FBI Academy and several military academies. What’s more, Grossman wrote the book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence.

Grossman refused to comment for this story, citing his busy schedule. Since 9/11, he has been on the road for 300 days out of the year, and his several-hours-long presentations are known to keep audiences riveted, and afterwards, shocked at what he had to say.

“I train 50,000 people a year, (and) 10,000 cops every year for the last three years,” said Grossman in 2001 during a violence-in-media debate. Ohio police agencies said that Grossman has spoken throughout the state several times in the last two years.

Grossman’s training consists of preparing police and military minds for combat and street crime. He tells them that “violent media and video games,” according to an article from Modern Survival, is “the largest single threat to modern civilization.”

Murder rates may be down since the middle of the last century, Grossman tells audiences, but felony assaults have risen. Advances in emergency medical attention caused the swing, he explains.

Grossman is also the founder and director of the Killology Research Group, a military consulting organization. The Killology Web site says that first-person shooter games not only desensitize our youth from the psychological ramifications of killing, but also teach the very mechanics of killing.

In a recent interview with DCP, Thompson said this belief is hard to argue against if one considers the relationship between the video game industry and the U.S. military, which uses video games to teach soldiers combat skills. He says the U.S. military’s dirty secret is that these games also break down the inhibitions to killing.

“The military has contracted the video game industry to manufacture virtual reality simulators that teach new recruits how to kill,” he said.

Some of these games, such as the free download America’s Army, are now widely available, he says. “And these same simulators do not affect civilians? The video game industry has no argument against this.”

Thompson and Grossman have, literally, hundreds of thousands of critics. One critic of Grossman has been calling on him for several years now to stop spreading fear and unproven information.

“I would say to him that he should reconsider much of what he has disseminated in the law-enforcement community during the last ten years. Because at best, much of what he has disseminated is of dubious value, and at worst, potentially harmful,” said Thomas J. Aveni of The Police Policies Studies Council, a law-enforcement training and consultation corporation based in New Hampshire.

Aveni said that Grossman’s argument about how violent video games have tremendous sway over our youth is “too simplistic” and “illogical.” He said the real causes of violence are upbringing, poverty and other social factors.

“I’m inclined to believe the vast majority of violent felony crimes committed by our youth are being committed by inner-city kids who don’t have an X-box,” he said, “Meaning, they haven’t been conditioned by violent video games.”

Nevertheless, Grossman has also instructed audiences that one way to remedy violent media is to challenge the producers and distributors in court, a tactic used by Thompson.

Thompson has helped file several civil suits against the video game industry and its retailers, but all were dismissed before making it to a jury trial. Retailers have argued that laws against selling Mature-rated video games is unenforceable because preteens/teens simply get older relatives/friends to purchase the games for them.

But the track record for litigation may change during the coming year. Two years ago, a then-18-year-old Devin Moore shot and killed two police officers and one dispatcher at a police station in Alabama. Moore was an avid player of Grand Theft Auto and it was alleged that his parents had physically abused him. He told police upon arrest, “Life is a video game. You’ve got to die some time.”

Thompson filed a $600 million wrongful death suit on behalf of the families. After gaming industry attorneys made a motion to dismiss the case, the judge decided in December that the trial could go forward. There is another opportunity for dismissal, but those close to the case told DCP there’s a good chance it will now go to a jury.

Thompson and his colleagues would first have to show the jury psychological or medical evidence that video games have an adverse psychological impact on certain individuals, resulting in dangerous conduct. They must also prove that either the video game manufacturers knew, or should have foreseen, that the violent and antisocial content of their video games could have a dangerous psychological impact on certain individuals.

Thompson recently removed himself from the Alabama case after video game attorneys alerted the judge to his past covert activities. Thompson’s critics may call him a quack, but they cannot deny that his intuition has been on target.

During the central Ohio “Highway Sniper” scare, where Charles McCoy Jr. took turns shooting variously at homes, schools, and passing motorists in late 2003 and early 2004, Thompson urged a law-enforcement sniper task force to stake out a Columbus-area GameWorks, a restaurant and video game room.

Lo and behold, the admitted shooter, McCoy Jr., turned out to spend a lot of time playing video games (some violent) and was known to frequent the area GameWorks. When he was arrested after going on the lam, police said his few possessions consisted of his PlayStation 2 and the game, The Getaway. Incredibly, McCoy’s shooting spree resulted in only one death, that of 62-year-old Gail Knisley of Washington Court House. The Knisley family, with Thompson as their attorney, wanted to go forth with a lawsuit but several factors, such as McCoy’s paranoid schizophrenia, changed their minds at the last minute. McCoy pled guilty to manslaughter and is now serving a 27-year prison sentence.

Many close to the McCoy case said video game violence was not the reason McCoy went on his shooting spree.

“My first thought was that such an allegation is complete bullshit,” said Dr. Mark J. Mills, a forensic psychiatrist from Maryland who interviewed McCoy and testified on behalf of the defense. Mills said that after McCoy stopped taking his medication, his “auditory hallucinations” worsened and eventually tricked him into shooting into speeding highway traffic.

Nonetheless, Thompson compares his anti-video game crusade to another legal war where the plaintiffs chipped away ever so slowly at a corporate behemoth.

“Look at the tobacco industry,” he said to this reporter. “We’re pioneers at this. The first time you don’t succeed…”

Anderson agreed that, like the tobacco industry, the video game industry in time will lose in court and be forced to make changes.

“I suspect Mr. Thompson is correct,” he said. “A lawsuit victory would bring about enforcement. It may not have an effect on the video game industry’s profitability, but it will have impact on retailers and how well the rating system is enforced. (Furthermore), parents have to get involved to a much greater extent then they are now. A victory will more than likely get them more involved.”

Reach DCP freelance writer John Lasker