Video Games Recruit & Train Killers
Pat Elder | Counter-Recruit Press | December 2018
“Where does a 14-year-old boy who never fired a gun before get the skill and the will to kill? - Video games and media violence”
Violent video games conspire to make Americans warlike, especially extraordinarily graphic games where the player holds a weapon-like game controller. At least that’s what about half of the country believes. A 2010 Rasmussen survey finds that 54% of Americans believe violent video games lead to more violence in society.1
Some studies link violent video games to aggressive and risky behavior among teens while others show that violent video games may have a calming effect on youth.
Believe what you want to believe.
After all, this is America, where free enterprise creates “research” that substantiates and disseminates pretty much anything for a price. Red meat doesn’t lead to heart disease and climate change is not caused by human activity. There’s research to “prove” it.
One thing is certain. The military, for its part, believes violent, first person shooter games are an excellent way to recruit youth. The military is looking for killers.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman offers a chilling indictment of violent video games in a widely circulated and deeply influential article, A Case Study: Paducah, Kentucky, published in the fall of 2000. A fourteenyear-old shooter fired eight rounds in fast succession at a high school youth prayer group, killing three and wounding five.
I train numerous elite military and law enforcement organizations around the world. When I tell them of this achievement, they are stunned. Nowhere in the annals of military or law enforcement history can we find an equivalent “achievement.” Where does a 14-year-old boy who never fired a gun before get the skill and the will to kill? Video games and media violence.2
Grossman argues that youth who pull the virtual trigger to slaughter thousands become hardened emotionally. He calls these violent military shooting games “Murder Simulators.”3
There’s an undeniable appeal, an enticement, an attraction to taking virtual human life, and although America’s Army can’t quite match the gore of Mortal Kombat or the splattering blood in Manhunt 2, it’s not bad for free, many adolescents contend.
America’s Army is a free online combat game developed by the Pentagon that has helped to recruit youth into the armed forces. The game’s technology, and specifically the controls, are
strikingly similar to remote-controlled weapons. Actually, it’s the other way around! For instance, the controls of the Packbot robot, used extensively in Iraq, and the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle, are actually modeled after Xbox and PlayStation controllers. Pentagon war planners understand all of this.
The America’s Army video game has millions of avid fans. It is one of the world’s most frequently downloaded games. According to a 2008 study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”4
Although the Army brushes off claims that violent video games cheapen human life and enhance the appeal to sanctioned killing, the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes exposure to violence in the media, including television, movies, music, and video games, as a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents. They claim:
Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed. Pediatricians should assess their patients’ level of media exposure and intervene on media-related health risks. Pediatricians and other child health care providers can advocate for a safer media environment for children by encouraging media literacy, more thoughtful and proactive use of media by children and their parents, more responsible portrayal of violence by media producers, and more useful and effective media ratings.5
America’s Army 3, the newest version of the game, is rated “Teen –Blood Violence” by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. 6
According to americasrmy.com, the official website of the US Army’s video game:
Players have a specific weapon challenge available to every weapon at all times. Players must complete all challenge requirements before moving on to the next challenge and cannot make progress towards a challenge before unlocking said challenge. For example, if a newly unlocked challenge requires a certain number of kills, then kills the player made before unlocking the challenge do not count towards satisfying that challenge’s requirements.7
To provide a sense of the degree to which the Army is attempting to replicate taking life in close combat, consider the upgrades to the game published on the America’s Army News website in the fall of 2015:
- Weapon sound updates
- Weapon smoke FX no longer move with the weapon
- Bullet impact FX updates
- Tweaks to grenade FX
- Fixed missing shotgun shells ejecting
- M4 and M249 recoil adjustments 8 The game has an ugly and particularly reactionary political message. It rivals the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) textbooks, in use in thousands of American high school classrooms, in its distorted view of international relations. America’s Army is not just a game. Because so many of its players are functionally illiterate, the political messaging amounts to unbridled indoctrination.
From the America’s Army website:
Fourteen months ago, the Czervenian government, controlled by the PKC, began expelling civilians from the country by military force. Over 300,000 people have been displaced and those who refused to leave have been executed. Czervenian President Kazimir Adzic and the PKC threaten to destabilize the region. U.N. Security Council resolutions failed to resolve the conflict and U.N. aid workers are overwhelmed. A humanitarian crisis of epic proportions is imminent if decisive action is not taken. The RDO government and the U.N. have requested the help of the United States. The President has sent the U.S. Army to resolve the situation.
Reality check: Although many quasi-literate youth playing these games may believe otherwise, there is no country named Czeverenia; it is a figment of the imagination of U.S. Army war game lanners. Kazimir is a Russian name. Adzik is Slavic. In its brief political orientation to the virtual slaughter that makes up the bulk of the America’s Army game, American youth are instructed that U.N. peacekeeping efforts are a failure. The U.N. and “The RDO government” need the American Army. The PKC is an undefined political entity but we know it “threatens.” Apparently, there’s nothing more to understand.
The Army understood the visceral appeal of these games and made plans to shift a portion of its nationwide recruiting apparatus to establish gaming centers equipped with X Box 360’s running America’s Army, along with lifelike simulators in shopping malls across the country. The project was launched with the unveiling of the Army Experience Center, (AEC) at Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia in August of 2008. The opening was immediately followed by an unprecedented level of organized public indignation and protest that ultimately led the Army to close the operation less than two years after it opened.
In May of 2010, a coalition of about 30 peace groups proved triumphant in its goal of shutting down the AEC. The Army closed the video war game recruitment center, aborting its intention to set up similar stations across the country. The closure of the $13 million, 14,500 square foot AEC was a testament to the steely resolve of a handful of activists from New York to Maryland who were intent on the facility’s demise.They organized several protests of hundreds of people that resulted in a dozen arrests, as well as regular vigils and a boycott of mall owner Simon Property Group, Inc.
Witnessing 13-year-old boys giving each other high fives for “blowing away ragheads” while the simulated blood of Afghans poured on their screens provided enough stimulus for these activists to turn outrage to action. The U.S. Army was ultimately forced to retreat. The AEC boasted dozens of video game computers and X-Box consoles with various interactive, military-style shooting games. The facility had sophisticated Apache helicopter and Humvee simulators that allowed teens to simulate battlefield killing. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Rob Watson compared the Army Experience Center to “a heavy dose of candy cigarettes.”
When the center opened, the Army announced it was designed as a pilot program and would decide whether to launch them nationally. In August 2009, Captain Jared Auchey, Company Commander at Franklin Mills, was boasting of the center’s success and claiming others were being planned across the country. But the protests escalated. Dozens of local and national peace groups joined the “Shut Down the Army Experience Center” campaign.
Activists infiltrated the AEC’s Facebook page, and for days several dozen people opposed to the center dominated a discussion of the ethical implications of recruiting youth using video games. The Army eventually moved to ban many of its new Facebook “friends,” but others took their places and the “unwelcome disruptions” continued.
Demonstrators typically cited moral rather than political reasons in their signage and statements to the press. Bill Deckhart, coordinator of BuxMont Coalition for Peace Action, described the AEC as “a monument to dishonesty.” He continued, “The AEC teaches children killing without consequence. Real warfare does not have reset buttons or multiple lives. To give this impression to our youth is immoral and must be stopped.” It is this burning resolve and strategic messaging that has caused the Army to reconsider its plans to establish video arcade recruiting centers in shopping malls across the country.
Organizers were assisted by St. Luke’s United Church of Christ, located adjacent to the mall. When activists asked if the church and its grounds could be used as a staging area for the protests, the pastor responded, “Of course!”
Elaine Brower, who became a leading activist in the campaign to shut down the center and whose son joined the Marines at age 17, was arrested twice. “This is a victory for the entire peace and anti-war movement. The teamwork and coalition building that was accomplished led to our success. We were relentless in our struggle to shut this center down.”
The sustained work of committed activists like Brower forced the otherwise complacent mainstream media to take notice. It’s difficult to ignore several hundred angry protesters and almost as many police, Army officials, and several dozen pro-military counter-protesters at the local mall. Taking their cues from Gandhi and King, demonstrators held spirited, creative, nonviolent protests — and they worked.
No one lost their cool, except for a few Philadelphia police officers, some of whom couldn’t differentiate between First Amendment exercise and petty criminal behavior. All of those arrested eventually had their charges dropped.
Military officials were caught off guard by the frequent protests. When asked to comment on the public outcry, Army spokesmen had a variety of responses. Often they tried to isolate the protesters by politicizing the issue. Sometimes they’d question the patriotism of protesters or speak in general terms, defending the necessity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military Times said the fate of the AEC was attributable to economics rather than protests, even though when it first opened, the Army said it would save money because it replaced five traditional recruiting stations in the suburban Philadelphia area.
The Army’s propaganda could never offer an adequate defense of encouraging 13-year-olds to shoot simulated weaponry at life-like targets. Capt. Auchey said the facility was “an innovative way to communicate to society.” He often made the point that the same types of combat video games were available just steps away at a mall arcade. Of course, those video games aren’t offered for free at taxpayer expense.
When asked why there was so much controversy surrounding the AEC, Program Manager Major Larry Dillard responded, “I think they’re terrified it’ll work.” The major was right.
The Army realizes that sophisticated computer animation that simulates combat is a powerful hook to lure youth. Rather than locate mega-recruiting centers in suburban shopping malls, the Army is now expressing an interest in bringing combat simulations into traditional neighborhood recruiting centers, hoping they will become a cool place for youth to “chill.”
According to Gary Evans MD, in his influential piece, The Pentagon’s Child Recruiting Strategy, “Studies of children exposed to violence have shown that they can become: “immune” or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior with greater exposure to violence.”9
Brad Bushman and colleagues at Ohio State University conducted a comprehensive review of every study that looked at the effect of violent video games. They examined 381 effects from studies involving 130,000 people, and results showed that playing violent video games increased aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiological arousal.10
Jared Lee Loughner killed six and injured 13, including Rep. Gabby Giffords, in a 2011 Arizona shooting. “All he did was play video games and play music,” said a friend.11
Adam Lanza was the 20-year-old behind the horrendous school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, which left 20 children and 6 adults dead. Lanza was an avid player of
violent video games. According to the report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the following first person shooter games were seized by police: Doom, Left for Dead, Metal Gear Solid, Dead Rising, Half Life, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Shin Megami Tensei, Dynasty Warriors, Vice City, and Team Fortress. A review of the electronic evidence on Lanza’s hard drive showed an infatuation with killing. He had bookmarks pertaining to firearms, military, politics, mass murder, video games, and Army Ranger. He had apparently played the computer game titled School Shooting, where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students. There were also 172 screen shots of the online game Combat Arms.12
Lanza and the others mentioned here acquired some of the skill and the will to kill through video games. The Marines’ adaptation of Doom, a game Lanza played, helped pave the way for the development of America’s Army.
Although experts disagree over whether there is a direct link between violent video games and violent criminal behavior, a consensus is beginning to develop among the scientific and educational communities that these games lead to increased aggression among players. A 2015 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) summarizes these findings.
The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression,” says the report of the APA Task Force on Violent Media. The task force’s review is the first in this field to examine the breadth of studies included and to undertake multiple approaches to reviewing the literature.
“Scientists have investigated the use of violent video games for more than two decades but to date, there is very limited research addressing whether violent video games cause people to commit acts of criminal violence,” said Mark Appelbaum, PhD, task force chair. “However, the link between violence in video games and increased aggression in players is one of the most studied and best established in the field.13
The incredibly violent Doom video game was released in 1993 by Texas game developer id Software. The game was a revolution of incredible technical innovation coupled with horrendously violent scenes. Doom ushered in the wildly popular first-person-shooter video games that continue to attract the attention of millions of players world-wide. It was an immediate hit among American teens.
Numerous church leaders excoriated Doom was for its Satanic themes. Killology Research Group founder David Grossman called it a “mass murder simulator.” 14
The U.S. Marines appreciated the extraordinary power of the game.
The Marine Corps charged its Modeling and Simulation Management Office with finding a commercial product that could be modified for Marine training needs. Lt. Scott Barnett was assigned to play PC games on the market that might fit the bill, and eventually selected Doom II. Barnett enlisted the help of Sgt. Dan Snyder to modify the game from its sci-fi Mars terrain to a small desert village, and replace the game’s demon enemies with more real-world adversaries.
While “Marine Doom” never became an official training tool, Marines were encouraged to play it, and it was sanctioned to be installed on government PCs. In 1997, Gen. Charles C. Krulak, who was the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, issued a directive supporting the use of PC games for “Military Thinking and Decision Exercises.15
Doom was a source of fascination for Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the murderers in the Columbine High School shooting.16
In the video Harris and Klebold made in the basement of Harris’ house, Harris says the shooting will “be like [expletive] Doom” and shortly thereafter describes his sawed-off shotgun as being “straight out of Doom.” Furthermore, Harris named his 12-gauge pump shotgun “Arlene” after Arlene Sanders of the Doom novels.17
Evan Ramsey brought a shotgun into his Alaska high school, where he gunned down a fellow student and the principal, and wounded two others. Ramsey said playing video games warped his sense of reality. He was an avid fan of Doom.
Ramsey survived the ordeal. In an interview that aired in 2007 with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Ramsey said, “I based a lot of my knowledge solely on video games. You shoot a guy in Doom, and he gets back up. You have got to shoot the things in Doom eight or nine times before it dies. And I went with that concept on—with—from the video game and added it to life.”18
Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old who fired upon a group of classmates at Heath High School in West Paducah, KY in 1997, also loved to play Doom. Authorities noted that his aim was uncannily accurate. He fired just once at each person’s head, as one would do to rack up bonus points in the video game.19
David Grossman, quoted earlier in this chapter, was astounded by Carneal’s “achievement.”
In 2003 Devin Moore, an Alabama teen, stole a gun from a police officer and shot three officers, then stole a police cruiser to make his escape. Moore spent much of his life playing single-shooter games. “Life is a video game,” he said after his arrest.20
Kip Kinkel frequently played violent video games such as Doom, Counter-Strike, and Castle Wolfenstein. He was the 1998 Thurston High School shooter. Kinkel murdered his parents
before opening fire at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, killing 2 and wounding 25.21
Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo in 2011, spent countless hours playing violent video games, especially Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Breivik has described how he “trained” for the attacks he carried out in Norway in the summer of 2011 by using the computer game.
Describing the game, he said: “It consists of many hundreds of different tasks and some of these tasks can be compared with an attack, for real. That’s why it’s used by many armies throughout the world. It’s very good for acquiring experience related to sights systems.”22
In Call of Duty, the player controls Pvt. Martin from the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. In Call of Duty 2, the player controls Cpl. Bill Taylor from Dog Company. In Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, the player takes control of Sgt. Roland Roger of the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Mechanized Infantry Regiment, Fox Company. In Call of Duty 3, the player “becomes” Pvt. Nichols from the 29th Infantry Division.23
James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012. Holmes loved playing the World of Warcraft video game. It’s what he did.24
The military realizes that the skills in the strategy and tactics used in games like World of Warcraft are similar to those commanders on the battlefield use in real combat. With this in mind, the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center-Training has been developing its own Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games (MMRPGs) to train new recruits. Col. Robert White, the Deputy Commander, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center-Training, has described a gaming system that allows individual soldiers world-wide to log into the Army MMRPG and play as individuals or as units.25
A secret NSA document, “Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments,” disclosed by Edward Snowden in December of 2013, shows that the spy agency and its UK sister agency GCHQ have deployed real-life agents into the virtual World of Warcraft and have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network, which has more than 48 million players.26
According to the Guardian story by James Ball dated December 9, 2013:
If properly exploited, games could produce vast amounts of intelligence, according to the NSA document. They could be used as a window for hacking attacks, to build pictures of people’s social networks through “buddylists and interaction,” to make approaches by undercover agents, and to obtain target identifiers (such as profile photos), geolocation, and collection of communications.
The ability to extract communications from talk channels in games would be necessary, the NSA paper argued, because of the potential for them to be used to communicate anonymously: Given that gaming consoles often include voice headsets, video cameras, and other identifiers, the potential for joining together biometric information with activities was also an exciting one.27
According to the Guardian article, Blizzard Entertainment, the California-based producer of World of Warcraft, said neither the NSA nor GCHQ had sought its permission to gather intelligence inside the game. The documents contain no indication that the spying uncovered terrorist activity.
Army Experience Center protesters, cited earlier, alleged that the America’s Army video game reinforced prejudices and cultural stereotypes. An Army spokesman defended the practice as an innovative way to communicate to society. Paradoxically, the NSA expressed the same concerns, noting that Hezbollah had produced a game called Special Forces 2 that trained terrorists. The NSA document acknowledges Hezbollah got the idea from the US Army. Similarly, Iraqi gamers modified the game Battlefield 2, enabling players to take on the role of extremists whose home village in Iraq suffered collateral damage during a fictional US operation.28
These first-person shooter games have the propensity to attract and nurture killers, especially among those who spend significant portions of their lives immersed in this virtual netherworld. Meanwhile, the real world places a premium on securing the services of those who are wired to kill. These games will continue to play an increasingly important role in recruiting and training soldiers, particularly those willing to put their lives on the line. The communal aspect of these games, along with their relatively porous platforms, allows sophisticated state-supported actors, who understand their transformative power, to infiltrate activities.
Pat Elder is the director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, an organization that works to prohibit the automatic release of student information to military recruiting services from the nation's high schools. He is also creator of the website Counter-Recruit.org, which documents the deceptive practices used by the US military to recruit students into the armed forces.