A Troubling Trigger
BY Robert Holton
November 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/21/99 at 2:00 PM
MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Phil Gray says he's still haunted by what he saw the first and only time he ventured into a shopping mall arcade that was showing videos of graphic killing sprees under the heading of entertainment.
“There was a lot of screaming and yelling coming from the video machines,” he recalled. “But the thing that shocked me most were the youngsters who just sat quietly with their mouths hanging open as if transfixed.”
Today, as vice president of Catholics United for the Faith, an apologetics group based in Steubenville, Ohio, Gray is among a growing number of Church leaders and other concerned citizens fighting against the teen-age violence that they fear is growing in the United States.
As more scientific data on the harmful video-game phenomenon come to light, two former Army officers have acknowledged that military simulators unintentionally helped lay the groundwork for the problem.
Retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who once taught psychology at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., said, “As we learned through scientific and other studies about how to operate a war, we reduced the training of recruits to simulators that teach you how to kill as well as fly a plane or drive a car.”
With 50 years' worth of such data on hand, it didn't take long for the video merchants to copy the military's training manuals as models for their own programs. “Now, we have murder simulators,” Grossman said.
Grossman co-authored the book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill with Gloria DeGaetano, a specialist in psycho-linguistics from Seattle. DeGaetano, the married mother of two teen-aged sons, has been gathering scientific data on the damage media violence can do to young people.
“Parents don't understand that there is a relationship in our culture between violence and children's behavior,” she told the Register. “Yet, basically, the scientific evidence is right there in spades, and still our culture continues to deny it.”
DeGaetano said she began to study children's behavior when, as a training instructor of teachers, she found the schools she was working with had records of much misbehavior and disrespect among the pupils.
Eventually her research prompted her to pay a visit to a violent-video arcade.
“In such a place, the driving force is hyperactivity and sensationalism,” she said. “And lately sexuality is being combined with the many other images to make the scene even more frightening than it ever had been.”
One former Army officer who believes his work in the military may have helped trigger the video-violence craze is retired Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis.
Maginnis, who helped train soldiers during his 24-year career, has turned to the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., to promote his advocacy against teen violence.
Asked how certain he was that video games can be used to encourage teen-agers to kill, Maginnis replied: “It works, believe me. … The U.S. armed services wouldn't have spent billions and billions of dollars over the years on teaching how to kill through using video arcade technology if they didn't think it would do the job.
“This video arcade stuff is as realistic as you can make it — it's the next best thing to going out and finding a real, live target to shoot.”
In their book, Grossman and DeGaetano listed more than 400 citations linking television with youth violence in the United States, which DeGaetano said were compiled by Dr. Brandon Centerwell, a former epidemiologist with the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. He is now an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Centerwell noted that epidemiology is a science that deals with the control of diseases, and compared the youth violence problem with an epidemic.
“My own research on these more than 400 cases covered more than seven years and showed conclusively that TV violence increases quite substantially the aggressiveness of children,” he told the Register.
That aggression, he added, can carry over to adulthood and cause major increases in “the rates of serious violence in adults based upon the use of TV.”
“Violence can be attributed to many things,” Centerwell added. “But it turned out that a major part of the increased rates of violence that we have experienced in the last few decades were due to TV and video-game violence among children.”
Gray, at Catholics United for the Faith, pointed to a 1989 pastoral letter by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications which warned that repeated exposure to violence in movies or television can be confusing to children too young to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
The letter, “Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media,” stated: “Violence can condition impressionable persons — especially those who are young — to regard this as normal and acceptable behavior suitable for imitation.”
One merchant is trying to offer alternatives to violent video games.
Brian Supple, chief operations officer of Top Meadow Productions, Auberay, Calif., co-produced a video game entitled Heaven Quest.
Supple said his product is designed to “subtly interact our game with the Word of God by presenting good-moral-level types of video games.”
He made no claims to a scientific knowledge of what violent video games can do to children's minds. But he added, “You cannot compare a little boy 25 years ago playing cowboys and Indians with toy pistols, with how children today are often expressing their feelings in violent video games.”
Robert Holton writes from Memphis, Tennessee.
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