I recently started listening to On Combat by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren Christensen.
The first section of the book is dedicated to responses to extreme fear and getting ready for a life or death struggle. It’s very common for one’s bowels and bladder to evacuate (yeah, crapping and pissing your pants is a common reaction). The chapter was really eye-opening.
But as Grossman moved into the second section he started in on an extended anti-violent video game screed. Grossman talks about males who have committed recent mass shootings in schools and how it must be video games that conditioned them to the point where their accuracy and weapon handling capabilities are far above those of trained police officers.
I remember seeing something about this years ago and could only think to myself : “well hell police officers better start playing more first person shooters then.”
While Grossman doesn’t outright say that video games are causing kids to shoot up schools, he does say that they’re training kids to be far more proficient at it.
Overall his reasoning is very valid as he is using Operant Conditioning as the basis for his claims. Yes, video games are essentially Skinner Boxes and they do reward players.
However, there are some things he casually throws into the mix that I think undermine his arguments.
Violence Since the 50s
Grossman correctly points out that according to the FBIs data, violent crime in the US is far higher than what it was in the 50s. But what else is higher since the 50s? The population, the number of police departments, the number of police, the number people reporting things to the police, the number of police departments reporting their violent crime data to the FBI – the list goes on and on.
In short I’m wondering how some controls on the data would make things look.
Grossman does seem to conveniently step over the fact that crime peaked in the early 90s (1991 with a rate of 758.2 incidents per 100,000 people) and has been on an overall downward trend since (there was an uptick starting in 2014, but it peaked in 2016 and is going down again).
The book was published originally in 2004 and the 3rd edition that I’m listening to was released in 2008 – so I’m a bit piqued as to why the narrative hasn’t been corrected.
Grossman does make the point that the murder rate has been going down due to better medical capabilities but again he skips over the fact that violent crime overall is down (at least as reported to the FBI).
And even the 1950s bit doesn’t hold much water as the murder rate had been on a downward slide since a peak in 1930/31.
Violent Media Sales
Grossman is also somewhat careful to not blame only video games but the consumption of violent media as a whole based on the work of Albert Bandura and others (forgive me as Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments are the only ones I’m familiar with).
But again, reality seems to tell a different story. Given that First Person Shooters (FPS) are the ultra violent video games that Grossman is most likely referring to then one would expect violent crime to be going up as more copies are sold (I’m assuming they’re consumed after purchase).
But there appears to be a negative correlation as the number of shooter video games sold/played increases violent crime still seems to be decreasing.
In 2010 the video game industry brought in $17.5M and in 2017 it brought in $29.1M. In 2017 25.9% of the best selling games were shooters such as Call of Duty (with games like Grand Theft Auto a close 2nd). While I haven’t dug real hard for historical data, it’s probably fair to say that the number of copies of FPS titles has gone up as the amount of money the video game industry has brought in has increased.
And this is all without the adding in the increase of other types of media, particularly streaming services. A good argument that comic book movies are violent could be made and with 5 of the top 10 movies over the last decade being Marvel movies specifically, I think it’s safe to say that violent media consumption has gone up.
Source: Wikipedia 2010s in Film
So again, Grossman’s conclusions about violent media don’t hold water.
While I was going over this post out in my head for a couple of days, I continued listening to On Combat and found that eventually Grossman stops talking about the dangers of violent video games. But I still found myself thinking that the whole thing is out of place for the purposes of the book. I’m listening to the book to get a better understanding of the ramifications of violent conflict and here’s this hour long chapter on how video games are teaching kids to kill.
Then to top it off I think Grossman’s tirade against video games wouldn’t have the type of effect he thinks it would – if anything it’s more of a sales pitch for the games to be used as trainers.
Something else Grossman said that set my bullshit flag waving was his reference to the ages people are most likely to go on shooting rampages and linking it with the ages that are most likely to be playing games like Call of Duty.
You know what? The age range (15-35) also happens to be smack in the middle of the age crime curve (the time when people are most likely to commit crime in general) so I think his correlation is about as good as the one between eating bread and committing crime (on a side note finding a copy of this article was way harder than it should have been – goddamn anti-gluten nuts).
An example of the age crime curve can be found here.
While was thinking about writing this post, initially, I found myself questioning the overall validity of Grossman’s work. But once I got past the chapter on video games (the chapter is called “Autopilot: ‘You Honestly Don’t Know You’re Doing It'”) the useful information started to flow again. So we’ll see how things turn out at the end of the book – I’ve already purchased the audio version of On Killing to listen to next.