It often seems that the more thoughtfully or seriously someone writes about video games, the less they end up wanting to go on writing about them. This can result not only from the toxic, defensive raging of a substantial part of gaming’s fan base but also from a dawning realization that many of the most popular and sophisticated games—perhaps especially those games—remove their players from their humanity in some immeasurable way. In a “good-bye to all that” piece about Grand Theft Auto V published in Grantland in 2013, Tom Bissell confessed that as obsessively as he’d played the game for the past few days, he had, at last, wearied of its “defiantly puerile” mentality. “Maybe the biggest sin of the GTA games,” Bissell went on, “is the cheerful, spiteful way they rub our faces in what video games make us willing to do, in what video games are.”
Books like Dave Grossman’s Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing only muddy the water. The shrieking premise of Assassination Generation is that “the video game industry both gives our children world-class weapons training and psychologically primes them to murder one another.” Other forms of violent media, such as television and movies, get lip service in the book, but games—particularly first-person shooters—receive the lion’s share of Grossman’s attention, perhaps because they are still fairly alien and upsetting to many parents and therefore a better target for dodgily founded alarmism. According to Grossman, violent video games, when indulged in by kids without the tempering discipline imposed by military and law enforcement hierarchies or athletic programs, are creating “a generation of killers—a generation of homegrown sociopaths.”
Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is the author of On Killing, a well-regarded 1996 book on how troops and law enforcement can be trained to cope with the necessity of taking human life. The first chapter of Assassination Generation begins with a long, impressive tour through his man-of-action resume: “I’m a former buck sergeant, paratrooper, Army Ranger, infantry company commander, and West Point psychology professor and current law enforcement trainer ... I’m a parachute infantryman and an Army Ranger. I have been deployed to the Arctic tundra, Central American jungles, NATO headquarters, countries that were signatories to the Warsaw Pact, and countless mountains and deserts.” No egghead or couch potato he! Grossman cuts such a heroic, omnicompetent figure he might have stepped out of a video game himself. Instead, he is one of the medium’s most tenacious critics.
To support his claims that violent video games cause violent behavior in children, Grossman can muster plenty of research, including a 2015 review study by the American Psychological Association stating that “scientific research has demonstrated an association between violent video game use and both increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement.” What he doesn’t mention is the open letter, signed by over 200 academics, criticizing the study’s methodology and its conclusions based on “inconsistent or weak evidence.” As far as Grossman is concerned, this sort of objection, as well as the many other studies indicating no causal link between violent video games and violent behavior, are merely evidence of how insidiously the game industry has penetrated every corner of academia and the government.
The biggest flaw in Grossman’s argument is the fact that while virtually all young Americans play some form of video game, youth violence—as the open letter to the APA points out—is at a 40-year low. Understandably, the author seizes upon the one form of youth violence that has increased: school shootings, what Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, the definitive work on that tragedy, terms “spectacle murders.” But even Mary Ellen O’Toole, a retired FBI profiler who specializes in such crimes, has stated, “It’s my experience that video games do not cause violence.” The Secret Service has reached similar conclusions. Many young spectacle killers do play violent video games, but so does nearly every nonviolent kid, as well.
Plenty of Grossman’s suggestions—such as “media detox” programs led by parents and teachers—seem reasonable and even salutary. Still, his fixation on the issue of game-induced violence nudges his more legitimate concerns (for example, that too much gaming contributes to obesity or impairs traditional learning) to the margins of the conversation. We spend so much time debating the dubious proposition that video games cause violence that we rarely get around to considering how else our lives and selves might be shaped by a $91 billion industry catering to 155 million Americans.
As a result, gaming’s defenders, fearful of censorship, rarely get nudged in the direction of self-reflection. They rage when someone like the late critic Roger Ebert insists that video games are not art, and then they rage when someone subjects the medium to the kind of scrutiny that comes with the status of art. Bissell pried open some of this when he chided commenters for descending, in great numbers and in fury, on a hapless GameSpot critic who, despite liking the game, described GTA V as “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic.” (The vindictive hysteria of some gamers in response to feminist critics is now taken for granted, but this incident occurred a year before Gamergate smeared itself across the internet.) “Is this reasonable behavior?” Bissell asks. “Sure, if you’ve come to regard anything that stands in perceived opposition to you as in dire need of eradication. What is that if not video-game logic in its purest, most distilled form?”
Even gamers who don’t resort to physical violence may still be affected by constant immersion in a medium where combat is the only viable approach to resolving any problem and where “winning” in the most reductive sense of the word is the only goal. Grossman is at his most persuasive when he argues that children who spend all their free time playing video games miss opportunities to learn the far trickier skill of negotiating relationships with real people.
Collaborative multiplayer games are often held up as providing that sort of opportunity, and it’s true that in playing them I’ve often encountered and had to cope with some of the same personalities and behaviors that irritate or delight me in real life. But all internet interactions—from multiplayer gaming to social media—share a particular quality missing from life in a town or apartment building or family (or electorate): They’re disposable. Any bridges you burn can so easily be edited out of your media diet that they might as well never have existed in the first place. Men pay prostitutes, the saying goes, not so much to have sex with them as to ensure they’ll go away afterward. Similarly, the attraction of online socializing isn’t merely its constant availability; it’s the option of erasing the people we find irksome or merely boring. Filter bubbles aren’t an unanticipated consequence of the pleasures of social media: They are its main attraction. They offer us the dream of inhabiting a curated reality.
The release of the game Battlefield 1 last month illustrates how video games contribute to this creeping unreality. The first-person shooter is set in World War I. All wars are horrors, but this particular war, the founding trauma of the 20th century, is widely regarded as nothing else. The Great War is known 100 years later for three things: its pointlessness, its lethality (the British army suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone), and the grueling trench warfare on the western front.* Battlefield 1’s producer, EA DICE, takes pains to acknowledge the unrelenting bleakness of the war, presenting the game’s thinly drawn characters as average people caught up in tragic global events and left haunted by them. But once you get past the dramatic cutscenes, of course, it’s all shooting, ducking, and running. One of the game’s stories ends with a black soldier confronting his German counterpart in a blasted field, then slowly lowering his gun as both men recognize the futility of it all—which would be a lot more credible if the preceding 20 minutes of gameplay hadn’t reveled in a lavish expenditure of ammo and gore.
Battlefield 1 looks and sounds fantastic, every fern, every twig, every little muddy puddle so convincing it’s often possible to forget you’re looking at an artificial world rather than a filmed one. Great care has gone into the design of the period weapons and distinguishing the ways different ordnance kicks up bits of dirt and grass. Yet, paradoxically, the more “real” a game like this appears, the more it accentuates its unreality. Less meticulously immersive media like novels, films, or even a puzzle-based adventure game like Valiant Hearts: The Great War, don’t pretend to simulate the experience of fighting the war. Instead, they ask their audiences to make an imaginative identification with their characters and intuit the experience of enduring it through them. Battlefield 1 presents the mirage of a more immediate personal encounter with early 20th-century combat, but as with any technologically facilitated filter bubble, the least appealing elements have been deftly removed.
Most of the controversy surrounding technologically mediated aggression has to do with the wreaking of it. The rap against video games is that the artificial violence they permit us desensitizes us to real violence. The rap against comments sections (and Twitter feuds and every internet flame war going way back to the days of UseNet) is that the people we encounter online don’t seem like actual human beings to us, so we use them as target practice in venting our wrath. We think of ourselves as letting off steam in a solitary ideological play space not unlike a video game. In the HBO series Westworld, the most reprehensible paying guests at a robot-populated theme park are the ones who see their visit as a free pass to abuse the “hosts” in the vilest ways, because the robots aren’t “real.” Westworld is, among other things, an extended meditation on video games and the moral damage we do to ourselves when we behave cruelly, whether or not anyone actually gets hurt.
But the impunity Westworld’s guests enjoy has a less remarked-upon dimension: The android hosts are programmed never to hurt back. Their guns fire blanks when pointed at the human guests. Like all first-person shooters, Battlefield 1, too, supplies players with plenty of cannon fodder, enemy soldiers who crumple under fire with agonized screams. They can shoot and “kill” you, too, of course, but only temporarily. Playing the game, you may think you feel like you’ve been transported to the western front, but the truth is you really won’t feel anything at all. If the suffering of other people gets trivialized in this and other combat-based video games priding themselves on their grittiness, it is the suffering of the player himself that has been most tidily eliminated.
The quality that makes Battlefield 1 seem like a particularly egregious violation of history is the way that it excises what generations have viewed as the defining experiences of World War I: the endless months spent in mucky trenches filled with the stench of death and shit; your feet rotting inside boots that haven’t been dry for weeks; the burn of mustard gas; the grief of holding your friend as he dies; the terror that you’ll probably be next. None of this can be or ever would be replicated in Battlefield 1, for all the splendor of its graphics, sound design, and gameplay, and for all the sobriety with which the game’s designers handle the material.
Pain, in a video game, is nothing more than a plummeting health monitor and a red tint around the edges of the screen. Reading a great World War I novel like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains the more agonizing experience, and therefore the truer one. Leave aside the mostly settled question of whether playing video games makes people more violent and think instead about how they, like so many of our online interactions, shrink the spectrum of our humanity. How can we hope to recognize the reality of other people’s pain when we’re so intent on walking away from our own?
*Correction, Dec. 1, 2016: This article originally misstated that 57,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The British army had 57,000 casualties on the first day of the battle. (Return.)
Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing by Dave Grossman. Little, Brown.
Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.
Check out this great listen on Audible.com. The author of the 400,000-copy best seller On Killing reveals how violent video games have ushered in a new era of mass homicide - and what we must do about it. Paducah, Kentucky, 1997: a 14-year-old boy shoots eight students in a prayer circle at his s...