Violent Video Games and Operant Conditioning

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Violent Video Games and Operant Conditioning'game%20addiction%20dopamine%20brain'

Violent Video Games and Operant Conditioning:
Physical and Psychological Effects

Leticia Marie Sanchez
For Dr. Jonathan Bach
Maxwell School
Practicum in International Organizations
Final Paper and Research Project
for theInternational Peace Bureau
September 5, 2002

"The Fireworks will set in on the four twenty one1-DOOM2 will become reality."
From the web site of Eric Harris, one of the Columbine killers

"Violent Video Games and Operant Conditioning:
Physical and Psychological Effects"

I. Introduction and Thesis
II. Violent Video Games and Dopamine Production
A. Dopamine Defined
B. Dopamine and Video Game Study Hammersmith Hospital- London
III. The Video Game "High"
A. Stimulation and Response
B. Video Game Addiction
C. Video Game Developers tapping into the Addiction
IV. Operant Conditioning - Colonel David Grossman
V. Case Studies: United States
A. Columbine- Psychological Effects- Distorted Reality
B. West Paducah-Physical Effects-Expert Marksmanship
VI. Violent Video Games and Gender
VII. Video Game Court Decisions
A. Columbine Lawsuit-Judge Rules in Favor of Video Game Companies
B. West Paducah Decision-Judge Rules in Favor of Video Game Companies
C. St. Louis Decision-Federal Judge Rules Against Video Game Companies
VIII. Other Countries' Video Game Policy Decisions: Japan and Sony Playstation 2
1 4/21 is April 21st, was the date of the Columbine School Shooting in Littleton, Colorado
2 DOOM was Eric Harris's favorite violent video game
IX. U.S Policy Recommendations: Child Centered Rights and Balancing Decisions
A. Freedom of Speech vs. The Convention on the Rights of the Child
B. Balancing Decisions
C. Surgeon General Warning

I. Introduction and Thesis:
The perpetrators of the Columbine massacre in 1999 in Colorado were addicts of the violent video game DOOM. Eric Harris, one of the killers, announced on his website that he would "make DOOM a reality" on April 21, 1999. He fulfilled his threat. On that very day he and Dylan Klebold killed 15 people, wounded 23, and then took their own lives at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver.

In West Paducah Kentucky, Michael Carneal, 14, shot and killed 3 students and wounded 5 others. He was also a violent video game addict of DOOM, QUAKE, and FINAL FANTASY.

Most recently, at Gutenberg high school in Erfurt, Germany, a 19 year old student, killed 17 including 13 teachers, 2 students, a police officer and himself. The killer, Robert Steinhauser, was also found to be an addict of violent video games.

My argument is not a causal one. Violent video games will not cause every person who plays them to massacre their classmates. However, there is an undeniable correlation between violent video game addiction and school shootings.

I will demonstrate, with the help of scientific studies performed at Hammersmith Hospital, that violent video games alter the chemistry in the brain. Not only do some players receive a dopamine-induced high from playing the game, they begin to associate killing people with a pleasurable sensation. Through operant conditioning they are stimulated to equate killing with victory.

I am indebted to Colonel David Grossman, a former Westpoint Professor and army psychologist, for his work on operant conditioning and his dedication to promoting public awareness of the mental health risks unwittingly incurred by children and teenagers every day.

Finally, I will use the examples of the Columbine and the West Paducah shootings as case studies of this phenomenon. Reacting to the explosion of school shootings in suburban schools across the nation, many Americans have viewed these acts as "irrational", inexplicable pockets of violence. Fortunately, many of these school shootings can be understood, studied, and if the correct policy decisions are made, prevented. If suburban kids are training themselves to become expert marksmen and equate killing with pleasure, then it is only natural that they will be looking for a battlefield to enact their training - their suburban classrooms, shopping malls, or airports.

II. Violent Video Games and Dopamine Production
A. DOPAMINE DEFINED: Dopamine is a chemical associated with reinforcement that produces pleasure. In the brain reinforcement and dopamine are linked. For instance, for a hungry rat, food triggers dopamine release in the brain; in a thirsty rat water causes dopamine release in the brain. In terms of addiction, dopamine is connected to the reinforcing effects of drugs like cocaine and amphetamines3.
At Hammersmith Hospital in London, in 1998, Dr. Paul Grasby undertook a study that proved that playing video games triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.4 Using a brain imaging technique called PET (Positron Emission Tomography) he showed that playing a video game increases the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
In fact, during video game play, the production of dopamine doubles. The increase of this psychoactive chemical is almost equal to an injection of amphetamines or Ritalin. One writer termed this doubling of dopamine, "the equivalent of a dose of speed."
3 Schilme, Mary. "Video Game Addiction: Do we need a Video Gamers Anonymous?" Bryn Mawr
College 2002.

III. The Video Game "High"
A. Stimulation and Response
The doubling of dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation, which can be equated with "feeling high". Carol Lieberman5, a psychiatrist at UCLA describes the "high" that many video game addicts experience. The high is a result of two combined factors: first, the stimulation from images and secondly, a practiced response. The brain not only is seeing the images and getting stimulated, but it's also practicing a response. When the person is exposed to these violent media stimuli and it excites the psychoneurological receptors, it causes the person to feel a kind of high--and then to become addicted to whatever was giving him the high."
Addiction can be defined as "A primary, chronic disease, characterized by impaired control over the use of a psychoactive substance and/or behavior." Video game addicts often exhibit the same characteristics as an individual with another addiction. . These behaviors include:
Failure to stop playing games
Difficulties in work or school,
Telling lies to loved ones,
Decreased attention to personal hygiene
Decreased attention to family and friends
Disturbances in the sleep cycle.

For instance, addiction to the video game Everquest is so common that many gamers refer to it with the nickname "Evercrack." Dr. David Walsh7, from the National Institute on Media and the Family, reports parents with children playing over 43 hours a week of video games. Many of these children skip meals, perform poorly in school, and begin isolating themselves from friends.
Parents of youth who play video games may dismiss their teenagers temper tantrums and cranky behavior as normal adolescent behavior and see mood swings as a right of passage. Unfortunately they may fail to realize that their child is in fact, an addict.
One game developer told TIME MAGAZINE that many marketers and game developers are aware of this addiction and exploit it to sell more videos. The game developer disclosed the link between death and adrenalin. "A video game is all about adrenaline, and the easiest way to trigger adrenaline is to make someone think they're going to die". Furthermore, this game developer revealed that one of three tricks of the trade is to concentrate on the "blink rate", a Madison Avenue ad agency gimmick which says that people will stop blinking if an ad has their attention. The game developer extrapolated this practice to include video games. The developers are aware that the pupils of addicted players will dilate and that their "blink rate" slows down. They know that the body and brain become fully involved that dopamine is released.

8 http// Ibid.

IV. Operant Conditioning
Colonel David Grossman10, a former West Point Professor and Army Psychologist argues that killing is not instinctual in human beings; rather, it is a trained response, as a result of operant conditioning, the stimulus-response described above by Dr. Carol Lieberman. Grossman argues that children learn the same stimulus-response desensitization to violence as soldiers in the military. How much more should we be troubled by the fact that every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exact same conditioned reflex and motor skills? However, there is an important distinction between players of violent video games and military and police officers who have the option not to shoot. According to Grossman, for a soldier or a police officer, The right option is often not to shoot. But you never, never put your quarter in that video machine with the intention of not shooting.
Children not only kill reflexively in video games; they always associate killing with victory. The more people they kill, the higher the points they amass the higher the level they achieve. Killing equals victory. Killing equals fun. Killing brings them a reward, always.

V. Case Studies: United States
Both Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold were confirmed addicts of the violent video game DOOM. Eric was so obsessed with the game that he even spent his free time programming another level of DOOM.
Similar to a drug addiction, their addiction to this game gave the killers a distorted sense of reality. Their addiction to DOOM caused them to lose the capacity to distinguish between the real world of Columbine High School and the fantasy world of the video game. In fact, prior to the shooting, Eric and Dylan made a video tape laying out the plans for the massacre in which Dylan declared It's gonna be like Doom man - after the bombs explode.
That @#%$ shotgun straight out of Doom! Eric even named his shotgun "Arlene"13, after a character in DOOM. Furthermore, from the website and journal writings of the two, one can see that the video game logic fully
permeated their lives. It became a framework for viewing the world as well as a moral code for imposing justice. In his journal, Eric Harris called himself "Son of a Gun /Superhero number 13 and announced, "I will kill whomever I deem unfit ". He also wrote, "What I don't like I waste". This Darwinian logic, killing the "unfit" as one
advances to the next level is exactly the conditioned behavior that Eric Harris could have learned from years of video game training.

Klebold wrote poetry in which he several times associated death with fun and games:
What fun in life without a little death, interesting, when I am in my human form, Knowing I am going to die
Everything has a touch of triviality to it. Where could Dylan have learned to associate death with "fun"and"triviality"? The most probable explanation comes from the conditioning of a video game player who, in a
video arcade, can blow someone's brains out one minute and then eat pizza with his friends in the next. There are no consequences to killing. It is pure entertainment. One of the most frightening of Dylan's entries was the note he wrote the night before the Columbine shooting, detailing the massacre plans with chilling detachment:
Walk in/set bombs at 11:09 for 11:17 Leave Drive to Clemete Park. Gear up. Get back by 11:15
Park cars, set car bombs for 11:18 Get out, go to outside hill, wait When first bombs go off, attack
Have fun!17 (his emphasis)
Dylan's entry, although at first shocking, again can be understood from the lens of a violent video game player who is given precise, orderly, instructions on how to murder and maim and then cheerfully told to "Have fun!" Through operant conditioning the two killers learned to equate killing with pleasure, entertainment, and enjoyment. For years
they saw that killing had no consequences except to bolster the image and status of the killer. The higher the body count, the more respected the killer. It is therefore not surprising that the two boys had built pipe bombs in order to blow up the entire school. 16

Only a few of the pipe bombs detonated, however. Had they succeeded in blowing up the entire, the casualty number would have given them the maximum possible score in the violent video game world.
B. WEST PADUCAH: Physical Effects: Expert Marksmanship
The Columbine shooting shows the psychological effect that violent video games can have on the brain chemistry of a teenager. The West Paducah case will show the physical effects of repetitive video game use: hand-eye coordination and expert marksmanship.
On December 1997, Michael Carneal, a 14 year old student at Heath High School shot and killed 3 students and wounded 5 others. He was found guilty and is serving a life sentence. The most salient point about this case was the young killer's shooting prowess.
Michael Breen was the attorney for the surviving families of the three students killed by Michael Carneal He argued that the time spent on video games resulted in Carneal's technical expertise. Michael Carneal clipped off nine shots in a 10-second period. Eight of those shots were hits. Three were head and neck shots and were kills. That is way
beyond the military standard for expert marksmanship. This was a kid who had never fired a pistol in his life, but because of his obsession with computer games he had turned himself into an expert marksman 18
Out of the 9 people at whom the killer aimed, he hit 9. This is considered an even higher ratio than one obtained by police officers.


VI. Violent Video Games and Gender
Out of the 14 cases cited in the Washington Post Timeline of Juvenile Violence 19 , males committed 100 % of the crimes (I did further research and uncovered one case of a girl shooting a classmate's elbow in a Catholic school in Philadelphia, but this seems to be an aberration). The link between gender and violence is a complicated one that deserves an
entire paper devoted to further study.
I will, however, touch upon a few brief points. Most violent video game players are males. There is insufficient data on this subject. However, several reasons have been offered to explain this phenomenon. Most Game Developers and Entertainment Company CEOS are Male. Most of the decision-makers at entertainment companies and most of the violent video
game developers are males. Because of the lack of female input and contribution in these spheres, the products continue to be targeted towards males. The first reason explains why violent video game makers market to boys. But why are boys even interested in these games in the first place?
The following theories, again, merit deep analysis and have been the subject of academic debate for years, namely if the violent tendencies of boys are a result of genetics (nature) or environment (nurture). Francis Fukuyama, who favors the former,
argues in Foreign Affairs Magazine "Crimes are overwhelmingly committed by young men between the ages of 15
and 30. Perhaps young men are everywhere socialized to behave violently, but this evidence, from different cultures and times, suggests that there is some deeper level of causation at work."
19 Fukuyuma, Francis. Foreign Affairs. Volume 77 No. 5

In addition to the high male crime rate, Fukuyama offers several statistics to support the idea that American women are less violent-prone than men are. For instance, American women always been less supportive than American men of U.S. involvement
in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War by an average margin of seven to nine percent. Of course there remain others who argue that cultural conditioning plays the primary role. The "nurture" aspect of the debate is supported by Myriam Meidzian in her book Boys Will Be Boys, Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. The most salient point in Meidzian's book, however, is that from a policy point of views it may not be helpful to endlessly debate genetics or environment. Rather one should see what amalgamation of factors cause violence and what steps can be taken to prevent it.
The traditional "either/or" debate between nature and nurture with respect to violence is simple-minded and obsolete. Human behavior grows out of a complex interaction between biologically given and environmental factors. If human beings
had no biological potential for violence, it could never develop regardless of external conditions. (294)
Since males seem to be for whatever reason more prone to aggression than women, it is all the more urgent that as a society we should remove environmental support for a culture of violence:violent video games.

VII. Video Game Court Case Decisions
A day before the two-year anniversary of the tragedy, the families of the Columbine victims filed a lawsuit against the makers of DOOM, ID Software, Atari, Sega of America, Virgin Interactive Media, Activision, Polygram Film Entertainment
14 Distribution, New Line Cinema, and GT Interactive Software. John DeCampo, the attorney who filed on behalf of the families, argued that the actions of Klebold and Harris were prompted by the game DOOM, offering as proof a film the gunmen made prior to
the massacre. Furthermore, De Campo argued that DOOM should be kept out of the hands of civilians.
"The particular game is purely, 100 percent taken from the military and transferred over to the private sectorAC/a,!A| We seek literally to change the marketing and distribution of these super-violent video games that take kids... to become addicted and turn them into monster killers," 21
On April 4, 2002 a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock rejected the plaintiffs' claim that video games should not be protected by the First Amendment. He ruled that a decision against the game makers would have a
chilling effect on free speech. Babcock declared Setting aside any personal distaste, as I must, it is manifest that there is
social utility in expressive and imaginative forms of entertainment, even if they contain violence."
As in the Columbine case, the victims' families in the West Paducah shootings sued the video game makers. U.S. District Judge Edward Johnstone dismissed the lawsuit based on findings that the video-game makers could not foresee what Carneal would do,
and the games are media not subject to product-liability law.
In April 2002, a federal judge in St. Louis ruled that local governments should be able to limit children's access to violent or sexually explicit video games, saying the games are not constitutionally protected forms of speech. Senior U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh, in a ruling issued April 19, rejected a request by a video game industry group to throw out a St. Louis County ordinance
regulating access to arcade and home video games. The ordinance, passed in 2000, would require children under 17 to have parental consent before they buy violent or sexually explicit video games or playing similar arcade games. Limbaugh said he reviewed four
different video games and found No conveyance of ideas, expression, or anything else that could possibly amount
to speech. The court finds that video games have more in common with board games and sports than they do with motion picturesAC/a,!A| The county has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and emotional health of its children
and assisting parents as guardians of their children's well being.22
Limbaugh rightfully recognized that violent video games are not simply "media". Children do not passively watch violent video games as they do movies, they are actively learning, playing, and then attempting to master the game. Limbaugh is correct to find
"sports"" to be more analogous. In teaching children how to kill violent video games are the rules, the court, and the coach.


VIII. Other Countries' Video Game Policy Decisions:

Japan and Sony Playstation 2
The Japanese government has recognized that violent video games are often tantamount to training manuals, and should be kept out of the civilian sphere. In April 2000, Japan placed export controls on Sony Playstation 2 because the machine is so sophisticated that the Japanese government believed that it could be used for military purposes. Japanese military commentator, Kensuke Ebata, quoted in the Asahi Shimbun
newspaper, declared, "These days there are so many items that have technology for civilians that can
also be used for military purposes, and of course, PlayStation 2 is among these goods."23

The Kyodo news agency quoted industry sources who classified the game as "general purpose products related to conventional weaponsAC/a,!?24. They did so because of its inclusion of components that can be used for military devices such as missile guidance
systems. Under the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Control Law, Playstation 2 is the first game to face export controls. Exports of restricted products worth more than $472 are subject to the trade ministry's approval. Thus, the export of more than two Sony
Playstations, valued at $350 apiece, would be controlled.

Rights of the Child,

IX. U.S. Policy Recommendations: Child-Centered Rights and Balancing Decisions
During this debate, many who favor unrestricted use of video games will cite at least two different rights: first, AC/a,!A"the right to freedom of speechAC/a,!? of the entertainment companies, and secondly, the right of non-violence prone teenagers to play these games.
The First Amendment of the entertainment companies approaches the issue from an adult-centered perspective. The right of the entertainment companies to
make a profit trumps the right of child development guaranteed in the Convention on the when it should be the inverse. Article 6, Section 2 of the Convention
on the Rights of the Child says, "States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and
development of the child"25
The child's right to development includes mental development. A child has the right to develop without being trained, like a child soldier, to equate killing with pleasure.
A child has the right to have his or her mental health protected. A child has the right to be free from the addictive, adrenaline-inducing highs of violent video games peddled to them for profit. They have the right to be protected from the greed-driven entertainment
companies ready to manipulate them in the same way that a child has the right to be protected from drug dealers and those who deal in the sex trade.
Many will argue that for every video game player linked to murders and school shootings, there are scores of others who would never kill their teachers or classmates.
Why should they be punished for the actions of a few? Don't those video game players who do not kill deserve the right to play these games?
This issue has precedents. The government often has to set concrete barriers after balancing the rights of an individual versus the collective good. For instance, not every
one who drives with a .08 (or .10, depending on the state) blood alcohol level is going to cause a drunk driving accident. Some drivers will make it safely home after drinking several glasses of wine.

However, due to the impact of a few drunk drivers on society- the government had to make a policy decision: no one is allowed to drive with .08 blood alcohol level.
The consequences of a few drunk drivers- serious injuries, automobile accidents, and fatalities- outweigh the right of an individual to drive with .08 in their blood.
The same argument can be applied to violent video games. Not every child who plays a violent video game will be involved in a school shooting. But because violent
video games have been correlated with the actions of several of the school shooters, and research predicts violent behavior in the part of addicts, then the government needs to affirm its priorities. The right of someone to play a game is outweighed by the potential
consequences for society: school shootings and massacres. In the long run, however, the affirmative of collective rights will also benefit the individual: he will be guaranteed the right to live without fear of shootings as victim or perpetrator (or both). It is the right to quality of life.

Since 1972 the United States Surgeon General has acknowledged the correlation between violent video games and violent behavior26. People used to argue that the right to smoke a cigarette was absolute until scientific studies not only linked cigarette smoking with cancer, but also acknowledged the effects of second-hand smoke. Similarly, we now know that violent video games not only alter the brain chemistry of the player, they potentially could put the player's classmates and general public teachers at risk. Therefore, I would argue that the Surgeon General has a duty to place an equivalent warning on violent video games, " This game could be hazardous to your child's mental health".

Finally, an international campaign needs to be led to protect children, teenagers, and adults from the harmful effects of violent video games. This campaign can include: psychologists, teachers, children's rights activists, legislators, victims of school shootings, and most importantly, consumers. Only when consumers boycott these products will the companies stop producing them. A consumer boycott will have a quicker impact than the long-term process of legislation and implementation. It will take a village, but our children can be raised free from violence.

Edited by: lizwool at: 11/4/06 9:39

Liz Woolley