Christopher J. Ferguson is a young associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M. For the most part, his published work has been devoted to defence of violent video games and other visual media.
He contests the research findings of disciplinary colleagues that such games desensitize users to violence, attach rewards to aggression and increase their players’ propensity for violent behaviour.
The disparity in the balance of scholarly opinion has demanded from him great feats of argumentative and publishing energy.
Eleven of his papers were cited, and his signature attached to the list of amici curiae (who also included figures like Todd Gitlin and Steven Pinker), in the pro-games-association brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court before its recent decision on a Californian law restricting sales to minors (Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association).
I have no great taste for comment on Ferguson’s work; to each his chosen niche.
But the following astonishing remark, which he delivered earlier this year, was a little too much to ignore:
Another common urban legend is that the US military uses video games to desensitize soldiers so that they will kill more reliably…
Never mind that the US Army has denied these claims (video games are used for vehicle and team training and decision making and even recruitment, but not desensitization) or that police organizations use similar simulations to reduce impulsive “bad” shootings.
Nor does it seem to matter that today’s youth, consuming far greater amounts of violent games than any past generation possibly could, are the least violent youth in 40 years.
The sound byte is repeated often, presumably because of its emotional appeal.
Elsewhere he has scorned what he calls ‘the false notion that the military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to killing (they do use simulators for visual scanning and reaction time and vehicle training, but they seem more effective in reducing accidental shootings than anything else).’
Ferguson teaches a subject called Psychology of War at a military college, so his remarks (games as the path to purity of arms!) cannot plausibly be explained by ignorance.
More importantly, Ferguson undertook his doctoral research at the University of Central Florida, a member of the Team Orlando collaborative alliance of defence contractors, branches of the armed forces, DoD agencies, and scholars in the fields of simulation, training and human performace.
The motto of Team Orlando is improving human performance through simulation. The psychology department at UCF, with its Institute for Simulation and Training, is heavily involved in this project. A departmental laboratory is sponsored by the Office for Naval Research (ONR).
Ferguson surely is familiar with the work of faculty members such as Eduardo Salas, Peter Hancock, Clint A. Bowers and Janis Cannon-Bowers, and perhaps that of their regular co-author James Driskell, researcher from the Florida Maxima Corporation.
These scholars and their grad students — Ferguson must know this, too — have devoted themselves to exploring how the operational training of combat soldiers can best ‘moderate the performance effects of stressors’.
In other words, they investigate how training can reduce the decrement in proficiency (of e.g. shoot/no-shoot decisions and marksmanship) caused by the acute stress of the ‘battlefield environment’.
And this goal, their advice runs, is best achieved through ‘arousal habituation’, i.e. desensitization to the violence that troops are expected to undertake.
Training delivered via simulation, games and virtual environments is a big part of this.
Clarke Lethin from the ONR, technical manager of the Future Immersive Training Environment, has described the purpose of his simulator. It involves delivery of ‘sensory overload’, to inoculate the instructee against combat stress, then to ‘determine if Marines have a diminished stress reaction… during follow-up exposures.’
The newfound ‘resilience’ acquired during pre-deployment training helps to increase the lethality of personnel in operational situations, preventing them from freezing in combat.
The UCF psychologists have described how stress reactions (trembling, feelings of anxiety, increased heart rate, sweating, laboured breathing, decreased fine motor skills and other physiological symptoms of extreme arousal), especially novel and unfamiliar ones, present ‘off-task stimuli’. These distract the soldier or marine from task-relevant details, and increase demands on his or her attentional resources.
Assuming that attentional resources are finite and must be allocated between competing uses, they explain, a higher ‘cognitive load’ can impair task performance. The symptoms of acute stress (auditory blocking, tunnel vision, rigidity, nausea, etc.) can entirely prevent execution of the task.
They describe, finally, how stress can cause loss of both motivation and ‘team perspective.’ A U.S. Army field manual (22-51, 1994) and an ADF research paper each detail a range of symptoms by which combat stress renders soldiers ‘ineffective as members of combat units’, from failure to engage the enemy (‘combat refusal’) to shirking, panic running and malingering.
Numerous contemporary studies (as well as the work of Zahava Solomon with IDF veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and earlier wars) have shown that the best predictor of suffering ‘combat stress reactions’, PTSD or other mental-health problems is a soldier’s having witnessed persons being wounded or killed, along with having engaged in direct combat during which they discharged their weapon; killing an enemy combatant or civilian; seeing, smelling or handling dead or decomposing bodies; and seeing fellow soldiers or friends dead or maimed.
(As is well known, Himmler discovered that the killing efficiency of his Einsatzgruppen was limited by the debilitating stress reactions suffered by those troops who performed mass executions by shooting. This fact apparently motivated the switch to using gas vans and later gas chambers to undertake the Vernichtungskrieg).
Yet current US military combat operations are highly dependent on kill/capture missions, remotely-directed assassinations and ‘irregular warfare’ (so-called stability operations, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency).
These programs have recently been described approvingly by John Nagl, a West Point alumnus with close ties to the Obama administration and a hand in writing the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, as an ‘almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.’
See also the recent warning in The Australian newspaper of ‘the enormous personal price’ paid by special forces soldiers and their families as they faced repeated deployment and ‘a much more aggressive and assertive role.’ According to one former special forces officer: ‘Some 600 guys have done most of the killing in the past 10 years. That’s a terrible burden to place on a small number of soldiers and they keep getting rotated back.’
If this killing machine is to operate effectively, it must overcome the emotional and physiological barriers erected by the human nervous system and the wider culture against the killing of conspecifics.
Therefore the pre-eminent training objective, pace Ferguson, is to ensure that troops ‘will kill more reliably’, that lethal behaviour can be elicited and executed properly even when, for most people, this would produce overwhelming and debilitating stress reactions.
The relationship between arousal and combat performance is commonly modelled as an inverted U-shaped function. Peak performance is reached and maintained when the soldier is neither too inhibited (hypostress) nor too excited (hyperstress), and falls away either side of this middle ground.
‘Positive stress’ helps to ‘motivate’ the warfighter, and this may be elicited by stoking a sense of gamesmanship or eliteness. But UCF’s Peter Hancock warns that stress increments above a ‘tolerance threshold’ lead to catastrophic performance breakdown (he cites as an example Marshall’s WW2 report of many soldiers’ failure to fire weapons in combat).
Training should therefore aim to raise the maximal stress load that an individual can bear before he is overwhelmed. This is known as stress hardening or resilience training; both terms are semantically indistinct from desensitization.
The UCF psychology team, and many other researchers into military psychology, have stated that the degree of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation, during exposure to stressful environments and activities, depends on the soldier’s prior experience of relevant procedures and familiarity with the perceptions involved.
Habitual and graduated exposure to novel and aversive stimuli during repeated skills-acquisition drills, before deployment to combat theatres, allows ‘inoculation’ against stress. (There is evidence that special-forces personnel can tolerate higher levels of acute and chronic stress than can general infantry troops.)
They have therefore recommended ‘overlearning’, allowing acquisition and retention of sensorimotor skills (e.g. shooting), and their maintenance in high-stress environments, so they can be executed ‘automatically’ without the warfighter’s needing to explicitly devote attentional resources.
Rehearsal, they have explained, in training settings that closely approximate the operational situation, builds a repertoire of ‘routinised’, familiar actions that are rapidly accessible, with the desired response triggered when driven by the relevant environmental cues or patterns.
For this purpose, they have explained that games and battlefield simulations can replace time spent on live firing and gunnery ranges. Bowers, in an address at this year’s GameTech conference in Florida, explained how games allowed increase in the ‘fidelity of traumatic cues’ that are ‘likely to be encountered in the operational setting.’
The Pentagon’s main provider of video target walls for simulating dismounted-infantry operations and special-operations close combat (e.g. target acquisition and house clearing), explains the innovative worth of its ‘realistic virtual targets’. The latter open up ‘a whole new realm of training by replacing antiquated static targetry, as traditionally found in a CQB [close-quarters battle] training environment, with large, immersive target walls displaying projected images of life-size, full-motion moving targets’ which ‘mimic the life-like movements and reactions to that of real humans.’ Its publicity brochure notes that ‘skeleton and organs can be viewed to show severity of wound.’
Such a system is used to project targets and the avatars of participants in mixed-reality close-combat exercises at USMC Camp Pendleton. The Director of the Battle Simulations Centre there, Tom Buscemi, has explained that the Infantry Immersion Trainer is ‘designed to inoculate deploying Marines with the sights, sounds, and smells of a gun battle… We’ve had people go into shock. We’ve had people completely stunned.’
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, marvelled that the trainer used simulation to help ‘all of our conventional forces…to have more special forces attributes.’
The latter has been a key objective since a December 2008 Pentagon directive recognised irregular operations to be ‘as strategically important as traditional warfare.’ The training of general-purpose infantry was henceforth to assume a new focus on the ‘grim skills’ of ‘close combat, where intimate killing is the norm’, according to CENTCOM Commander James Mattis.
How this instruction was to proceed was the topic of an Irregular Warfare Training Symposium, hosted by the University of Central Florida during September 2009, its tagline being The Future of Small Unit Excellence in Immersive Cognitive Training. Participants agreed on the need to develop ‘supporting technology: an immersive, high-stress, near-real decision-making capability that is scalable, infinitely repeatable and unique.’
In games, simulations and virtual environments, UCF and other military-training researchers have found, aversive and novel stressors (unpleasant noises such as screaming or engine sounds, the visual and olfactory stimuli of death and destruction, heat, haptic feedback of fired weaponry, etc.) can be replicated with high fidelity, at low cost and allowing high-frequency repetition.
Trainees can be attached to real-time sensors, and undergo post-drill tests, to measure their eye-blink duration, respiration rate, palmar sweating, salivary alpha-amylase (a proxy for noradrenaline), cortisol and blood-glucose levels (to measure activation of endocrine response), body temperature, heart rate and skin conductance.
Monitoring these indicators of autonomic nervous-system activity allows instructors to check their key concern: the ‘ability to induce and modulate high stress.’
A 2002 report into ‘cognitive readiness’ undertaken for the DoD noted:
[One] would predict that performance under emotionally arousing combat conditions would be improved by training under identical, or at least similar, arousing conditions…
In the past, technology and ethical constraints have acted to limit the degree to which training evokes the strong emotions associated with combat. Some have claimed that immersive simulation technology (i.e., simulations that involve multiple sensory modes — sounds and smells as well as visual stimuli) has the ability to evoke strong emotions…
It remains to be seen, however, whether the emotions evoked in immersive simulation are similar in quality and intensity to those experienced in combat.
This 2005 report, prepared for DARPA following a three-year study, compared the subsequent performance in live combat exercises of subjects who had previously trained, using laptops or head-mounted displays, in ‘virtual shoot houses’ and simulated Iraqi villages, with that of a control group who had not used the virtual-world trainers before entering the real shoot house or village.
Along with other improved performance metrics, the first group was found to have exhibited superior stress management, ‘combat breathing’ and arousal-control techniques. The control group, on the other hand, exhibited some behaviour characteristic of confusion and panic, e.g. taking cover behind propane tanks when under fire.
The report concluded regarding the three-wall CAVE projection: ‘The life-size dimensions and projection must be impacting the synthesis of information. Furthermore, participants of the [immersive virtual trainer] group commented that once in the real shoothouse, they felt as though they had “already been there.”’
The authors concluded that training delivery by these means would allow associative learning (i.e. use of cues to elicit the desired behaviour) and help instructors ‘automate a response through repetition.’
The authors of that report — Mark and Brenda Wiederhold, whose Virtual Reality Medical Centre is a recipient of ONR project funding — expanded elsewhere on the worth of simulated environment in desensitizing and ‘stress hardening’ trainees:
Deployed personnel must often perform in extremely stressful environments, and optimum performance under such conditions requires effective management of physiological, psychological and emotional responses to stimuli. An acute stress reaction (ASR) or combat and operational stress reaction (COSR) can occur during exposure to exceptionally stressful events like those encountered in combat, resulting in extreme sympathetic nervous system arousal and impaired performance…
During VR-enhanced preventative SIT [stress-inoculation training], military personnel “experience” highly stressful situations in a virtual environment while being physiologically monitored. Repeated exposure enables personnel to gradually become desensitized to stimuli that may initially elicit such strong physiological arousal that performance is impeded (i.e., “freezing in the line of fire”) …
Naval research has also concluded that stress-exposure training in ‘virtual environments’ decreases the trainee’s physiological response to stress and thus mitigates the adverse performance effects of stress on aviators.
UCF faculty member Peter Hancock, on the other hand, argued in a paper for the journal Military Psychology that high-fidelity simulations were not necessary for effective combat training.
When the elements of a game are present, part of the physical fidelity or reproduced realness of a simulated environment may be sacrificed while immersion itself still remains at an optimal level for training effectiveness. Thus, personal computer (PC)-based gaming tools can be highly effective training tools.
Experiments were conducted ‘supplementing an OTS [off-the-shelf, i.e. commercial entertainment] infantry game training session with an intense and vivid video depiction of a front-line infantry battle’ (15 minutes of realistic and ‘graphically intense war scenes from the beach invasion portion of the movie Saving Private Ryan‘).
Instructors were able to induce in their subjects ‘increased arousal via movie-like special effects’. Compared to a control group who watched a ‘non-stimulating’ black-and-white clip of actual documentary footage from the Normandy landing, individuals whose ‘were exposed to realistic warlike stress images and reacted with positive arousal… effectively retained training and had higher performance scores overall.’
Writing in 2004, he concluded: ‘With recent world events, it is evident that PC-based game training combined with effective supplementary stress might be used to assist rapid-deployment troops who will face immediate immersion in real-world conditions.’
And what of the visual-attention proficiency that Ferguson mentions?
Such skills (which underlie e.g. shooting accuracy, friend-or-foe discrimination) are known to degrade with stress. The US Army Research Laboratory suggests the capacity of video games to improve visual focus, enhancing the ability of troops to filter out distracting information and attend selectively to task-relevant stimuli (i.e. enemy targets) in combat environments, is explained by stress habituation.
Experiments reveal participants trained to play first-person shooter video games featuring ‘intense battlefield violence’ perform better at subsequent attentional-focus and object-tracking exercises than those trained to play similar games with the combat violence removed.
The same physiological measures of arousal and autonomic nervous system activation (skin conductivity, heart rate, etc.) show that violent video games played for entertainment purposes have a similar effect. Their users become habituated and gradually develop tolerance for stimuli (e.g. footage of real-life stabbings) and activities that initially provoke a stress response.
This fact suggests that violent visual-entertainment products (some computer and console-based games, as well as films and TV programmes) may inadvertently function like stress-exposure training for their audience and users.
For combat and marksmanship training, the goal of imparting ‘resilience’ is to increase the survival and lethality of troops. This is of course not the point of entertainment products, where the only concern besides the commercial one is the usual pride of producers in their work.
But these products seem nonetheless to involve a similar brutalization or ‘hardening’. They arouse their audiences and users and then gradually lower the latter’s affective and physiological responses to extreme violence. Violence thereafter can be appreciated on higher cognitive planes: as satiric, intriguing, comic, food for thought, artfully presented, exhilirating, etc.
This will be an unpalatable conclusion for anyone fond of such products or with a professional interest in their continued good standing, production, sale and use. But it simply isn’t honest to deny the antecedent proposition (i.e. that combat training uses games/simulation to desensitize instructees) in order safely to reject the consequent.