Thursday, 29 August 2013

Video Games and Overcoming Resistance to Kill

Various media sources have been giving a lot of attention recently to the role of violence in video games and its effect on the players.  The two basic positions are that either the worst of these games have an undesirable and negative effect on the player or that no, the players can separate fantasy from reality and have no problem from playing these games.  Perhaps it can be either, depending on the player but it's clear that we should continue to collect the data and document the results.

To understand some of the effects of video games, you need to go back to debriefings conducted by the U.S. Army after WWII. Interviewing soldiers returning from battle, researchers discovered a disturbing fact. A significant number of soldiers had been face to face with an enemy soldier, rifle in hand, enemy in their sights, gun not jammed, and had not fired. Something deep in their being, some sort of innate humanity, or values instilled early on, had prevented them from actually pulling the trigger.
This was very disturbing to the military. They began a research effort to figure out what to do about this problem. They discovered that in the heat of battle, under the incredible physical and psychological stress of being faced with another human being you were supposed to kill, the higher mental functions were largely absent. Under such conditions, the mind reverts to much simpler modes of operation, to deeply wired, almost instinctive behaviors. In other words, no amount of target practice and classroom lectures about how you're supposed to kill the enemy had much effect when it counted.
Over the following decades and wars, the Army learned that the way to get soldiers to reliably pull the trigger was to use very basic, repetitive operant conditioning, along the lines of standard behaviorist theory. Behaviorism provides a poor model for how humans act in everyday life, but it turns out to be a fairly good model for how humans act when they are under stress and have to act quickly, and are responding primarily to fear. Under stress, fearful people do what they have been conditioned to do.  That is one reason we have repetitive fire drills, so that we know how to react in an urgent situation.
The Army's solution was to replace dry target practice with realistic training grounds, complete with pop-up targets, loud noises, smoke, stress, the works. The goal was to condition the soldiers: if it moves, shoot it now, don't think about it. Repetition, repetition, repetition: Target pops up, you shoot. Target pops up, you shoot. Do that often enough, and, research shows, next time you see something pop up, you are more likely to shoot it, even if it's a real human in a real battle. Sometimes it’s called “friendly fire” when it is a mistake.  This is not just a theory, it is documented by exit interviews from soldiers in later wars: The Army got what it wanted.
What does this have to do with video games? The answer should be obvious. The whole point is, if it moves, shoot it. Again and again and again.  The military uses all kinds of expensive simulators, basically high powered video games, similar to what kids use every day, to train its recruits and to overcome the aversion to killing.   And there is evidence to suggest that those who are expert at gaming are some of the best and most effective fighter pilots and soldiers.  In the end, if you believe in war, maybe video gaming is a good thing for survival!  The downside is that, in most cases, the enemy is also trained in shoot to kill.  Is it that he who presses the right buttons faster wins?
The cost for soldiers who survive, as witnessed by the increase in post-traumatic stress, is devastating.   As many as one-third of the homeless men in the U.S. are Viet Nam veterans, most of them suffering from PTSD and we are only beginning to count the cost from the years of human destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
What can we learn from this?  Whether or not violent video games cause aggressive behavior may not be the real issue.  Perhaps the real question that needs to be explored is whether video gaming might contribute to an acceptance of the need to destroy the “enemy” without any need to feel anger or anything that can be consciously identified as aggressive behavior.   After all, it’s just a game.

Here is a sample:
“Hunched with his troops in a dusty, wind-swept courtyard, the squad leader signals the soldiers to line up against a wall. Clasping automatic weapons, they inch single-file toward a sandy road lined with swaying palm trees.
The squad leader orders a point man to peer around the corner, his quick glance revealing several foes lying in wait behind a smoldering car. A few hand signals, a quick flash of gunfire, and it's over.  The enemy is defeated, but no blood is spilled, no bullet casings spent: All the action is in an Xbox-based training simulator for the military, called Full Spectrum Warrior.”   (Associated Press 10/03)

Finally, here is something which should also concern all of us.  When many people see a real video, shot live, they think that because it’s seen on a screen, that it’s not real when it is.  It’s just like a video game or worse, a television program with a script and actors and made up in a studio or on a set somewhere like a movie.  If you want to test that out on yourself, take a look at some of the current, live, very real, military videos and register your own cognitive and emotional response.  This is somewhat the flip side of the video gaming issue and equally important because it is very real and not a game.
Not every child or adult playing video games will develop aggressive behaviors and only a small percentage will become soldiers who are trained to do what soldiers must do.  The point is that both children and adults can be easily influenced by the media and high powered, well- conceived video games.  What the short and long term results are will continue to be debated but there is compelling evidence to suggest we better take a hard look at what is happening as a result of violent video gaming.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

BLOG # 100 - The Spirit of Effective Leadership

I started this blog two years ago and without any prescribed schedule, I wrote something when the spirit moved me.  In honor of the one-hundredth blog, I reviewed some of the earlier ones and this is an excerpt from the second one that I wrote, September 3, 2011.

I believe the “spirit” of the outstanding leaders I have known can be seen, heard and felt in at least the following ten ways.  These are not in any order of priority.
1 - Enthusiastic and energetic - There are many different ways of expressing one’s spirit of enthusiasm, whether overtly or more quietly, but we most often characterize this contagious quality as passion, thus strong feelings that are shared.
2.  Positive and optimistic - While best balanced with a heavy dose of realism, the expression of hope in the present and for the future is a quality of spirit that any good leader is well-advised to have in his or her repertoire of attitudes.
3.  Caring and compassionate - A spirit of genuine concern for others and their well-being goes a long way toward helping a community to develop an ethos of mutual support and collegiality.
4.  Inquiring and curious - The leader who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates the spirit of an inquiring mind helps to further the conversations to a deeper level of understanding.
5.  Conscientious and intentional – Designing change requires a spirit that is transparent so that others may see how seriousness of purpose pervades the leader.
6.  Pleasant, friendly and joyful  - As one friend and colleague puts it, “be kind, tell the truth and say thank you.”   Good manners, social grace and comfort in a crowd contribute significantly to the perception of one who is “at home” easily and genuinely.
7.  Confident and courageous – Unafraid to make hard decisions, even unpopular at times, the leader is able to take a stand, express convictions and move forward, even in the face of opposition.  It helps to take others along on this often perilous journey.
8.   Humble and modest – Without any need to be boastful, arrogant or prideful, the leader allows his or her deeds to speak for themselves.  Such a spirit speaks volumes without having to say a word.
9.  Creative and open - The leader exhibits a mind that seeks and welcomes new ideas.  This is the mind that works like the proverbial parachute, best when open.   However it is not change for the sake of something new.
10.  Fair and firm -  These qualities speak of a balanced response, an attitude that knows how to assess and when to draw the line.   This works with both individuals and groups and the leader’s spirit sets the stage, the tone and the process.
Many of these qualities of spirit overlap and are part of a larger dimension of one’s personality, having to do with attitudes and behaviors, as defined earlier.  It's E.Q. trumping I.Q. one more time. The  point of all of this is that being aware of how these play in the environment in which one works can really make a big difference in the outcomes of so much that you want to accomplish and these make it easier to get a lot done without caring who gets the credit.  Most importantly, these are qualities for good mental and physical well-being.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


Why do we say that you are going “back” to school?  We know generally that it means returning, often to something familiar, going “back” somewhere and that is certainly one of the meanings when using the word “back” as an adverb.  However, it also implies a past condition or situation and although we might hope for a new condition, we would probably not say that you are going “forward” to school.  This set me to wondering how what we say influences attitudes and perceptions as in, “here we go again, same old, same old, very predictable and often not very exciting or engaging.”
There may be some comfort in returning to the familiar where you know the  environment, the players and the program.  You know the expectations, you know the rules and you know how to navigate through the system relatively successfully.  Even in a different location, schools look and smell fairly much the same.  The teachers and students may have different names but they act very much the same as those in the other place.
 An alternative, an easy shift, would be to say that you are going to “start” school rather than you are going “back.”  At least, there is the hope of a fresh beginning and not merely a re-tread of last year.  As I have seen and talked with children in the past couple of weeks, I consciously asked when they were starting school rather than when were they going back to school.  I know it’s a very small thing, and maybe it makes no difference at all, but it made a difference to me as I asked them what they were looking forward to as they thought about starting school.   Kids tend to tell you the truth and if you go as far as asking them what they might like to change about school, they can tell you that too!
Here is one such conversation:  
Me:  When do you start school?
She:  Tomorrow!
Me:  You sound excited to start a new grade.
She:  Yeah, I am.
Me:  Let’s see, you must be about third grade?
She:   No, fourth.
Me:   So, you’re 9 years old?
She:  Yes.
Me:  What are you looking forward to as you start school?
She:  Seeing my friends and being in a new room.
Me:  Do you know your new teacher?
She:  She’s the same one I had last year, she’s moving up with us.
Me:   Is that good?
She:  Yes, I really like her and she has lots of fun things for us to do.
Me:  So going to school and learning can be fun?
She:  Oh, yes, and there is so much to do, lots of different things.
Me:  Is there anything you would change about your school?
She:  Yes, I would have it be longer.
Me:  You mean you would like to go to school more days or longer days?
She:  Uh, I think more days.
Me:  Well, you are a very lucky girl and it sounds like you will have a good year, at least I hope so.
She:  Bye, I have to go now.
Just a couple of minutes of a conversation while we were sitting in an airport and this girl was the oldest of three children, mom and dad holding the other two, babies, in their arms with a large stroller in tow.  I watched the interaction between parents and children – loving, adoring, calm, focused, and all three kids reflected an early air of confidence and security.  My hunch is that this 4th grade girl is going to have a great year, that she is a happily engaged student and if I were her teacher, I would certainly love to have her (and her parents) among my class.  We would have a great start to a new year.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


I had the opportunity recently to spend several days in Wyoming at Brush Creek Ranch where fly fishing is a major activity along with numerous other western sports such as archery, sporting clays and targets, horseback riding and a lot of social interaction around food and drink.  Needless to say perhaps but those days of delight were filled with being engaged in lots of activity.  And the company of a couple of special family members made it even more meaningful and enjoyable.
However, during the trip to and from the ranch, I decided to take a different approach and in addition to escaping the interstates and expressways, I chose instead to travel some of William Least Heat Moon’s highways.  And, I did not intentionally take a GPS although I had a couple of good, old-fashioned maps which allowed me to see the bigger picture and make some on the spot choices about a different route here and there, or from here to there, and there to here.  Here is northern New Mexico and there is southeastern Wyoming, just over Snowy Range in Medicine Bow National Forest.  The lesson here is seeing the big picture and making conscious choices.
In addition to less than the fastest route, how quickly we can get somewhere or how fast we can get the job done, even with a high level of efficiency, I also chose to drive under the speed limit by at least 5-10 miles per hour.  This was not to annoy other drivers although at times, I know it did.  What it did for me was not only to gain better fuel consumption but to allow me to relax and enjoy the scenery so much more, even being able to stop if I saw something of particular interest.  Driving at or above the speed limit, which is my usual practice, carries an element of stress which was eliminated completely.  The goal was not the arrival at the end of the journey but rather being more immersed in the journey itself and not see it simply as a means to the end.
Besides spectacular scenery in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, I saw many more details that would have otherwise passed by in a blur.  Those details included wildlife, architecture, small town cultures, local cuisine, and one of my favored pastimes of flea markets and antique shops. There was also the usual music, NPR and chatter on the radio, if I wanted it, and often that was silent to avoid any distraction.
This was a nourishing road trip, soul food if you will, and I look forward to the next one whenever and wherever it will be. Lots of lessons learned!