videogames

How video games unwittingly train the brain to justify killing

Video games train people the military way in which 'justified' killings are normalised, a study at the University of Queensland in Australia shows.

Let’s play a game. One of the quotes below belongs to a trained soldier speaking of killing the enemy, while the other to a convicted felon describing his first murder. Can you tell the difference?

(1) ‘I realised that I had just done something that separated me from the human race and it was something that could never be undone. I realised that from that point on I could never be like normal people.’

(2) ‘I was cool, calm and collected the whole time. I knew what I had to do. I knew I was going to do it, and I did.’

Would you be surprised to learn that the first statement, suggesting remorse, comes from the American mass murderer David Alan Gore, while the second, of cool acceptance, was made by Andy Wilson, a soldier in the SAS, Britain’s elite special forces? In one view, the two men are separated by the thinnest filament of morality: justification. One killed because he wanted to, the other because he was acting on behalf of his country, as part of his job.

While most psychologically normal individuals agree that inflicting pain on others is wrong, killing others appears socially sanctioned in specific contexts such as war or self-defence. Or revenge. Or military dictatorships. Or human sacrifice. In fact, justification for murder is so pliant that the TV series Dexter (2006-13) flirted exquisitely with the concept: a sociopath who kills villainous people as a vehicle for satisfying his own dark urges.

Operating under strict ‘guidelines’ that target only the guilty, Dexter (a forensics technician) and the viewer come to believe that the kill is justified. He forces the audience to question their own moral compass by asking them to justify murder in their minds in the split second prior to the kill. Usually when we imagine directly harming someone, the image is preventive: envision a man hitting a woman; or an owner abusing her dog. Yet, sometimes, the opposite happens: a switch is flipped with aggressive, even violent consequences. How can an otherwise normal person override the moral code and commit cold-blooded murder?

That was the question asked at the University of Queensland in Australia, in a study led by the neuroscientist Pascal Molenberghs, in which participants entered an fMRI scanner while viewing a first-person video game. In one scenario, a soldier kills an enemy soldier; in another, the soldier kills a civilian. The game enabled each participant to privately enter the mind of the soldier and control which person to execute.

Screenshot of what each participant saw
Screenshot of what each participant saw

The results were, overall, surprising. It made sense that a mental simulation of killing an innocent person (unjustified kill) led to overwhelming feelings of guilt and subsequent activation of the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), an area of the brain involved in aversive, morally sensitive situations. By contrast, researchers predicted that viewing a soldier killing a soldier would create activity in another region of the brain, the medial OFC, which assesses thorny ethical situations and assigns them positive feelings such as praise and pride: ‘This makes me feel good, I should keep doing it.’

But that is not what occurred: the medial OFC did not light up when participants imagined themselves as soldiers killing the enemy. In fact, none of the OFC did. One explanation for this puzzling finding is that the OFC’s reasoning ability isn’t needed in this scenario because the action is not ethically compromising. That is to say – it is seen as justified. Which brings us to a chilling conclusion: if killing feels justified, anyone is capable of committing the act.

Playing video games akin to military training

Since the Korean War, the military has altered basic training to help soldiers overcome existing norms of violence, desensitise them to the acts they might have to commit, and reflexively shoot upon cue. Even the drill sergeant is portrayed as the consummate professional personifying violence and aggression.

The same training takes place unconsciously through contemporary video games and media. Young children have unprecedented access to violent movies, games and sports events at an early age, and learning brutality is the norm. The media dwells upon real-life killers, describing every detail of their crime during prime-time TV. The current conditions easily set up children to begin thinking like soldiers and even justify killing. But are we in fact suppressing critical functions of the brain? Are we engendering future generations who will accept violence and ignore the voice of reason, creating a world where violence will become the comfortable norm?

The Queensland study had something to say about this as well. When participants were viewing unjustified killings, researchers noticed increased connectivity between the OFC and an area called the temporal parietal junction (TPJ), a part of the brain that has previously been associated with empathy. They show that disrupting function of the TPJ transforms participants into psychopaths, judging any action as morally permissible and making the TPJ a critical region for empathy. Increased connectivity between the two regions suggests that the participants were actively putting themselves in the shoes of the observer, judging whether killing civilians was morally acceptable or not.

Greater tolerance to violence

‘Emotional and physical distance can allow a person to kill his foe,’ says Lt Colonel Dave Grossman, director of the Killology Research Group in Illinois and one of the world’s foremost experts in human aggression and the roots of violence. ‘Emotional distance can be classified as mechanical, social, cultural and emotional distance.’ In other words, a lack of connection to humans allows a justified murder. The writer Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, believed that this was exactly how the Nazis succeeded in killing so many: by stripping away individuality and reducing each person to a generic number.

In 2016, technology and media have turned genocide viral. The video game Mortal Kombat X features spines being snapped, heads crushed and players being diced into cubes. In Hatred, gamers play as a sociopath who attempts to kill innocent bystanders and police officers with guns, flamethrowers and bombs to satisfy his hatred of humanity. Characters beg for mercy before execution, frequently during profanity-laced rants.

A plethora of studies now associate playing such games with greater tolerance of violence, reduced empathy, aggression and sexual objectification. Compared with males who have not played violent video games, males who do play them are 67 per cent more likely to engage in non-violent deviant behaviour, 63 per cent more likely to commit a violent crime or a crime related to violence, and 81 per cent more likely to have engaged in substance use. Other studies have found that engaging in cyberviolence leads people to perceive themselves as less human, and facilitates violence and aggression.

This powerful knowledge could be used to turn violence on its head. Brain-training programs could use current neuroscientific knowledge to serve up exhilarating games to train inhibition, instead of promoting anger. Creating games with the capability to alter thought patterns is itself ethically questionable and could be easily implemented to control a large population. But we’ve already gone down that road, and in the direction of violence. With today’s generation so highly dependent on technology, phasing in games from an early age that encourage tolerance could be a potent tool for building a more humane, more compassionate world.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.