November 17, 2004

Simulation - Based Training Within the Military Fuels A Culture of Violence


Alarm is growing over budding partnerships between the military and university based research institutions. One, at the University of Toronto is based at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and involves Altantis Systems International. Over 70 percent of the company's work is with the military and it produces, among other things, some of the deadliest aircraft on the planet, including the F-15 Strike Eagle and Black Hawk helicopter. Faculty, students and alumni are worried about the new direction in its mandate for higher learning that this project implies.

The evolving partnership between Altantis, a developer of simulation-based training systems and OISE/UT's Institute for Knowledge, Information and Technology, is especially troublesome because of its military implications, with no guarantees that the applications will not be used for weapons systems development and improved war fighting. Also at issue is the documented evidence of how simulation- based training systems within the military are fusing with the billion dollar, video game, entertainment, production industry within the civilian population. This synergy is contributing to an ever-broadening culture of violence within society at large.

Evidence of collective desensitisation, fear, insecurity, and learning impediments such as attention deficit disorder, among others, have been extensively reported and discussed. One of them appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 13, 2004 in which science writer, William Atkinson pointed out that new MRI techniques, used for medical diagnostic purposes, show that when a video game player participates in simulated violence, his heart rate and blood pressure rise and brain cells that normally counsel empathy are shut down with these images burned into his long-term memory.

American psychologist, Lte. Colonel David Grossman, has provided such training at U.S. Military Academies and stresses in several books on the subject, that violent video games such as "Doom" and "Quake", widely available as entertainment within the community and already implicated in countless school shootings, sniper incidents and youth gang warfare, are used to train army recruits to kill. He is convinced that the willingness to kill another person does not come naturally but is a learned behaviour. It requires desensitisation, repeated exposure to violence and classical conditioning by associating aggressive acts with a pleasant experience through operant conditioning techniques. More recent additions to the entertainment mix for youth include Halo 2, Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The latter is the fourth in a series identified last fall by the Canadian Teachers Federation as the single, most popular video game for public school aged children, especially boys. The U.S. Fraternal Order of Police has called for a ban on its distribution due to harmful effects.

The willingness to kill relies on stimulus-response training so that the conditioned response, such as shooting a gun, becomes automatic with the right stimulus such as an alien or perceived enemy. Long range implications for the profit driven growth of this seamless militarization of young people are widely regarded as critical and growing health and learning issues.

This is being entirely overlooked in research projects such as the one being considered with Atlantis - although, not by everyone. Says Andrew Day, President and CEO of Atlantis, " Building our knowledge in these areas will provide recurring revenue opportunities for our company and create added value for our customers by allowing us to apply these capabilities to our existing products and services".

What exactly, is the goal here? To use simulation-based training systems in the form of violent video games, known to offer effective participant modelling opportunities through practice and repetition; reward and reinforcement? Video games played on computers rely on the "mouse" to do the shootings, and players therefore learn strategies and warfare tactics, improving their hand-eye co-ordination and their aim. By joining "clans", online players can co-operate making battle plans and specialise in various aspects of warfare".

Enthusiasts for such partnerships see them as opportunities to "beam ideas into the communal open space". Yet, expertise in killing is the inevitable result. Such indiscriminate proliferation of ideas is already taking place in homes throughout the world where Playstations and Xboxs help the lucrative video game industry rack up huge annual profits.

These partnerships must be thoroughly scrutinised for knowledge applications that go well beyond the military, itself. Too many of these are directly at odds with commitments to peace education and future sustainability.

It is time for all institutions and corporations to pause and reflect on their mission and values in the exploration of partnerships and lines of inquiry. Exactly what is intellectually important and ethically justified? What is the purpose of education, itself? Conventional wisdom says it is, at once, a social good, a personal opportunity and an economic investment. Yet the public at large, knows very little about what makes a learning institution good and research valuable. We need to know - for the sake of our youth, for those who are paying with their tax dollars, and for the future health of our society.

Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chairperson, C-CAVE
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication