“I just bought Modern Warfare 2, the game. It is probably the best military simulator out there and it's one of the hottest games this year. ... I see MW2 more as a part of my training-simulation than anything else. You can more or less completely simulate actual operations.”

—   Anders Behring Breivik, killer who shot 69 people at a youth camp on the Norwegian island Utøya on 22 July 2011

Breivik claims he used the video game Modern Warfare 2 as a military simulator to help him practice shooting people. Similarly, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 13 fellow students in their high school in Littleton, Colorado, claimed they used the violent video game “Doom” to practice their shooting rampage.[1] Violent video games have also been implicated in other school shootings (e.g., Bethel, Alaska; Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Newtown, Connecticut). Violent shooting video games have even been called “murder simulators” by some writers.[2] When shooting sprees occur, people want to know what “the” cause is, and violent video games are often targeted as a possible cause. However, it is not possible to know whether playing violent games caused Breivik, Harris, Klebold (or any other killer) to shoot their victims, because researchers can’t let people murder each other in their laboratory experiments!  

Researchers can, however, test whether violent shooting games can teach players to more accurately shoot a real gun. The military and police already use video games to improve shooting accuracy. In a recent study[3], we showed that average players can also improve their accuracy. In our study, 151 college students played one of three different video games for just 20 minutes:  a violent shooting game with humanoid targets that rewarded headshots (Resident Evil 4), a nonviolent shooting game with bull’s eye targets (the target practice game in Wii Play), or a nonviolent, nonshooting game (Super Mario Galaxy). Participants who played a shooting game used either a standard controller or a gun-shaped controller. Afterwards, we had them fire 16 shots at a life-size mannequin 20 feet (6.1 meters) away using an airsoft training pistol, which has the same weight, texture, and firing recoil of a real 9mm semi-automatic pistol.

The results showed that players who used a pistol-shaped controller in a violent, shooting video game had 99% more head shots and 33% more other shots compared to other players. We didn’t tell players to aim for the head – they did that naturally, because the violent shooting game they played rewarded head shots. These results remained significant even after controlling for firearm experience, gun attitudes, habitual exposure to violent shooting games, and trait aggressiveness. Habitual exposure to violent shooting games also predicted shooting accuracy.

In summary, playing a violent first-person shooting game for only 20 minutes increased accuracy in shooting a realistic gun, especially at the head. It is important to note that our results do not indicate that a person who plays violent shooting games is more likely to fire a real gun at others. These results instead indicate that if such a person were to fire a gun, he or she would fire more accurately and be more likely to aim for the head. These results indicate the powerful potential of video games to teach or increase skills, including potentially lethal weapon use. 

[1] Pooley, E. (1999, May 10). Portrait of a deadly bond. Time, 26-32.

[2] Grossman, D., & DeGaetano, G. (1999). Stop teaching our kids to kill. New York: Crown.

[3] Whitaker, J. L., & Bushman, B. J. (in press). “Boom, Headshot!”: Effect of violent video game play and controller type on firing aim and accuracy. Communication Research.

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