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Kids Learn That Killing Is Fun at the Army's Lethal New Theme Park

The Army's new recruitment tool lets high-tech video game centers desensitize, condition, train and even enlist America's youth.

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Too soon, we emerge from the bedlam and an inspirationally oversized American flag indicates that we have successfully achieved our destination -- a field hospital where rows of medics attend to ghastly luminous, very slightly breathing shapes, the bloodless bodies of the cyber-wounded.

It's a bizarre curtsy to realism, and almost is lost in the orgy of virtual pyrotechnics as American rockets vaporize a bridge in the background.

I rode the Black Hawk three times and the Humvee twice. My best score: I totally "engaged" 47 percent of the man-shapes that came into my crosshairs. I'm told that 27 percent is average.

And only a few Rules of Engagement infractions -- civilians, the ones without guns who were running away. Didn't notice. Too bad. Mission accomplished.

Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, "strongly refutes" the notion that any of the Army's initiatives glamorize war, adding that "great care" is taken to avoid portraying violence.

Again, nonsense. The drill instructor who was yelling at me earlier is a character in the Army's official game, "America's Army," available at all of the AEC’s game stations. "America's Army" is unapologetically about realistic, deadly combat -- minus the blood. A hit registers as a puff of red smoke. Four puffs and you are "engaged."  Concerned parents can further sanitize the violence with controls that cause dead soldiers to simply sit down.

"We have a 'Teen' rating that allows 13-year-olds to play, and in order to maintain that rating we have to adhere to certain standards," Chris Chambers, a retired Army major who is now the project's deputy director, told the New York Times. "We don't use blood and gore and violence to entertain."

So, in the absence of blood and gore, there is no violence. And kids get that? They get the distinction between fantasy and reality? I found the blurring completely disorienting, and I have consumed decades of both real and virtual violence.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has written extensively on the psychology of killing, and he argues that it's not that people can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but that these games use virtual experience to systematically desensitize and condition.

Grossman cites hundreds of studies that reveal a direct correlation between exposure to media violence -- especially interactive video games -- and increased childhood aggression. A Stanford University study is particularly compelling: Over a 20-week period, third- and fourth-graders who limited or eliminated TV and video games demonstrated a 50 percent decrease in verbal aggression and a 40 percent decrease in physical aggression.

Grossman warns that Americans ''are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the inflicting of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment; vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.''

Whose agenda does that serve?

Brian Mackey, a slight kid from Levittown, Pa., is working the front desk. He's wearing a white T-shirt sporting a U.S. Army logo, and although he doesn't have the bulk that comes with basic training (and age), I ask if he is active duty anyway. Brian says no, he plans to go straight from graduation in June into the Army. In the meantime, he has the ideal job for pre-induction skills training.

Brian has a 3.95 grade-point average in high school, but he isn't interested in the differences between policies or politicians or wars. And he isn't interested in any of the Army's fancy careers either. He wants to be in the infantry. When he says, "Sure I might die, but infantry is what I've always wanted," I can't help but wonder how much of his bravado comes from exactly that systematic desensitization and conditioning Grossman talks about.

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