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Guest Article: Games and the media: Virtual violence begets violence? By Chris Lewis

September 18, 2012

 

During the Anders Behring Breivik trial, newspapers across the globe picked up one of the key pieces of information about his horrific spree killing, that left scores dead and many more either wounded or traumatised by his actions. I refer, of course, to his claim that he “trained” himself using the game Call of Duty.

“Breivik, who has admitted killing 77 people, claimed he had used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to “develop target acquisition” using “holographic” technology. ‘If you are familiar with a holographic sight, it’s built up in such a way that you could have given it to your grandmother and she would have been a super marksman,’ he said.”

MP’s call for violent video game ban – Telegraph.co.uk

Following on from this revelation, British Labour MP Keith Vaz, a longstanding opponent of violence in video games and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called for an outright ban on violent content in video games, fearing that merely restricting it to older gamers (using the PEGI system we all knew and loved, especially when we tried to buy Delta Force: Black Hawk Down in GAME, before finding out we were only able to do so if we were 16… those were the days) was insufficient. In full, Vaz’s motion read:

  • This House is reminded of the consequences of the ineffectual Pan European Game Information (PEGI) classification system for video games following the testimony of Anders Breivik about the tragic events in Norway in July 2011;
  • notes that in his submission of evidence to the court Breivik describes how he trained for the attacks using the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare;
  • is disturbed that Breivik used the game to help hone his ‘target acquisition’ and the suggestion that the simulation prepared him for the attacks;
  • is concerned that PEGI as a classification system can only provide an age-rating and not restrict ultra-violent content; recognises that in an era of ever-more sophisticated and realistic gameplay more robust precautions must be taken before video games are published;
  • and calls on the Government to provide for closer scrutiny of aggressive first-person shooter video games.

Early day motion 3014: Violent video games – parliament.uk

The motion, despite being signed by only seven Members of Parliament, made the headlines across the UK. Reactions were mixed. The Telegraph published a blog entry by their Assistant Comment Editor, Tom Chivers, criticising the “headline hungry” and “ill-informed” MP for drawing wrong conclusions from the alleged correlation between violent video games and killings, arguing that it did not imply causation.

As Chivers puts it, there is a strong correlation between ice cream purchases and drowning – not because one causes the other, but because in hot weather, more people buy ice cream whilst more people – you guessed it – go swimming. The more people swim, the more drowning are likely to occur.

The Guardian took a similar line on the issue in an editorial published on their website. Whilst not ruling out violent video games having some effect on warped minds, and pointing out an alleged “disproportionate focus” on producing shoot-’em-ups in the gaming industry, they argued that no matter what else is produced, ‘broken humans will no doubt draw whatever inspiration they are seeking from it to feed their own madness’.

Not all the press were of this mind, however. The Daily Mail, always a good laugh, seemed a little more sensationalist in tone, asking us “ARE WE RAISING A GENERATION OF MURDERERS?“, with the sub-heading “Shoot ’em ups train gamers to shoot real guns – and hit victims in the head” (because guns aren’t mean to kill people! Whoever gave you that idea?). In a separate article, they noted that he spent 16 hours of each day playing CoD, and was similarly obsessed with World of Warcraft, to the point where prosecutors ‘think he believed he was in such a videogame during the attack’. Meanwhile, The Sun and The Mirror drew links between his obsessive video-gaming and his brutal massacre; the former claiming Breivik “took a year’s sabbatical in 2006 to hone his shooting skills using the violent online fantasy in readiness for his rampage.”

 

Anders Breivik and his World of Warcraft character

 

Now, to a lot of people reading this article, this may seem old hat. Many of the articles I cite are 4-5 months old, and criticism of violent video games is nothing new in itself. However, this issue has been brought once again to the fore by the messages coming from the moralising tabloid rags out there. On September 5th, the Mail published an article regarding claims that violent video games actually reduce aggression; a somewhat embarrassing volte-face from their previous articles on the subject (not including those about Breivik). Two from Autumn last year had explicitly stated that academic studies – one in Indianapolis, the other undertaken at Nottingham Trent – had found that violent video games “alter the brain in less than one week” and “blur the boundaries of real life… and prompt thoughts of ‘violent solutions’ to players’ problems”. Indeed, the latter article was slammed by the author of the academic paper cited, claiming it lied about the findings of the study:

“For one thing, we never said that in our paper,” the Professor said, “and for a second thing, the findings don’t even hint at that. The press release I put out yesterday regarding this study was completely neutral . . . [with] not one negative thing in there.”

“That paper has exactly what we said and what we didn’t say. The Daily Mail had an advance copy of that paper for about 48 hours, in fact, and the journalist was reading back sections to me. So she knew what was in it, but decided to just write her own story anyway.”

Video games violence prof slams Daily Mail and Metro for biased reporting – Spong.com

The Sun were a little more guarded – being a populist rag, they have to strike a careful balance between anguished moralising (indeed, Dr. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, is a regular columnist) and what sells. Take the laughably hypocritical anti-porn campaign run by their agony aunt Deidre Sanders, printed not too far away from the famed page three models.

*Cough*.

Thus they once again performed a neat balancing act, reporting uncritically on the supposed ‘strong links’ between violence in games and murder and suicide, as well as dangerous driving(!), with a response from ‘SAS hero Andy McNab’, who claimed that violent video games promote morality in young gamers.

I’ve acted as a news aggregator for a while now, and you can probably see where I’m going with this. Newspapers are disingenuous, have agendas that overrides factual, and can be quite hypocritical. I’m not here to point that out – to learn more about it, head over to Private Eye for their excellent regular feature, “Street of Shame”.

 

Realism?

 

But let’s play a game. If we go with the tabloid arguments that Breivik’s obsessive gaming, and that of others, cause them to carry out such horrific actions – by desensitising them to violence, or training them to carry it out et cetera – then who influences them to put their skills and love of violence into practice? In the case of Breivik, he had multiple influences outside of CoD that could easily have both influenced his insane perception of the world around him, and the threats he faced, as well as train him to carry his massacre out.

Step forward, picking-peanuts-out-of-shit-crazy Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips! Breivik cited her columns on immigration and multiculturalism, along with many other right-wing/nationalist “thinkers” in a manifesto warning of the consequences of “Islamification” of Europe and the threat of multiculturalism in Norway. It should be pointed out, that both the Sun and Mail are often the most vociferous opponents of immigration and multiculturalism, as well as the mysterious left-wing cabal that allows both to occur rampantly. According to the logic of the tabloids, Melanie Phillips is responsible for 77 deaths – see how ridiculous this sounds?

Phillips rightfully hit back; no matter how odious her views, they can’t be blamed for influencing the Norwegian tragedy any more than CoD. The actions of an insane man cannot be judged in such a streamlined, purely rational fashion as “X said this and did Y because of it”; if anything, insanity is an absence of rationality.

And how many times have we seen the rags advocate national service for young people? In August last year, the Mail responded to the nationwide riots with calls for ‘old-style’ military national service to be reintroduced, whilst the Sun echoed these sentiments. Surprise, surprise, Breivik expressed a regret at not performing military service, claiming it would have given him “useful knowledge” to carry out his attack, as well as for other “militants”. As a historical example, one could also point to the notorious Kray twins, whose time in national service, argued John Pearson in an extract from his book on the twins (published, of all places, in the Mail) ‘[provided] practical experience of the use of violence’.

And let’s not forget that the Department for Homeland Security in America published a report only a few years ago, citing several factors that suggested returning veterans were more likely to turn to terrorism (take Timothy McVeigh, or the recent Sikh temple shooter as examples). Once again, according to tabloid logic, time spent in fatigues turns you into a killer!

The real problems with people like Breivik run far deeper than a computer game. They are unbalanced, unstable individuals who will do what they want with whatever means at their disposal, no matter how innocuous those means are. And all this discussion on what games they played reminds me of the debates held about whether gothic music made kids in eyeliner violent, not whether constant bullying and alienation might do so, or whether Islam was a religion of war or peace, not whether individuals may carry out bombings after seeing themselves as targets of a war on Islam as a whole. Once again, a peripheral debate is taking centre stage, whilst the real issues get cast to one side.

Original Sources: The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Sun, Spong, parliament.uk, Private Eye, LiberalConspiracy.org, The Huffington Post, New York Times, The Mirror

Image Link: The Mirror, MMO Champion,

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