Breivik, The Press And The Ongoing Myth Of The 'Violent Gamer'

from the tragedy-as-soap-box dept

Anders Breivik’s trial for the murder of 77 Norwegians had barely commenced before Breivik gave the press something they could work with. During his opening statements, Breivik referred to two video games, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, both of which he referred to in his sprawling manifiesto. Despite making two completely different comments about these games, the press lumped both games together, resulting in misleading headlines such as this one from the Montreal Times:

Anders Behring Breivik trained on video games World of Warcraft, Call of Duty

John Walker at Rock, Paper, Shotgun swiftly dismantled the reports, most of which were seemingly based on an early Reuters article, which swiftly spread to other news sites with a minimum of fact checking.

Today the Times (paywalled) ran an even more sensational headline.

“Breivik played video games for a year to train for deadly attacks”

Despite Breivik’s ranting describing his year with World Of Warcraft, which took place between 2006 and 2007, as a “gift” to himself, something he wanted to do before he gave up his life, the reports in multiple stories are claiming he was using the game to “prepare” for the attacks. It’s a not particularly imaginative reinterpretation of Breivik’s words, which really only suggested he played the game because he wanted to have some non-social fun because he believed he deserved it.

“I deserved to take a year off to do what I wanted to do, especially with the upcoming so-called suicide action – I wanted to have no remorse for what I would lose out on. I wanted a martyrdom gift, so I wanted a sabbatical year.”

For the usually rambling man, he’s oddly clear here about the purpose of playing. It was a break from his obsessive planning. If anyone is unfortunate enough to have read through his 800,000 word manifesto, they’ll know quite how much “work” Breivik put into his actions, albeit mostly nonsensical and convoluted, and rarely as he intended. The result is a terrifying tome of this peculiarly clear-minded madness, an exhausting collection of his beliefs, theories, and a diary, on his collecting of guns, bomb equipment, and his attempts to acquire the ingredients for chemical warfare. And from this, he now says, he took a year off. Or as he called it, a “sabbatical”. And what did he actually say about it during the trial, that almost no paper is reporting? He said World Of Warcraft was,

“pure entertainment. It doesn’t have anything to do with July 22.”

This year of gaming, supposedly to train for his killing spree, was actually a “gift” to himself, which helpfully doubled as an alibi for his withdrawal from his social life. Simply quoting Breivik’s own words would have dispelled any notion of World of Warcraft serving as some sort of terrorist training grounds.

Breivik’s statements about his time spent playing Call of Duty were a bit more disturbing:

“It is a war simulator. It gives you an impression of how target systems work,” he explained.

First-person shooters have carried the dubious title of “murder simulators” since the days of Doom and the title of “scapegoat” ever since the Columbine Massacre. To hear a defendant casually refer to the game’s ability to do exactly that is somewhat surprising. Usually this is attributed to the killer post-facto. Perhaps this caught some of the journalists by surprise, which would explain the baffling conflation of the two games and their intended use.

And it’s of course far more widespread. Headlines have appeared in the last 24 hours like,

CNN: Admitted Norway killer Breivik says he trained on video games
They then mention the games for 51 words out of nearly a thousand.

London Evening Standard: Anders Breivik: Online games helped me plan killings
This article includes the extraordinary line, “He said his training on World of Warcraft, an online game, focused on situations where he would be flanked by two commando teams.” Which means the reporter, Bo Wilson, not only didn’t bother researching about the game, but didn’t even listen to what Breivik said.

The Star Online/Reuters: Breivik used computer war games to plan attack
Repeats the refrain that Breivik can’t distinguish between WoW and real life.

Al Arabiya News: Breivik: Playing ‘World of Warcraft’ helped me prepare for the attacks
During which they count the months between November 2010 and February 2011 to be sixteen, to give Modern Warfare a better showing.

The Irish Times: Breivik used games to plan attack
Yet another article that deliberately suggests that playing WoW was part of his training, rather than the holiday from it that Breivik so clearly states. It’s also a hasty rewrite of the Reuters piece.

Walker predicts this is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s more where this came from and if past experience is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time before legislators and policy makers begin taking turns on this particular soap box in hopes of pushing their agendas through.

But remarkably, most reporting (at least, any “reporting” not simply composed of juicy misquotes from the Reuters piece) has been even-handed. One can only hope that with Jack Thompson safely disbarred and Baroness Susan Greenfield having yammered her way to irrelevance, the reactionary “violent video games beget violence” trope may be reaching the end of its life cycle. Time Magazine’s Techland blog delivered this to-the-point headline: “Norway Killer Played World of Warcraft, Which Probably Means Nothing At All.” Norway’s own Dadbladget rounded up gaming experts to get their opinion on Breivik’s claim that he used Modern Warfare 2 as a killing-spree trainer. Their statement (roughly translated)?

If so, there are millions of experts on the war in front of TVs out there.

CNN tried a different tactic, lobbing an underhand(ed) grenade into the fray with the headline “Norway mass-shooting trial reopens debate on violent video games,” swiftly abandoning the debate in favor of trotting out gamers’ arguments in favor of violent video games as some sort of “let’s have a bit of a chuckle at these hot-headed gamers and their predictable arguments.” Enlightening, it isn’t but at least it’s not another writer leafing through a dodgy “Violence & Video Games” study and drawing his or her own conclusions based on the lack of evidence therein.

The problem with this sort of headline is that Breivik’s statements don’t actually reopen the debate on violence in video games. It doesn’t because the debate never goes away. It just lies dormant until a tragedy like this brings it back to the surface. The noisiest “debates” will likely be located in several countries other than the one in which the tragedy actually occurred. Countries with a historical resistance to violent video games like Australia, Germany and of course, the US, tend to make the most noise.

Gamers and gaming have been a popular scapegoat for most of the last 20 years. Most legislators, already gleefully ignorant of the internet’s inner workings, are also on-the-outskirts-peering-in when it comes to the subject of video games. Between these outsiders-with-power and many members of the mainstream media, the image of gamers conjured in response to situations like these is that of a dangerous fringe element who prey on impressionable minds of pliable teens and tweens. This is despite the fact that the average gamer is now 37 years old, most likely off doing useful and proactive stuff like paying taxes and raising kids of his or her own.

Trading on fear and ignorance to present gamers as automatons one flip of the switch away from a killing spree is still altogether too common. Not only is this representation insulting, it’s also blatantly false. Gaming is the fastest growing sector of the entertainment industry. As the number of gamers continues to swell, the likelihood of the next sensationally violent criminal also being a gamer increases as well.

For the sake of argument, here are a couple of diagrams:

The overlap of “gamers” with “violent criminals” is due to the fact that even violent criminals have downtime. Gaming culture is very much not a fringe sector, even if someone like Breivik clearly is. It’s not impossible to imagine a future where gaming’s ubiquitousness has managed to engulf the entirety of the subset “violent criminals.”

At this point, the statement: “All violent criminals are gamers,” is true, but what is often ignored is the fact that “violent criminals” remains the subset, rather than the other way around. Even if you play devil’s advocate and accept the assertion that violent games can be used as “war simulators” and help desensitize gamers towards violence, you still have to accept the fact that violent games are only a small part of a much larger toolset (so to speak).

Breivik, for example, also had several hours of live weapons training, a fanatical hatred for Islam, an obsessional focus on preventing “dilution” of his “culture,” and most importantly, the willingness to kill fellow human beings. These additional “tools” are simply not “available” to 99.9999% of gamers. Hanging Call of Duty (and games like it) out to dry because of Breivik’s actions is as repugnantly stupid as asking Microsoft to “dumb down” Flight Simulator because the 9/11 terrorists used it to train for their mission.

The problem with various entities (including the press, special interest groups, politicians and prosecutors) playing along with the “violent gamer” myth is that now even the criminals themselves are getting in on the act, citing violent games as an “I’m-not-really-a-bad-person-but-for-the-games” deflection/defense or injecting them into the conversation simply to up the level of controversy. Either way, it clouds the issue at hand and sends feckless “do-gooders” down well-worn paths, all leading away from the uncomfortable fact that evil acts belong solely to the person performing them and not the entertainment surrounding them.

Consider the case of the teen who brutally beat a homeless man to death, saying it was like a “violent videogame.” Penny Arcade covered the story and found themselves on the receiving end of an eye-opening letter from the stepmother of the murder suspect. Included in the long, harrowing letter (which details the teen’s other activities, including stealing cars, setting fires, beating up handicapped kids, having his parents detained on false abuse charges, etc.) was this statement:

The thing that really gets me with this whole thing is that the kid knows full well that by equating what he’s done to a video game, that he will generate controversy and media coverage. It makes me sick that the media is jumping all over this, because that is exactly the result that he wants.

Maybe the brief flareup of stories hyping Breivik’s gaming past will be nothing more than that: a flareup. Perhaps the media and other interested entities are finding fewer and fewer members of the public willing to humor these bits of conflation and moral panic, especially in the face of an anomalous (and horrific) tragedy of this magnitude. In the end though, what really matters is how society moves on from this and what lessons are learned. The Norwegians themselves have certainly set the example with their reaction to Breivik’s massacre, choosing “openness and love,” rather than allowing “cowardice and fear” to take hold. Hopefully, the rest of the world will choose to do the same, rather than returning to business-as-usual witch hunts and scapegoating.

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Comments on “Breivik, The Press And The Ongoing Myth Of The 'Violent Gamer'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

like everything else, as soon as there is a mention, it’s that particular things fault. because he mentioned using video games, the ‘do gooders’ will be on that comment like flies on crap. ‘it was definitely the fault of the games. if it wasn’t for them, nothing would have happened. we have to stop video games being available to anyone under 45 years old, in case they are sent totally insane.’ any excuse, like using ‘piracy’ as the reason a movie sells less. absolute bollocks!!

Mesonoxian Eve (profile) says:

If I were to compare the real world with gaming, there’s one inevitable fact: first, we “shot down” Jack Thompson. California “shot down” the law. Now, we’ve another “enemy” we gamers need to “shoot down”.

↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A

Unlimited life: unlocked
Unlimited ammo: unlocked

Because we’re going to need it as these enemies just won’t stop coming.

TasMot (profile) says:

Lets Stop Other Popular WAR Games Also

Society also lets many other “War” games go on with no mention. Just listen to all the football commentators talk about the “weapons” that a quarterback has, and the attack and defensive postitions. Of course who would want to blame football and stop that multi-billion dollar industry. Games are life simulations and “almost” every game involves winners and losers. Of course, politians and news reporters always need to “blame” somebody or something and just blaming the crazy guy with a gun is not enough. Well, who else can we blame, did he wear clothes, a helmet, did he use a car, a road, one of those evil phones (I wondered whether it was wired or wireless), a TV (let’s blame the TV manufacturers, he used a TV monitor with his gaming – DOWN WITH TVs). What else can we rant about and blame? Well, we’ve got to pin it on something besides the crazy guy and all of the people around him who didn’t notice what was going on. Right?

Anonymous Coward says:


Microsoft Flight Simulator – Trainer for terrorists… Check
Call of Duty – Trainer for killing with guns/grenades… Check
World of Warcraft – Trainer for using magic to kill dragons… Check
SimCity – Trainer for become a corrupt politician that wields the power of mother nature to wreck havoc on the citizens…. Check
Populous – Trainer for being a god… Check

Guess that makes me a terrorist with skills at flying planes while using guns and grenades to kill people while being able to summon tornadoes or cause a nuclear meltdown with a mere though, while also being omnipotent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Quick! Studies also show that all violent shooters shop at grocery stores, so we must either shut down all grocery stores, or heavily scrutinize everyone who walks into a grocery store.

Sure it may be annoying if your one of the billions of people who shops at grocery stores, but think of all the poor innocent children that mass murders like grocery shopping Breivik killed!

Anonymous Coward says:


Studies show that violent shooters eat, so we should outlaw food.

Wait a sec, a new study show that violent shooters need to breath! Let’s completely destroy the atmosphere to prevent future shootings! Think of all the lives we’ll save!

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the RIAA/MPAA headquarters… “A new study shows that violent shooters are killing potential sales, therefor they are stealing from us. Prepare to launch a copyright lawsuit at Breivik! That’ll teach him not to steal from us!”

Machin Shin (profile) says:

The religion part.

You just don’t seem to understand how this system operates. They can’t point out that he was a crazy Christian terrorist because that would not fit into their agenda. If it comes out that all religions end up with a few crazies then suddenly their campaign to make Muslims look like bad guys will fail.

All you have to do is look through history to see that every large group ends up with few crazy people. It is just how things work.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s always easier to blame something or someone for terible things. That makes people feel safer. It’s hard to admit that terrible things can happen without any truly preventable cause; that something bad can happen and you’re completely powerless to prevent it. So they blame games. And if it weren’t games, it would be rock music, or tv series, or whatever they can try and stop and then say, “See, we made sure this doesn’t happen anymore.”

The worst part is that people actually take these claims seriously. Also, CoD as a combat trainer? Really? At least try ARMA then, and even then, have these people ever held a firearm? Do they realise that in the real world you do not aim using a mouse and crosshairs? …

Anonymous Coward says:

the problem is that so few people have common sense and understand that these sensationalist comments that are broadcast far and wide are made purely to get ratings or page views. The more outrageous the statement the more traffic the site gets adn the more money it makes.

A better response would be to say, oh look, NBC News made the trayvon martin case into a race issue when it really wasn’t. I guess i’m done watching anything on NBC since they clearly lied and made the situation worse than it already was.

In this case, stop reading, or at least giving much weight to articles that reuters releases. Clearly, they are wanting to get more page views by making false and outrageous claims. Even publishing the claims made by another person in quotes doesn’t free them from the responsibility to fully inform the public with statistics from scientific studies that show one way or another what the actual facts are. They show one side to provoke a response and generate more traffic.

All of this put another way: DOn’t allow yourself to be played. Inform yourself fully from various sources or you are just allowing them to turn you from people into sheeple.

Keii (profile) says:

As I had said to a friend, “Which is a more likely scenario, a video game with millions of other players happens to force one player into violence, or a violent person just happens to play one of the most popular games on the planet?”

There are over 10 million people out there playing World of Warcraft and not killing people.
Meanwhile there are murders nearly every day in Chicago by non-gamers.

This is just another example of correlation not equaling causation.

PaulT (profile) says:

The religion part.

Reminds me of that meme that was going around a few months ago about the hypocrisy in media – Ft. Hood shootings where a Muslim killed fellow soldiers? Terrorism! All Muslims must die! Incident where a Christian soldier killed Muslim civilians? Meh… but don’t you dare blame Christianity or call him a terrorist!

Somehow, I suspect this is exactly the sort of rhetoric Brevik was buying into…

Jesse (profile) says:

I’m going to go ahead and say that the US government, and the American people who implicitly or explicitly support it, do not get to say anything about violent video games until the US has been War Sober for at least 10 years.

Got it? US: Can you go 10 years without being involved in a war or other violent military action?

If more people got as upset about ACTUAL killing as they did about SIMULATED killing, the world would be a much better place.

Noah Callaway says:

Venn Diagrams

If you’re doing to make Venn Diagrams with killers and gamers, I think it should be par for the course to make a Venn Diagram with killers and other media types. Some suggestions:

Killers and Movie Watchers
Killers and Readers
Killers and Music Listeners

If we want to keep drawing on mistaken causality, we could extend this to other forms of “training”:

Killers and Runners (gotta be in good physical shape, right)
Killers and Swimmers
Killers and Philosophers (he wrote a pretty long diatribe, there)
Killers and Political Activists

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Humans want to find the “reason” people do things.
They are often unwilling to accept another human is just that flawed.

Someone put ‘A Catcher in the Rye’ in his hands and THAT made him kill.
Someone said ‘insert racial slur here’ is the cause of all your problems, and that got him going.
Someone turned him on to Grand Theft Auto, and that is why he was on a hooker punching spree.

If you “raise” your child to be an evil bastard, you can always poopoo the people saying your kids a brat by just blaming the sugar or video games. The lesson you taught your kid was its never his fault no matter what he does.

Personal responsibility is no longer recognized, it has to always be an outside influence. It does not matter what the outside forces are, the final decision to do these things is made by 1 adult. There might be a long tragic history behind their life, but they still decided to do the horrible act. Shifting the blame keeps us from accepting maybe the failure was everyones.


Watch out for me!!!!

Based on this I have been “training” very hard since the first Modern Warfare that came out in 2007. I play almost everyday for a few hours a day. Yet I don’t have a warped sense of what is right and wrong. Could it be that if you sell a few million copies of a game your bound to get a few bad seeds. What about all the doctors, teachers, lawyers, policemen and firemen of the world that play these games. As usual in this day and age the few cause the problem for the many. Talk about your one percent!

Anonymous Coward says:


He just kept whacking him over and over with this big padded sword…. it was horrible, nerf was flying everywhere and the guy on the ground being beaten was laughing so hard he inhaled nerf residue and died…

Yep, I could see it happening. Headlines would read, “Man murdered by LARP’er with Nerf Broadsword, said that LARP’ing trained him for combat.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Lets Stop Other Popular WAR Games Also

How about Laser Tag or Paintball. In those “games” you are actually running around in reality holding mock weapons and shooting at one another in a real environment with realistic movement and an opponent that thinks, not just sitting on a couch looking at a 2D surface, while shooting at sprites that have limited movement capabilities. (Everyone moves at the same speed, can’t crawl, dive, climb, contort body to fit behind smaller or weird shaped cover, AI logic for NPCs, etc.)

I would think you’d get a lot more “training” from Laser Tag/Paintball then you would from a video game.

TDR says:

The religion part.

Paul, there is a distinction between faith and follower, and I would ask that you acknowledge it. Also to acknowledge that just because someone says he or she is a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean they are?you have to look at their actions to see if they line up with what the cross says and stands for.

In the case of the soldier, he clearly was not acting as he should have and is no Christian. Just as an alleged Muslim who kills people in a similar circumstance isn’t really following that faith, either. I’ve met and worked with some nice Muslims before, and while I disagree with their faith, I would never kill them for it. That’s just wrong. And it’s also wrong to portray as you did anyone who follows the cross as supporting such acts. Generalizations are wrong. Always. So don’t make them. Ever.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

The religion part.

In the case of the soldier, he clearly was not acting as he should have and is no Christian. Just as an alleged Muslim who kills people in a similar circumstance isn’t really following that faith, either.

Except that’s exactly the point I think Paul was making. Both may well consider themselves to be devout Christian/Muslim though the mainstream of their respective faiths do not consider them so. Yet the media will typically write the one story as essentially “Muslim==terrorist” and the other (if indeed they mention his “faith” at all) as “Crazy fringe christian fundi nutter” when both may well be acting in accordance with and out of obligation to their own personal version of their faith.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:


a video game with millions of other players happens to force one player into violence

And while this is at least a possibility it’s pretty much certain the individual involved will be a few sandwiches short of a picnic in other areas and already prone to violence making the blaming of the game about equivalent of calling for a worldwide ban on peanuts because of a relative handful of fatal peanut allergies.

PaulT (profile) says:

The religion part.

“In the case of the soldier, he clearly was not acting as he should have and is no Christian. Just as an alleged Muslim who kills people in a similar circumstance isn’t really following that faith, either. “

Erm, yes well done for understanding my point. Fox News, Pamela Geller, et al, don’t share your tolerance, and these were the kinds of people Breivik is known to have taken his inspiration from. This is hypocrisy, pure and simple.

Sorry if this offends you, but there do seem to be a lot of people convinced that all the Muslims on the planet are out to kill them because of a handful of terrorists, but take great exception when you point out that people of their own faith are just as capable of atrocity.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I was born near one where notorious bombing was carried out by the IRA (self-described Christians) in the UK and grew up about 30 miles from another site. I currently live in a place when on a clear day I can see a Muslim country less than 50 kms away. I’ve never been afraid of either faith, and treat each equally. If you want to lecture, I’m not the right person to give it to..

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Victim's Families should sue MPAA and others

I would like to posit a suggestion here. I believe that the victim’s families for the shooting should get together and sue the MPAA, RIAA, and all of their member organizations.

They would be suing for contributory murder. Nevermind that it isn’t quite directly in the law. We can have the courts make it up as we go. I am sure that Breivik watched movies and listened to music at some point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Lets Stop Other Popular WAR Games Also

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.
–George Carlin

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Quote the Anonymous Coward....

Of all the gaming sites I read, I find RPS to be the most consistently entertaining and informative. Hence, their routine appearance in my posts at Techdirt. The strange part is that I’m technically a console gamer, as 95% of my gaming is via the PS3. Go figure.

Also recommended:

D Nye Everything
Games Brief
insert credit
That Guys a Maniac
We Make the Cops Look Dumb
What Games Are

Most of these are more commentary than news and such, but completely worth reading.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

The religion part.

Also to acknowledge that just because someone says he or she is a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean they are?you have to look at their actions to see if they line up with what the cross says and stands for.

I’m sorry, I can’t go along with this. If someone tells me their religion is something, I have to take them at their word. I am in no position to be the judge of who is or is not Really A Member. And neither are you.

Besides, if that’s the yardstick to decide who’s a real Christian, then I think in my many years I have met only two, maybe three, Real Christians.

Chargone (profile) says:

the AP article as reported by 3News is even worse.

the headline ran something to the effect of ‘Norwegian mass murder played World of Warcraft’… it then went into some detail about the guy and what he did, mentioned something about playing CoD or whatever as ‘training’… and happens to mention somewhere in the article, a single sentence ‘he also played World of Warcraft’ or something like that.

there’s NO link between him playing WoW and any of the other things, even in the article, it appears in ONE sentence, and somehow it’s the headline?

(this’d be more accurate if i was looking at the article as i type it, but the issue was there…. i even went on a big rant in their comments section about it… not sure if that made it past moderation or not though, their site makes it Really hard to get back and see an article again later and reloading reloads the page in the same state (all comments until yours was posted plus ‘thank you for your comment, come back later to see it.)

anyway, yeah, bad reporting.

CheMonro (profile) says:


Actually you’d think gender is probably a more significant indicator than gaming for violent crime. Wikipedia says the ratio of people incarcerated in the US is 9 males to every female. And the ratio of gamers is 60:40 male to female.

So… If a violent criminal is much more likely to be male, then he’s also more likely to be a gamer than the average person picked off the street, simply because male are more likely to be gamers. This doesn’t mean gaming causes violent crime. But… it reflects the statistically significant fact that males are more likely to commit violent crime than females.

I note in passing that Anders Breivik is male, it’s odd that nobody picked up on that before…? *doe eyes*

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Remember this?

Maybe someone already touched up this in these comments (sometimes I don’t take the time to read the comments here, so I may be guilty of restating what someone else has already said).

At any rate, I was waiting for one of these articles debunking the connection between violent games and violence to refer back to this. Seems like it is using the same logic in both cases. If you are going to finger point in one, you should be prepared for finger pointing in the other.

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