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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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Apr 2012 @ 6:51am

    I almost stopped at "...trained on video games World of Warcraft..."

    REALLY? WoW *trains* you to be a killer?

    The Hoarde is more devious than I realized.

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