Newsflash! Bad People Play Games Too…

As I have written many times before, the gaming community is often broad-sided by the press, sometimes deservedly so, and other times it is due to some spurious link. Normally my take on it is that we have no need to react strongly, that the vast majority of right-minded folks have no issue with gaming and see it as nothing more than a healthy hobby. Of course there are times when gaming becomes part of a larger story, and an intrinsic link is formed that really cannot be explained away as unreasonable. This week saw the start of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik and gaming has been thrust under the microscope once again. 

See Breivik happily admitted playing World of Warcraft for a year, pretty much full time but denied it had any effect on his actions:

He denies the game, which he played for up to 16 hours a day, had any influence on him and says it had “nothing to do” with the July 22nd attacks. He insists it is a “strategy game” rather than a violent one.

Which, obviously anyone who’s ever played World of Warcraft will attest, it isn’t a game full of violence, but in the trial it was highlighted to illustrate the fact that Breivik was becoming a ‘loner’. That’s a very powerful word in the hands of the media, it’s often attributed to murderers in an attempt to demonstrate their need to portray the individual as someone who wasn’t part of ‘society’ he clearly wasn’t ‘one of us’, no a loner, a loner on the edges of reality.

Now I have no issue with people who play MMORPGs and I definitely think that many of them can have very healthy social experiences within the game, so I find it odd that a game that is intrinsically focussed on the all-encompassing world of online co-op gameplay would be used to illustrate a loner status. Oh, but that’s when the press points out that on-line communities are not ‘real people’ as such, and can’t replace the important aspects of physical social interaction. To a point they are correct, there are a great many advantages that stem from social interaction in-game, but many social skills are dampened by immersion into an on-line community. It has, as with most things in life, to be enjoyed in a balanced and healthy manner.

The game that can’t be explained away so rationally though is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (I’m assuming they are referring to the original Modern Warfare as the trial points out that he had been playing it for a longer period of time than MW3 has been released, and it seems almost criminal that a court would miss out a number in a game, unless they were just generalising. Either way, for all intensive purposed we shall refer to the game as ‘Modern Warfare’ and leave it at that). During the trial Breivik explained that:

…he played the first-person shooter “Modern Warfare” for sixteen months straight to get accustomed to using rifle sights.

“I don’t really like those games but it is good if you want to simulate for training purposes,” Breivik said while discussing Modern Warfare.

Now, let that sink in. An individual states in a matter of fact way, in his own trial, that he didn’t enjoy the game, but used it specifically for training purposes. Now, this is hard to explain away. It’s clear that:

a) He did in fact play the game in question

b) He did in fact play it to aid his competence in the attacks he was planning

c) He was playing for no other reason

This is what many gamers have been shocked by, and what many press outlets are using as a lynch pin to hang their own arguments upon, but is it really that important a point? By 2009 the original Modern Warfare game had sold over 13 million units world wide. Now, given those sales figures it would be feasible that one person out of 13 million might just be a delusional, paranoid lunatic who just happened to already be planning an attack. Cited in the trial was the simple fact that the seeds for the attack were sown in 1999 when NATO forces bombed Serbia, and this only serves to prove that – as with the 9/11 hijackers utilising flight simulation software – Breivik was simply using tools available to feed his needs.

Primarily it transpired that he used the game mostly to get used to using a telescopic sight, and that despite the ‘training’ he had undertaken he made a bold statement about the piece of kit, that when he actually got one and looked through it, it was clear to him that:

“You could give it to your grandmother and she would be an optimal marksman.”

Which obviously raises a more pertinent point, that this item was available, and DID have a direct impact upon his actions, whereas Modern Warfare was only used – albeit extensively – to get used to the concept and workings of the guns and scopes. Again this allows many gaming folk to jump up and down and try to distance themselves from the fact that he wasn’t a ‘gamer’, but actually, given his extensive run on World of Warcraft, this isn’t something we can rightly claim.

You see the issue here isn’t whether or not Breivik played a violent video game, it’s that the game has been linked to something none of us wants to be associated with, and like the press and media, we are also quick to distance ourselves from his actions and views, but ultimately he was a gamer, and he did play that game.

Obviously I’m not in any way suggesting that the games Breivik played had any impact on the intentions he had, but it is almost negligible to assume that just because he did something unthinkable, that he wasn’t just another flawed individual.

We are, as a culture, keen to immediately brand the ‘evil’ in society as something of a monster, but let’s not forget that many people who perform ‘monstrous’ acts are just human, and that while it’s obviously easier to portray those folks as the ‘evil in society’ the sad fact is that all of us have the ability to perform horrible deeds, and that many just require a catalyst to send them off down a darker path.

With Breivik’s trial hitting the papers I was most interested in what line the infamous gamer baiting paper, The Daily Mail would make of it, and even more so, what would it’s readers make of it. I wasn’t disappointed.

The paper decided to selectively use quotation to attribute the aforementioned ‘scope’ quote in a more damning fashion:

In a chilling admission regarding the efficacy of the controversial computer game he added: ‘ You could give it your grandmother and she would be able to become a super marksman!’

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, eh?

Anyways, the Daily Mail ran wild with the connotation that Breivik was warped by the games and that he was enacting some video game fantasy when acting out the attacks – rather than, you know, listening to his rantings about mutliculturalism – and the article brought out some great comments from it’s readers:

Ban these games now..plus jail all those playing them..its the cause of the breakdown in our society.

– harry goodhead, Dorking

Brilliant eh? I love the fact that ‘Harry Goodhead’ doesn’t call for the restriction of content, or measures placed upon developers, just jail all gamers. Plus he made a load of grammatical errors, idiot. JAIL HIM!

i’ve taken these games off my children after reading this. i don’t want them becoming killers

– Mr. B, England

This is perhaps my favourite quote in the article. Essentially saying that ‘I’ve taken games that were inappropriate away from the children who were too young to be playing in the first place, in case they become killers.’ Never mind the age ratings, never mind the fact that they may contain scenes that could be upsetting, murder is the most motivational of tools to bring about parental responsibility.

I allow my son to play Call of Duty using xbox live, playing with other boys who are in his class and are aged 12. I let him because of the imense peer pressure he is under to take part. Also, he LOVES playing it. But I have been very worried about it for a while…am I doing the wrong thing by him? Should I take the game off him? Although his school work has never suffered, he does seem ‘addicted’ if that doesnt sound too far fetched. I let him on it about 1-2 hours per evening. Advice please! But please don’t be too nasty!!

– Angela, Liverpool

Now Angela here is taking a very fair stance, realising that there is an inherant peer pressure associated with mature video games, and is trying to deal with it in a constructive way, but realising that having this discussion on the Daily Mail website may induce some wrath, she slips in a ‘don’t be too nasty’ comment at the end. She freely admits that his school work isn’t being affected, is issuing a fair amount of time for gaming and is aware that her son is playing, and the reasons behind his desire to do so. I’d say that this is a VERY healthy attitude to take, and think it’s a shame that she is questioning her own decisions as a result of derisory comments from the Mail.

But this is exactly the point I’m trying to make, in disassociating themselves from a killer, suddenly a right-minded parent, doing the right thing is questioning their own decisions. It should be enough to simply state that Breivik was on a bad path, he had been for years and he did a horrific thing, but the games he played were just part of that journey he undertook. Bad people play video games, rapists, murderers, paedophiles and bankers can, and likely will, play a game or two at some point in their lives. It doesn’t taint the water, we aren’t obliged to suddenly become criminal elements, we just play as we always did. If you feel that the actions of an individual warrant a change in your stance on gaming, then fair enough, but don’t concern yourself with ‘facts’ in the media. You know yourself, and if you are a parent it is up to you to bring your kid up with a good head on their shoulders. The debate about age ratings on games can wait for another day, but don’t let a rating get in the way of learning a little about the games that your children play and want to play. Why not join in and play alongside them? Family time doesn’t have to be spent around a table on a ‘Bisto Sunday’ or at some socially accepted, and therefore extortionately expensive family attraction, it can be as simple as picking up a controller and spending some time saving the world together.

We can’t change the decisions of the individual, but we can, at the very least realise that one gamer does not reflect upon the whole, no matter how many attention grabbing, sensationalist articles state otherwise. We play games, and bad people play games too.

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