Don’t Blame Games For Norway Shootings

The target's in the wrong place.

After the recent tragic events in Norway, of course various media outlets and officials looked to find a connection between the shootings by Anders Behring Breivik and computer games. (After the same groups had sought to find a connection between the shootings and Islamic groups, as well.) It’s normal practise, as what was once a confusion over new media has now reached the far more insidious position of being a received opinion: that videogames cause people to become violent, and in extreme cases, inspire them to go on murder sprees. It’s important to realise, this has never been demonstrated, let alone proven. Studies come and go that suggest links between extensive sessions of playing violent games and minor changes in the brain, but none has ever shown any demonstrable causal link to real-world violence, and many have suggested no such link exists. In the end such attempts to create links between a tragedy and the perpetrator’s having played games end up becoming tasteless attempts to score aimless political points. Sadly, in reaction to the news in Norway, a number of Norwegian shops are no longer selling a range of first-person shooters. I want to explore this, and argue why this is actually a very dangerous response.

I think it’s important to state that I recognise how easily I could be perceived as – or indeed actually trying to – scoring points for my own side of an argument, equally distastefully exploiting a tragedy. So I want to be clear that if there were demonstrable evidence that playing games that involve shooting has a direct link to causing someone to go on a killing spree, then I would want a serious response to this. I would want to protect others from the same danger. The point of this editorial is not to say, “People who think they cause violence are stupid, games are great!” It is to say, “What are the facts? What danger is there in misrepresenting them?” My aim isn’t to defend games – were they guilty I would want that to be recognised. My aim is to argue that blaming games is a dangerous thing to do.

Of course, finding that the gunman in a shooting had played videogames in 2011 is rather like finding he’d eaten carrots. Gaming is so ubiquitous at this point that the chances of a male 20-40 not having played at least one variant of Call Of Duty at some point in their life is pretty slim. Blaming games without any specific evidence, in this light, becomes a farce. Although certainly this does not put off the regular media and political culprits from, if not outright stating, certainly insinuating links between the hobby and the event.

Individual anecdotal evidence is of little use in such a discussion, but when that anecdote is shared by the population of the world it becomes a little more significant. And the reality is there has not been a epidemic of shootings by those who play FPS games. In fact, there has been no evidence of it ever happening. Which is an enormously important factor in this discussion. But sadly a complete lack of evidence of something ever happening is no match for received opinion.

Let me slightly trivialise this for a moment with an example. The banned use of mobile phones/cellphones from petrol station forecourts. No mobile phone has ever been demonstrated to pose any danger at a filling station. They don’t generate sparks, their transmissions can’t interfere with… petrol, and no phone has ever, anywhere in the world, caused a fire at a petrol station. It has simply never, ever happened. But phones are banned from petrol stations across the world, with astonishing amounts of money spent on printing warning signs saying not to do it. Why? Because of a hoax email written in 1999. Apocryphal stories have appeared over the years to defend the claim no one made, but none has survived scrutiny. But it doesn’t matter – phones and filling your car are banned.

And this is contributing to the motivation for Norwegian shops like Coop to pull the recent Calls of Duty, Sniper: Ghost Warrior, and Counter-Strike: Source, in amongst 51 games in total. That some are also taking World Of Warcraft off their shelves, seemingly because it appears to be have been Breivik’s favourite game, takes this to a whole other level.

However, the reason for gaming to be brought up at various points in the press reaction to this particular case is that Breivik mentioned games in his 800,000 word manifesto, sent to friends before the attack. He mentions a number by name, from Dragon Age to BioShock 2. But he also mentions Modern Warfare 2, great stretches of the press claiming he was using the game as a “military simulator”. But oh my goodness, this needs to be put in context.

The manifesto is an enormous piece of work created by a deeply disturbed individual, driven by astonishing hatred toward Muslims. And it contains discussion on a great many subjects. Amongst them, in a very minor part, is games. And these comments, when put in context, offer a rather different impression. For instance, in writing about January 2010 he says,

“A usual day for me involves email farming, writing, sharing “moderate” resources from my book on debate groups to coach fellow cultural conservatives, smoking, eating chocolate lol, taking a daily 1 hour walk/motivational meditation and doing some occasional battlegrounds in WoW on my badass Horde resto druid. I just completed Dragon Age Origins not long ago. A brilliant game!:D It’s important to have fun a few hours every day. I regret to admit that I’ve become a notorious downloader of pirated movies, series and games etc. but have noticed that an increasing number of sites have been closed down lately. Stealing is bad, I admit, but then again, when you have devoted your entire life to a good cause you can allow yourself some naughtiness especially if it can contribute to conserve your funds, cough;). Yes, yes, no ones perfect:P”

Dragon Age: Origins and WoW aren’t games frequently associated with murder sprees. One might equally conclude that piracy encourages murder. Or indeed smoking. Or meditation. His summary of February 2010 then includes,

“I just bought Modern Warfare 2, the game. It is probably the best military simulator out there and it’s one of the hottest games this year. I played MW1 as well but I didn’t really like it as I’m generally more the fantasy RPG kind of person – Dragon Age Origins etc .and not so much into first person shooters. I see MW2 more as a part of my training-simulation than anything else. I’ve still learned to love it though and especially the multiplayer part is amazing. You can more or less completely simulate actual operations.”

It’s clearly very chilling to read his describing MW2 as part of his “training”. You can see why people would leap at this, ignoring his previous statement that he doesn’t usually enjoy playing such games. And his description of being able to use the game to “simulate actual operations” also gives the impression that they are somehow directly linked to his attack. But again, context. This entry is accompanied by his concluding that he was toward the end of writing his manifesto, before he moved on to what he called his “research phase” and “acquiring phase”. His terrible plan was created long, long before he’d played Modern Warfare 2, and indeed – as he explains – formed before he even discovered he liked playing FPS games at all. That’s significant. It’s a heck of a thing for every media outlet to ignore.

But outlet after outlet has stated as fact that Breivik used Call Of Duty to train for his attack. Here the Telegraph explains how games like “the Call of Duty” and “the World of Warcraft” were implicated, and explains that he “used Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to prepare for the attacks.” A fiction.

Here Forbes goes with the headline, “Norway Suspect Used Call Of Duty To Train For Massacre”, where they go on to claim, “writes in detail about how he used Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 game and Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft game to help him prepare for the attack.” A statement that is absolutely false – there’s no detail whatsoever, only that which is quoted above, and he certainly doesn’t mention WoW in any such context. In fact, he suggests to others wishing repeat his actions that telling friends and relatives that you’ve developed an addiction to WoW can cover up the time you’re spending on other matters. He was in fact using the gullible nonsense spread by the media to his advantage.

The Mirror explains that in “Call Of Duty” players can “shoot people on an island”.

And on and on and on it goes, so many papers and news channels, almost none seeming to have read the document from which they’re quoting.

As I said, my primary motivation isn’t to defend games. It’s to argue that when blaming something like games, or television, or whatever it might be, it ignores the larger issues that could usefully be addressed.

Within his manifesto, Breivik tells a tale of trying to buy guns in Prague. He has concluded that if he seeks out the criminal underbelly of an Eastern European city he should be able to find the weapons he wants for his attack. During his time there he fails to get anywhere, embarrassing himself in brothels and so forth, before eventually concluding,

“Prague may be a transit point but finding the actual couriers or sellers has proven to be a hard task. Also, I guess I wasn’t motivated enough, considering the fact that I could have just purchased a legal semi automatic rifle and a glock in Norway. I have approached several shady looking individuals but I would have tried a lot harder if it weren’t for the fact that I could buy guns legally.”

Then the next day,

“I have now decided to abort this sub-mission and rather focus on acquiring the weapons I need legally, back in Norway.”

He goes on to lay out how simple it should be to buy the guns he needs in Norway, especially since he’s owned a shotgun and rifle for years without incident. A semi-automatic rifle and glock, he concludes, shouldn’t be a problem. He then moves onto seeking to buy the chemicals he’ll need to inject into the bullets.

Later Breivik discusses that he is on “another steroid cycle”. Later still he explains that he’s been watching Dexter – the US Showtime programme about a murderer. At the same time he’s playing Fallout 3: New Vegas. Then a month later he goes on another “steroid cycle”. During which he conducted the pistol training required by the government to own a Glock 17, and his rifle training to use his semi-automatic. He also legally purchased a scope, laser sight, bayonet, and hollow point ammunition.

He was also in the Freemasons. And, it seems he believes, in the Knights Templar.

And so it goes on. To pick videogames – something he explicitly explains throughout he uses alongside meditation to relax in his spare time – out of this terrifying and disturbing document requires a wilful agenda. An agenda, I would argue, that conveniently distracts from the rather larger issues of how it was possible for him to legally obtain such an extraordinary arsenal of weapons and chemicals. I have not seen stories explaining that Norwegian weapons stores are taking certain guns off their shelves in reaction to the shooting.

And that’s my agenda. It’s my agenda that access to such extraordinary weapons is a serious issue. But my agenda almost equally misses the point. Yes, without the guns he could not have fired the bullets. And were games somehow implicated to be involved (despite the lack of evidence I can find), they too would have been a factor. Hell, you could get some way making this a discussion of the danger of steroid abuse. But none is the reason for the attack.

Breivik believed in a grotesque form of nationalism that was rooted in a pathological loathing of Muslims. A conspiracist, racist and ultra-extremist, his hateful beliefs were the reason for his attack. The guns were the tools he used. The games were something he did in his spare time to unwind. The steroids were how he bulked up for what he saw as a martyrdom.

Why did he hold those beliefs? Where did they come from? Who taught them to him? How did his mind come to be so hideously occupied by this terrible act? Those are really tough questions. They’re questions that don’t have easy answers, that can’t be easily blamed on the current scapegoat or easiest target. They’re questions that challenge people, society, us. They’re frightening, horrible questions.

Coop, the Norwegian chain that has come to most attention for removing shooters from their shelves have since issued a statement saying they don’t believe that the games were a factor in the attacks, and that their removal is a matter of respect for the victims. In an ambiguous statement they explain,

“We have not alleged that the game is the background for the event, or is harmful to the matter.”

But the fact remains that it’s games that have been removed, while books and films about the same subject matter remain on sale. So no matter the protest in hindsight, there’s no doubt that it is a direct stigmatism of gaming, as if this one form of media is the offensive one, the one that has to go at such times. And it’s worth noting that the same company said last week that they would “think twice” before stocking such games again. Their statements certainly aren’t adding up.

We cannot pick and choose our way through the past of an individual to find the thing we want to be at fault, because it’s the easiest option. Or the option that fits our agenda. In blaming games, or whatever it will be next, just as it was “video nasties” previously, we pick the convenient, lazy route, that prevents our asking the questions that might lead to change.

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