It is inevitable that during the trial of Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, that the matter of videogaming will come up. Soon after the horrendous events I dug into what Breivik had actually said about gaming in his ghastly manifesto, and it was pretty much nothing of relevance. But with the press still not having found the next nasty to leap on, gaming is the scapegoat. It seems reasonable to point out how inaccurate this remains, and how attempting to shift the blame onto things uninvolved only makes it more likely that whatever led to Breivik's state of mind will not be discovered. But now that Breivik has testified about how important playing WoW was to him, and his peculiar understanding of Modern Warfare 2, it's all happening again.
It's pretty relevant to note much of what the killer said in his opening statements, in which he described secret societies, battles for purity, global conspiracy, and refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the courts. Very few press outlets took his comments at face value nor reported them as fact, strangely enough, but rather pointed out that he was either mad, or trying to appear mad. Now he has told the courts that he played World Of Warcraft for apparently 16 hours a day for a year, and saw Modern Warfare 2 as a police-shooting simulator, and not only is the press at large taking it as fact, but most are twisting Breivik's words to their own interests. Something has gone very wrong when the horror of his actions is being used to fuel irrelevant agenda.
Yesterday Britain's Daily Telegraph spoke to Oslo University professor of sociology, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who believes that one factor that "hasn't sufficiently been taken into account" was Breivik's so-called "fascination" with World Of Warcraft. Because Breivik likes order and doesn't like chaos, erm, something something, it's gaming's fault.
The blurring leaps from gaming to the real world are pretty concerning when coming from a sociologist, especially when he's suggesting Breivik does the same. Lazy editing by the Telegraph means that sentences that begins with a description of WoW end with talking about Breivik's home-made Templar uniform, the connection between the two completely unexplained. Also, I think the most disturbing part of this interview is Eriksen's mocking use of Freudian analysis, saying it would only be appropriate to be so flippant were the case less serious. But he obviously believes it only appropriate to claim that when Breivik was shooting children he thought he was still playing a videogame. Presumably not World Of Warcraft, what with the lack of shooting, but there's no need to mention that.
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 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."
Then comes Modern Warfare. This he told the courts he played between November 2010 and February 2011, and described it as "a simple war simulator". He explained that it was helpful for learning about "aiming systems", and then described in some detail how he had used the game to practice killing policemen.
So, well, an immediate thought. That's not what Modern Warfare is, or lets you do. The scripted corridors, nor the multiplayer, offer no useful practice for any such actions, and don't allow you to simulate practising killing policemen in the manner Breivik describes. There is of course the infamous No Russian airport level, in which you play as an undercover agent with terrorists, and are able to shoot (or not shoot) civilians and policemen, but I think it's unreasonable to suggest that it offers what Breivik claims. Of course there are many other shooters out that that would let you create your own specific scenarios, attempt to rehearse escaping from armed forces, and so on. But Breivik, in keeping with much else of his rhetoric, doesn't make much sense here. It is very unfortunate that while a sceptical press has been enjoying picking over his comments about being a member of the Knights Templar, and disproving them, they see no need to question his remarks on using Call Of Duty as a simulator for combating armed police in real life. Instead here it's assumed he's being honest and clear-headed. It's also important to note that Breivik's memoir makes it clear that he only played MW2 after he had entirely planned the attacks, and it was in no way influential on his decision to kill anyone.
The same Times report then explains how Breivik named all his guns, citing El Cid for having done the same for his favourite sword, but oddly doesn't then condemn the learning of history. Instead, astonishingly, it just reports the names for all the weapons, and doesn't even mention the possible concern that he was in possession of them. They also don't mention the enormous detail written in the manifesto about how these guns were legally and illegally acquired, and the enormous amount of time he spent at shooting ranges, practising firing them. Factors that, you would imagine a journalist reporting on how he had trained for his attacks, would think relevant to bring up. But no, instead, only Modern Warfare and World Of Warcraft are mentioned.
Yet again I feel compelled to repeat the refrain: were gaming genuinely a dangerous factor, something that could cause someone to become a murderer, we would want to know about it, and you can damn well believe we'd be reporting on it. What more serious matter could there be for gamers than to be aware of this? This is not about defending gaming, but about defending truth, and truth in reporting. And it is woefully lacking in the so-called respectable papers over this matter. The headline in the Times bears no relation to what is actually said by Breivik. It obfuscates the year he spent playing WoW to give himself a rest with the couple of months he spent with Modern Warfare, and it ignores the huge amount of time he spent actually practising firing real weapons. While taking massive amounts of steroids.
And it's of course far more widespread. Headlines have appeared in the last 24 hours like,
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.
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.
And so on and so on.
Much more of this will appear over the next ten weeks, and I'm quite certain Breivik will revel in creating a furore over the gaming side of things, along with much else. But it's important to actually look at the broad spectrum of facts, and to question what you see reported in the press. We should not assume that gaming must be innocent, but rather put it into context, and look at the whole story. Something you would hope outlets like the Times, CNN and the Telegraph and so on would have the integrity to do. But sadly not.