Video games live in the cultural center now. The release of something like Portal 2 channels collective anticipation like the eagerness preceding a new Harry Potter movie. Smaller, indie games in the vein of Braid, Limbo and Sword & Sworcery show off a level of sophistication and ambition made all the more remarkable by the fact that only a few talented people were necessary to design them. And, while things like the NEA funding digital game artists, the Supreme Court decision granting video games First Amendment protections and the Smithsonian’s “Art of Video Games” exhibit are all significant, no one act bears responsibility for undoing the stigma of social irresponsibility. Rather, it’s the people who buy, play, make and share with others millions of uniquely crafted game experiences–the folks from all walks of life who find unintended richness in games like Farmville on Facebook or Minecraft on a PC.
And those millions of people–whether they identify as gamers or not–are what define the medium, not Breivik’s xenophobia. Breivik’s interaction with games like Modern Warfare 2 and WoW was simply to view them as tools, as a means to an ends.
Yes, games like WoW can exacerbate anti-social behavior in those already inclined to it. They can also be used as cover for anything from infidelity to slaughter. But then so can all sorts of ordinary activities, including reading books and watching movies. And yet a game like WoW‘s brought far more people together than it’s ever torn apart, enabling real connections between those who might otherwise find dinner party small talk terrifying.
And, yes, Modern Warfare 2‘s a very real-looking game about virtual war in non-fictional places, complete with weapons and tactics employed in actual conflicts. But that alone isn’t a strong enough ingredient to explain Breivik’s volatile psychological mix. First-person shooters, even ones with controversial sequences–Call Of Duty: Black Ops‘ would-be assassination of Fidel Castro and Modern Warfare 2‘s infamous “No Russian” mission–are remarkably free of ideological discourse. And even were they overtly political, it takes a lot more than The Grapes of Wrath or Atlas Shrugged to flip someone’s killing switch.
Reports say that Breivik was working up his plan for the better part of a decade. Modern Warfare 2 came out two years ago. It probably figured as much into Breivik’s thinking as Missile Command did into President Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. The latter’s core ideas–shooting down missiles in the upper atmosphere–may sound similar, but trading entertainment for reality involves more than pressing buttons. Likewise, Breivik’s cold-blooded mass killing and Modern Warfare 2. Playing Activision’s first-person shooter in no way substitutes for the heft of an actual assault rifle, or the homicidal callousness required to take a flesh-and-blood life.
The reality we need to face is that Breivik is a 21st Century terrorist. Instead of Osama Bin Laden’s grainy analog recordings, he posted his long-winded proposal with supporting video to Facebook and YouTube. He was able to find similar mindsets on message boards and blogs. None of this should be surprising. It’s the way we live today: digitally connected, micromanaging ourselves in real-time. It might be chilling to think that Breivik used the same technology so many of us do, to connect with others and disseminate his ideology, but in this case a Facebook status update is no different than a Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer match: it’s a vessel that can be warped in the wrong hands.
So far, the Norway massacre’s not seen the kind of fire-breathing blame placement that followed the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings. Maybe it’s a sign that things have changed. Maybe pundits realize that people from all walks of life play all kinds of video games. Unfortunately, some of those people care nothing for the lives of others. History’s shown that those committed to doing great harm will twist and distort to fit their worldview. Anders Breivik’s hardly the first person to hold a game controller. In the coming days, the way in which Modern Warfare 2, World of Warcraft and video games as a whole are framed in Breivik’s story will reveal not just what our culture thinks of video games, but how we think of ourselves as human beings with agency over our own actions.