Gamers have grown accustomed to waiting for the other shoe to drop when a grisly crime–especially one involving guns or murder–happens. Sooner or later, some media outlet somewhere is going to try to find a link between video games and the horror that one person visits upon another.
Usually, dubious connections are made via so-called experts in two-minute intervals on 24-hour news outlets. Studies get cited, politicians get quoted and blame gets placed. This time was different, though. Anders Behring Breivik–the man accused in the shocking attacks in Norway that left as many as 93 dead–made the links himself, mentioning MMO World of Warcraft and first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in his rambling, 1,516-page manifesto, titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence.”
The related passages talk about using Activision’s Modern Warfare 2 as a training simulator for shooting and World of Warcraft as a blind for abnormal behavior:
Present a ”credible project/alibi” to your friends, co-workers and family. Announce to your closest friends, co-workers and family that you are pursuing a ”project” that can at least partly justify your ”new pattern of activities” (isolation/travel) while in the planning phase.
[For] example, tell them that you have started to play World of Warcraft or any other online MMO game and that you wish to focus on this for the next months/year. This ”new project” can justify isolation and people will understand somewhat why you are not answering your phone over long periods. Tell them that you are completely hooked on the game (raiding dungeons etc). Emphasise to them that this is a dream you have had since you were a kid. If they stress you, insist and ask them to respect your decision. You will be amazed on how much you can do undetected while blaming this game. If your planning requires you to travel, say that you are visiting one of your WoW friends, or better yet, a girl from your ”guild” (who lives in another country). No further questions will be raised if you present these arguments.
Target practise is likely going to be a problem for many people in certain countries (urban Europeans like us, ouch:). Consider taking a vacation to a country where you are able to train in marksmanship or join a gun club. Simulation by playing Call of Duty, Modern Warfare is a good alternative as well but you should try to get some practise with a real assault rifle (with red point optic) if possible.
Breivik invokes those titles, not in terms of causalities–which would be to suggest these games were why he decided that people should die–but as tools for a darker purpose. In reality, they’re pop culture phenomena of the fantasy and action-movie varieties. The games, which are made by Activision and Blizzard respectively, are among the most popular ever created. World of Warcraft captivates a user base of about 12 million people worldwide, people who create avatars and undertake Tolkien-esque adventures together in a realm dubbed Azeroth. When it debuted in November 2009, Modern Warfare 2 quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, tallying more than 6 million units sold in less than three weeks. Lots of people play these games as escapist entertainment, with no ulterior motive in mind.
And yet, for all the data that says otherwise, people passionate about video games are often stereotyped as cultural outliers. The argument’s made that the interactive nature of video game entertainment lends itself to darker addictions or obsessions and the more you’re into, say, The Sims, the more likely it is that something’s wrong with you. The scare tactic logic is a vestige of the marketing history of video games, which started off being sold as disposable toys and fad novelties. Even though the medium’s storytelling and experiential capabilities have grown exponentially since the late ’70s, the attitude that video games are socially irresponsible junk culture persists.
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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.