Blame video games — that’s the watch phrase these days when something tragic happens. The non-gaming media seem to enjoy zeroing in on video games that are highlighted in horrifying crimes, invoking the rhetorical question: Do video games screw people up? Like the trial of Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, 33, a right-wing extremist charged with killing eight people in a car-bomb attack near a government building in Oslo last July and 69 others in a follow-up shooting spree at a youth camp run by Norway’s Labor Party.
In the trial, prosecutors reportedly “painted an image of a Breivik obsessed with the World of Warcraft computer game, prompting the judge to ask whether the game was violent.” At some point, the prosecution must have displayed images from the game in the courtroom, because Reuters says Breivik smiled “when the image of his online character was displayed.” According to Agence France-Presse, the prosecution said Breivik played World of Warcraft “full time” from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2007. None of the reports indicate that prosecutors were overtly fingering the game as an excuse for Breivik’s behavior, but implication is nine-tenths rationalization when it comes to anything offered up during trial.
When horrible things happen, we look for simple answers, for easy rationalizations — ways to essentially say, Oh, this is why so-and-so did such-and-such. We want the “why” right now, when the spotlight’s on. We want the dots connected, and we want them to correspond with our suspicions about new, ultra-popular activities, like dancing to jazz music in the 1920s, or reading comics in the 1950s, or listening to rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s, or playing Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s — or playing violent video games pretty much from the 1990s on.
Reality, of course, is far more complex, and the answers we’re after require patience and careful research. Preliminary studies that attempted to link violent video games with increased aggressive behavior failed to control for critical variables like family history, mental-health issues and gender (they also failed to contextualize increased aggression levels, e.g., more than aggression upticks caused by playing football, say, or drinking a cup of coffee?).
The most up-to-date research, according to academic and TIME contributor Christopher Ferguson, “has not found that children who play VVG [violent video games] are more violent than other kids, nor harmed in any other identifiable fashion.” In Ferguson’s own longitudinal studies, recently published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, he found “no long-term link between VVG and youth aggression or dating violence.” And Ferguson references another recent longitudinal study involving German children, published in Media Psychology, which similarly found no links between increased aggression and violent video games.
Nevertheless, we’re likely to hear plenty more about World of Warcraft and Breivik’s yearlong video-game-playing spree by news networks that understand perfectly well the hunger for cause-and-effect explanations, or barring that, a flat-out scapegoat. To be fair, the public bears as much responsibility as the media when, whether from ignorance or hysteria, it helps create the latter.
Breivik himself wrote in a 1,500-page manifesto titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence” that in order to battle what he describes as “the rise of cultural Marxism/multiculturalism” and “Islamic colonization and Islamisation of Western Europe,” one must “[avoid] suspicion from relatives, neighbours and friends.” He further advises telling friends and family “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.” Breivik says this helps “justify isolation” and adds that “people will understand somewhat why you are not answering your phone over long periods.” Note, importantly, that Breivik is advising the use of stereotypes about video games as a way to justify social isolation, indicating his intelligent, cynical view of the game. This was someone who used video games for sinister purposes, not someone used by them.
Breivik also wrote about using the shooter game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as a way to train for combat operations, but as I’ve written elsewhere, blaming video games for possibly making Breivik a better marksman would be the same as condemning shooting ranges or marksmanship-training schools every time some attention-deprived lunatic who frequents such places picks up a gun and does unspeakable things.
The only takeaway I’m seeing from this trial so far, then, is that courts remain no place to make broad determinations about ultimate causes.