Oslo: Modern Warfare didn’t lead Breivik to shoot

Alleged Oslo gunman Anders Behring Breivik.

People read newspapers if for no other reason than to understand human behavior. We read for the crimes, the celebrity shenanigans, the “fluff” pieces. When a massive tragedy happens, we want to know why it happened — and who was behind it.

That’s one reason reporters work so hard to find out details about someone like Anders Behring Breivik, who allegedly bombed downtown Oslo and then shot dozens of people, mostly children, on nearby Utoya Island July 22. Before the attack, Breivik penned a lengthy manifesto describing his goals and how he planned to get there. Within it are plenty of juicy details about his life, his tastes, and his philosophies.

A handful of articles this morning focus on Breivik’s use of video games, including one from Kotaku:

“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 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.”

No doubt, some will see his statement as proof that violent video games are no good. That they inspire murderous rampages. People will see what they want to see in such statements — but that doesn’t make it true.

By the time Breivik got around to buying and playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, he was already pretty far along in his planning process. He was thinking in terms of wanting a “training-simulation.” Playing the game didn’t make him want to go on a shooting spree; wanting to go on a shooting spree made him want to play the game.

This is what people mean when they say correlation is not causation. You have someone who killed nearly 80 people in the biggest mass shooting in history. And you have someone who was fond of a military-style shooter game set in future versions of Afghanistan, Russia, and Rio de Janeiro, among others. That’s a correlation. But in Breivik’s own words, the plot came first; the game came later.

Perhaps of more concern is his use of World of Warcraft to separate himself from society:

Breivik says he spent three years writing the manifesto. In the first year, he played World of Warcraft “hardcore”, living “very ascetic” and in isolation. “I feel that this period was needed in order to completely detach myself from ‘the game,’ my ‘former shallow consumerist lifestyle’ in order to ensure full focus on the matters at hand.”

Many WoW players do wind up disassociated from day-to-day life if they spend the bulk of their time gaming. This is a hazard, and one worthy of attention. It’s worth noting that Breivik did this deliberately; whether other WoW players do probably varies from person to person.

Nevertheless, it’s likely that anti-violent-game pundits will use this opportunity to rail against the dangers of such games, particularly for young people. And indeed, some already are. Not 72 hours after the massacre, “the Australian Christian Lobby [is calling] for games to be banned if the ‘violence is excessive or gratuitous.'”

Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O’Connor, has reviewed existing research on violent video games. He saw Breivik’s mental state as a much more likely culprit for the shootings than the video games he favored:

I think it really points to, of course, a person who — clearly there is something wrong with this person to sort of cause such devastation in Norway. But I’m not sure that the argument goes that as a result of watching a game you turn into that type of person. I think there is something clearly intrinsically wrong with him.

It’s probably also worth noting that many gamers don’t believe that playing shooters appreciably improves their marksmanship. In addition to playing MW2, Breivik also joined a shooting club, though it’s unclear how much in-the-field target practice he’d undergone in addition to his gaming. I find it unlikely that the game alone would help him learn to wield a gun.

Could the game have inspired Breivik’s rampage — and could it have helped him pull it off? What do you think?


15 responses to “Oslo: Modern Warfare didn’t lead Breivik to shoot

  1. He didn’t need MW2 to learn how to use a firearm: Norway has mandatory military service. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_service#Norway

  2. “Many WoW players do wind up disassociated from day-to-day life if they spend the bulk of their time gaming.”

    You think? I played for years and neither felt nor encountered anyone in WoW who approached dissociation as a result. I think there’s a much wider range in that statement.

    • Well, partly what I mean is: for every hour you’re playing WoW, you’re not spending time with family and friends, or putting your laundry away, cleaning your house, paying your bills — the stuff of day to day life. That’s fine if it’s a few hours a day, much less fine if it’s 12+. Some of that’s mitigated if you’re using it to connect with friends and family (I know pair of adult brothers who play together — it keeps them in touch now that they don’t live in the same household). Again, I don’t even think it’s most WoW players. Just many among those who devote most of their waking hours to the game.

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple? If only, by banning the expression of violent fantasy, we could actually prevent violent acts from happening. If only the absence of violence in art left the human race with no way to imagine it or desire it, let alone enact it.

    If only facing into the sun were enough to make the shadow disappear.

  4. Would take a shrink to answer whether in these circumstances these activities were key. Playing video games could have helped him pull it off—Modern Warfare is a killing simulator—like a flight simulator. If he had military training though, he hardly needed it.
    Doubt that those games would have been any more inspirational than *Left Behind*, or anything w/ racist themes. Video games, as any literary work, can inspire very bad things. And playing them is a dissociative experience, like reading. That’s the point Cervantes made four hundred years ago.
    No more point though in banning them than any other work that led the man to his crime.

    • N, I’m wondering why he would need something like MW2 if he’d already had military training. Unless he found such fantasy-military scenarios entertaining. But then, from what little I know of his motives, not a lot of his methods made much sense.

  5. I think you are fighting windmills. There isn’t any critic out there who claims that playing such a game directly makes the person wish to imitate his screen-actions. But they may alleviate his doubts, calm his conscience, and decrease the little empathy he may have left.
    Also what I want to ask you:
    Why don’t you gamers include the viscious airport scene in Call of Duty Modern Warfare into the discussion, where the gamer accompanies Russian terrorists and massacres innocent civilians. I think it is a real big success of the game industry’s PR efforts, that this scene is not object of the debate at the moment.

    • Regine, thanks for your comment. I’ve seen a number of critics claim that video games will make people (especially young people) imitate on-screen actions. That argument was made with Columbine, and in the cases that Jack Thompson filed in court, as just a couple of examples.

      I haven’t addressed the airport scene in Modern Warfare, though I don’t have a problem with it. I did discuss the new Modern Warfare’s scenes involving terrorism on the London tube in this post, if you’d like to have a look: https://backwardmessages.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/mw3-offers-catharsis-for-bombing-survivors/.

      The fact that you’re troubled by such depictions, while understandable, is evidence that I am not “tilting at windmills.”

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