Tag Archives: Anders Breivik

After horror, reclaiming power through games


A UK LARP gamer gets ready. Photo by Flickr user Bifford the Youngest.

Denmark: Land of Vikings, Beowulf, Niels Bohr, Mærsk ships, GSM phones, and … live-action role-playing?

In a land of 5.5 million people, roughly 100,000 LARP in some fashion, according to a recent article from TIME writer Nathan Thornburgh. As he points out, that’s bigger than the population of Indiana — and a higher per-capita role-playing rate than many other countries in the world. In his piece, Thornburgh examines why the Danes are so into LARPing — and the kinds of games they play.

To some extent, they explore the typical tropes: Lord of the Rings, for instance, is immensely popular. No surprises there. But Danes are also into much darker forms of role-playing: pretending to live in a prison camp for 48 hours, or unspooling what would have happened in Russia if the Nazis had won World War II. It’s not just adults playing, either; plenty of kids participate. Thornburgh speculates:

Larp might be a sensible diversion for restless minds in Denmark, which was recently named the happiest country on earth. Reality is simply more pleasant in Denmark than in many other places, so perhaps escapism means digging for more complicated, intense human interactions.

I’m not sure how much truth there is in this, which is to say, I don’t have enough data to compare. I know other LARPing groups go to some pretty dark places. For example, growing up, I knew people who played “Vampire: The Masquerade,” which got very twisted, personal, and psychological at certain points. And that didn’t come from kids who had trauma-free lives, either. It was a way for them to turn everyday horrors into something they could co-create and master.

Reading Thornburgh’s piece got me thinking about one of Denmark’s neighbors, Norway, which is still reeling from a mass shooting one year ago. Is there some way that role-playing could hasten Oslo’s healing? Would such pastimes only reopen barely healed wounds? Or would it depend on the type of game?

That thought brings me to a commentary that ran in the Baltimore Sun in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings, arguing (once again) that our media is too violent. Douglas MacKinnon writes:

After the tragedy in Aurora, I spoke with some teenage boys of friends of mine. Each and every one admitted to playing violent video games. Some on a daily basis for hours at a time. When I asked them how many “bad guys” they kill in these games (often times in the most gruesome and graphically visual ways imaginable), one of the boys said, “Oh, over the course of a year, I kill thousands of bad guys.”

There are more than 100 million “gamers” in our county. It stands to reason that if as a demographic, they are virtually slaughtering hundreds of millions of “bad guys,” then some may become desensitized to killing actual human beings and some may be pushed over the edge. In fact, the maniac in Norway who murdered tens of children admitted he used violent video games to practice his targeting.

His argument: especially in light of Aurora and Oslo, kids need to scale back their use of violent media. This, despite the fact that kids are killing “bad guys.” If we want to be black-and-white about it, Holmes and Breivik were “bad guys.” Yes, they’re real “bad guys,” and the guys in the video games are fictional. So is the killing. Most kids are well aware of the difference. It’s adults who seem to have the problem.

I’ll say it plainly:

Anyone in a real mass-shooting situation, or anyone close to such a situation, would feel frightened, horrified, powerless.

So how do you think killing some “bad guys” afterward might make them feel?

Powerless?

Probably not. We need to give kids — particularly kids suffering through horror — opportunities to reclaim feelings of agency. Role-playing games and video games provide ample opportunities.

Spector: “stop loving the ultra-violence” in games


Are video games “too violent?” Or are violence critics forgetting who we are?

Another E3 has come and gone, giving the gaming press a taste of video games to come. Since then, a number of folks have come come out against the violence in the next wave of games, claiming it’s just too much.

One of those critics is game designer Warren Spector, who left Eidos in 2004 after being disturbed by some of the plans for Hitman. He also drew a line between the violence in games he’s worked on, such as Deus Ex, and the video games he saw at this year’s E3. Here’s what he said:

“The ultra-violence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it’s in bad taste.”

Spector says the violence in Deus Ex was meant to disturb the player, rather than pleasure them. “The carnage induced on in-game beings disappearing along with the body, erases the aftermath of said carnage from the gamer’s thoughts,” he said.

Everyone has the right to judge for him- or herself how much violence in a game is “too much.” Spector’s tolerances are obviously different than others, and that’s fine. The problem comes when he attempts to tell the rest of the industry what it should produce, and when he tells gamers what they should like. I find the phrase, “We have to stop loving [ultra-violence]” really disturbing. It’s like telling people they should stop loving bacon, or beer, or babies.

Human beings were once relatively wild. We still have that animal side in us. Aggression is part of who we are. Games don’t make us aggressive. Being human makes us aggressive. And we all let it out in different ways: going on long runs, playing hockey, starting bar fights, kneading bread, trolling on the Internet, or playing violent video games are some examples. Anyone who forgets why people (including kids) might enjoy violent games can be reminded by reading Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. Children aren’t the only ones who need it. Adults need it, too. We don’t need to stop “loving it.”

Look at the comments on the Spector article. Gamers know their limits, and if something’s too violent, they won’t play it. This is true of kids, too. We can trust them. Taking away games or reducing the violence in order to protect the tiny minority of mentally unbalanced people who might claim video-game violence as a jumping-off point for real-life acts would likely make the rest of society more violent — an outcome none of us wants.

Are video games becoming more violent? They’re certainly becoming more realistic — and that can heighten the sense that they’re more gory and brutal as well. Why would gamers want this? Even through violent crime is dropping, the existing violent crime is getting more airtime, and in some cases, it’s just getting weirder. We need ways to process what’s going on. And video games are one of the safest ways going.

Why banning violent video games isn’t the answer


British MP Keith Vaz, who has a history of criticizing violent games, is calling for a “closer scrutiny” of first-person shooters. Photo courtesy UK Parliament.

In the wake of Norway terrorist Anders Breivik’s claims that Modern Warfare helped him train for a real-live massacre, British MP Keith Vaz says it’s time for Britain to take a closer look at violent first-person shooter video games.

Vaz’s motion says British parliament “is concerned that PEGI [Europe’s video-game rating board] as a classification system can only provide an age-rating and not restrict ultra-violent content.” Although the motion has only picked up a handful of supporters since it was introduced, he continues to push the measure, even though Britain is already planning tighten video-game rules and make illegal to supply titles to people who aren’t old enough for the age rating.

Vaz has a history with violent video games. After a 14-year-old was murdered in 2004, the victim’s parents claimed they thought Manhunt inspired the killer. Vaz called for closer scrutiny of such games. Police dismissed the claim after it was discovered the victim, not the killer, was a fan of the game. (Britain later banned Manhunt 2, the country’s first such restriction.)

Vaz is also no fan of Bully or Counter-Strike, the latter of which was associated with race-related shootings in Malmö, Sweden.

Here’s the problem with such actions, which have been attempted in the United States as well, and usually are found in violation of the First Amendment: When someone like Breivik claims that video games are partly responsible for his killing spree, he’s letting himself off the hook. It wasn’t me that did it; it was the video games. Plenty of people have trouble owning up to their transgressions, especially criminals. Taking them at their word when they blame an outside “influence” legitimizes the idea that the crime isn’t their fault. Making laws based on such statements is even worse — it tells society that lawbreakers aren’t to blame for their own actions.

Is that what we really believe? If not, why do so many people support such laws?

Call of Duty: War game or propaganda tool?


Are video games making society more militaristic? One academic thinks so.

Did video games help Anders Breivik train for his terrorist attack in Norway? Victoria University lecturer John Martino says such questions are missing the point.

“What has not been addressed in the debate generated by violent military games is the role these games play in the process of ‘militarisation,'” Martino states in a CNET.au article published today.

In sum, he’s suggesting that the popularity and increasing realism of military-based games, particularly the best-selling Call of Duty franchise, is contributing to the “militarization of society.” But his article is riddled with errors and mistaken assumptions that leave his argument in the dust.

First, who is John Martino? His two most recent credits involve — you guessed it — looks at gaming and the militarization of culture, including “No Place for Noobs: Computer games and the Militarization of Youth Culture,” presented at the 6th Global Conference: Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace, and Science Fiction in Oxford in July 2011, and “Gaming and the Militarization of Youth Culture: Some Initial remarks,” presented at the IADIS International Conference ICT, Society and Human Beings in Rome, also in July 2011.

Martino starts off with Wolfenstein and Doom, which are good places to start, if you’re going to talk about military shooters. He talks about how the military modified the game to help train soldiers. Anyone who thinks you can learn how to navigate a real-life war scene by playing through Doom‘s blocky mazes and fighting its pixelated enemies is arguably suffering from loss of contact with reality.

Anyhow, from there he gets into the fact that Call of Duty developers have worked with military consultants to make sure gameplay elements are realistic. This is the same as bringing in consultants for a film, such as Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. Nobody would call the latter an effort to turn these films into “recruitment tools” — they would, in fact, be described as working toward historical accuracy.

Not Martino.

Such partnerships share the goal of working to enhance the training effectiveness of simulation technology.

Military shooters add to the already potent cultural tools that political systems have at their disposal for propaganda purposes.

Then, he stacks up his evidence that society is becoming more militarized:

1. “The commemoration of war (think Anzac Day) has become integral to our view of Australian history, and the place of Australia in the world.”

2. “Recent data published by the Stockholm International Peace Institute indicates that Australia is one of the largest military-spending nations in the world.”

These are his examples? Has he forgotten that much of the Western world has been engaged in some way with the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade? Has he forgotten that Australia is within striking distance of the unpredictable North Korea, and might have good reason to want to defend itself?

Martino leaves out obvious counter-examples, such as child soldiers in Africa or other countries where high-end video games aren’t readily available.

I find it much more plausible that the military is responsible for “militarizing” societies, and that kids who grow up in societies undergoing such change might seek military-style games as an outlet, and as a chance to safely explore their natural curiosity about what wartime is like.

Do you think he’s on to something? Are Call of Duty and other games making society more militarized? And, if so, is that a bad thing?

Oslo terrorist, World of Warcraft on trial in Norway


Norway terrorist Anders Breivik played a lot of World of Warcraft before his rampage, prosecutors say. But is that relevant?

The trial has begun for Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, accused of shooting and killing 77 people on Utoya Island last July after detonating a bomb in downtown Oslo. That means the trial on his favorite video games has also begun.

Last year, much was made of Breivik’s mention of Modern Warfare in his manifesto. Now, it has come to light that Breivik spent the entire year before his rampage living off his savings account and playing World of Warcraft as though it were a full-time job; prosecutors told the court that the extended gameplay was “a reward for his impending ‘martyrdom.'”

They also claimed that World of Warcraft is “a world of fantasy monsters, wizards, and knights performing violent ‘missions.'” You know, as if that had anything to do with the massacre of nearly 80 innocent people and the terrorization of thousands.

Fortunately, there are more reasoned voices out there (although it’s too bad they’re not in the courtroom). As Rollo Ross, a writer for the Huffington Post, puts it:

After playing one of these games for around five years (part time I might add), it is apparent to me that Breivik is not alone by any means in this passion. There is in my world alone a multitude of people, like Breivik, who have given up their normal reality to live within the game, but unlike Breivik, almost all are well-balanced people who can distinguish fantasy from reality.

There are over 10 million players globally on World of Warcraft, and I would suggest that around a fifth of them are full time players.

If these games really held this kind of negative influence over gamers’ psyches, the world would be awash with mass murderers.

Some will debate whether such full-time gameplay is a good idea (and Ross discusses who those players are — many of them unemployable, unemployed, and/or disabled), but that’s beside the point. While media outlets and naysayers will latch onto the video-game angle — for example, some Norwegian stores banned the sale of certain games after Breivik’s attack — the more germane question of Breivik’s mental state should be the focus.

Let’s take a look at his emotional responses from his time in court Monday:

Anders Breivik showed no emotion as a court read out gruesome details of the 77 people he murdered – but a 12 minute propaganda film outlining his beliefs caused the self-confessed killer to weep.

The 33-year-old was pictured wiping tears away from his face as the Oslo court were shown his film, which centres on Breivik’s belief that Western civilisation faces a threat from multiculturalism.

Is this the reaction of a sane, rational human being whose sense of compassion is fully developed? No. I’m no psychologist, but it looks to me much more like the reaction of a sociopath.

Sociopaths can seem like rational, everyday human beings, but at the root their moral compass is radically off-kilter. Their behavior can make us believe they are just like us. And that’s problematic, because it means when they commit horrific crimes, and we look for a motivation, we assume we’re looking for something so outrageous that it would drive us to kill. When nothing we come up with makes sense, we begin to grasp at straws, and that’s how explanations such as “it was the video games” can come into play.

So far, prosecutors don’t appear to be blaming Breivik’s rampage on WoW or any other video game. However, the fact that these games are being mentioned in the trial and in news coverage will suggest to readers that there is a connection. There isn’t. And the sooner we can clear such irrelevancies from the courtroom, the sooner we can begin to understand what makes mass killers like Breivik really tick.

Doom creator: “Violent games reduce aggression”


John Carmack, who helped develop the classic first-person shooter Doom, says video games like his make players less aggressive. Should we listen to him?

When John Carmack helped develop the first Doom video game, released in 1993, chances are good that he didn’t realize what its effect would be. The game became so popular in the mid-1990s — when it was played by an estimated 10 million people — that it is credited with turning the practice of playing video games from a nerd hobby into a semi-mainstream pastime. So many people enjoyed this early first-person shooter, with its immersive quality, its low-fi horror, its ability to leave you craving your next turn at the computer, that it was bound to offend someone.

It has been called, among other things, a “mass murder simulator,” despite the fact that the single mass murder connected with Doom — at Columbine High School in 1999 — seems more closely connected with the mental condition of the teens who pulled it off. In general, according to research by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, school shooters tend to be much less interested in video games than other boys their age, and much more prone to depression and attempted suicide.

And yet, in 2011, when Carmack claims that games like his are not progenitors of aggression, people still pause. After all, didn’t video games have something to do with Anders Breivik’s Norway rampage?

Here’s what Carmack told IndustryGamer:

“I really think, if anything, there is more evidence to show that the violent games reduce aggression and violence. There have actually been some studies about that, that it’s cathartic. If you go to QuakeCon and you walk by and you see the people there [and compare that to] a random cross section of a college campus, you’re probably going to find a more peaceful crowd of people at the gaming convention. I think it’s at worst neutral and potentially positive.”

I can hear you saying, “Of course he would say that. He helped create these kinds of games. He’s biased.” Yes, of course he’s biased. Probably most of the people involved in this topic are biased. To his credit, Carmack is closer to the gaming culture than most of the people who oppose violent video games are — and closer, even, to that culture than the researchers who claim such games are harmful. By “closer” I don’t mean he’s part of it, although he is. By “closer” I mean he sees it on a regular basis, the same way a waiter in a restaurant sees hundreds of people eat and knows that most of them don’t overeat, or get sick from their meals.

In the shouting about violent video games, it’s easy to forget that when you’re playing the game, you’re not usually just the protagonist, you’re the hero. In Doom, you’re a space marine whose job is to keep a demonic horde on Mars from attacking Earth after the rest of his regiment is killed by those demons. You’re saving your own planet, and all of mankind. That’s pretty heady stuff, no matter who you are.

As it happens, a new study reveals what many of us already know: people play video games to experiment with different roles. More specifically, to try on an idealized personality and see how it fits:

“A game can be more fun when you get the chance to act and be like your ideal self,” says Dr. Andy Przybylski, a research fellow at the University of Essex who led the study. “The attraction to playing video games and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role.”

Why do you play video games? Does the ability to play your “ideal self” appeal? Do you think Carmack is right about violent games’ influence? I’d love to hear your thoughts.