Tag Archives: call of duty

Oslo Mass Killer: ‘Prison Is Torture; Give Me Video Games Or I’ll Go On A Hunger Strike’

Anders Breivik, the man serving prison time for killing 77 people in a Norway killing spree in 2011, contacted prison authorities in November, claiming he’s being held in torturous conditions and that he will go on a hunger strike if those conditions aren’t improved.

Among his demands are better conditions for his daily walk, the right to communicate more freely with people outside the prison, and for the prison to upgrade his PlayStation 2 console to a PlayStation 3, “with access to more adult games that I get to choose myself.” He also wants a more comfortable sofa or armchair instead of the “painful” chair he has now.

He wrote:

“Other inmates have access to adult games while I only have the right to play less interesting kids games. One example is ‘Rayman Revolution’, a game aimed at three year olds.”

This is, of course, controversial because of the large role video games played in the story of his arrest, trial and conviction. Although he claimed that Call of Duty served as his training program and World of Warcraft consumed many hours of his days, he also recommended in his manifesto that aspiring mass killers claim they’re playing lots of video games while they’re actually plotting their killing sprees. It’s also quite clear that Breivik’s rampage was the result of his disordered mental state — a condition certainly reinforced by some of his latest demands, although probably a better walk and more comfortable chair isn’t unreasonable. But these comments pretty much seal it:

“You’ve put me in hell … and I won’t manage to survive that long. You are killing me,” he wrote to prison authorities in November, threatening a hunger strike and further right-wing extremist violence. “If I die, all of Europe’s right-wing extremists will know exactly who it was that tortured me to death … That could have consequences for certain individuals in the short term but also when Norway is once again ruled by a fascist regime in 13 to 40 years from now,” he warned, calling himself a “political prisoner”.

In some prisons, prisoners are indeed allowed video games. along with exercise, books, and so on. But content is often limited — books that contain criminal activity, for example, or instructions on bomb-making, aren’t generally allowed. That said, if Breivik is going to remain in prison, in solitary confinement, for the next two decades, I fail to see the harm in letting him play video games. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that he’s there to be punished and not entertained. On the other hand, no amount of prison time, however boring it is, is likely to reform him or make him regret what he did. He’s likely always going to find a way to make this into a story about how he’s being held as a political prisoner whose message was unfairly silenced by authorities.

Aaron Alexis, PTSD, mass shootings, mental illness and video games: the real call of duty

AARON-ALEXIS_2674463b

As more details emerge about Aaron Alexis, the gunman in yesterday’s Washington D.C. navy yard shooting that left 13 people — including Alexis — dead, many news outlets have been focusing on claims that he played violent video games “obsessively,” up to 16 hours a day. This is according to friends, who said he had a habit of playing Call of Duty for long hours. Some have connected this detail to claims that Adam Lanza and Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty at length.

But here’s the thing about the Call of Duty franchise: just eight of its games have sold 124 million units. While some of those sales were probably to the same people, it drives home the point that this is a best-selling game title. And when more than half of Americans play video games, that’s a whole lot of people playing Call of Duty. If it were going to lead players to commit mass shootings, we’d be seeing many more of them than we are.

(I was interviewed this morning on KGO Radio by Ronn Owens on this topic; follow this link to hear his program on Alexis’ interest in video games. I come in around the 19:50 mark.)

And here’s the thing about Alexis: it appears that he had been suffering from mental illness for more than a decade. His symptoms started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which he was a first responder. He was hearing voices as recently as six weeks ago. He “carried a .45 handgun tucked in his trousers with no holster ‘everywhere he went’ because he believed people would try to steal his belongings,” the Telegraph reported. I’m not a psychologist, but it’s clear there was much more going on with Alexis than his love of a good first-person shooter, and even when police were confronted with signs of his paranoia and delusions, they said “No further action was required.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that a man like Alexis, who was clearly trying to make a peaceful life in service of others, and who was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness, couldn’t and didn’t get help. It’s heartbreaking to think that because he — like Lanza, Breivik, Holmes, Loughner, Harris, Klebold and so many others — slipped through the cracks somehow, 13 more are dead.

Jayne Gackenbach’s research suggests that soldiers and servicemen like Alexis who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder actually fare better when they play games like Call of Duty; such games reduce the number of nightmares they experience. Maybe the problem, at the end of the day, is that Alexis didn’t play enough video games; maybe he just couldn’t get the nightmares to stop, no matter what he tried.

I want to stress that while many suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness, most of the time it doesn’t make people violent, either. But we need to know more about the nexus between psychological and neurological issues and the compulsion to commit mass violence. Culturally, it’s beyond time for us to destigmatize mental illness and amp up our mental-health resources so people like Alexis can get help before things get out of hand. Otherwise, these elaborate forms of suicide will continue unabated.

Violent games didn’t cause Sandy Hook shooting


Did Call of Duty make Adam Lanza kill? Not likely.

I don’t know if this seems fishy to anyone else, but over the weekend, politicians and the press began speculating that violent video games must have had something to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. For example, you had Connecticut’s own senator, Joe Lieberman, saying things like, “Very often these young men have an almost hypnotic involvement in some form of violence in our entertainment culture – particularly violent video games. And then they obtain guns and become not just troubled young men but mass murderers.”

That’s not the fishy part. Well, okay it is, but it gets fishier: a few days later, the UK’s oh-so-reputable Sun unearthed a plumber who swears that shooter Adam Lanza played Call of Duty for hours every day. I don’t even know where to start.

It’s hard to imagine how a plumber could have a good window into someone’s behavior over time, unless for some reason he lived in the Lanza home. So there’s that.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lanza did play the game. Then there’s the fact that more than 55 million people play Call of Duty. Sure, Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty. I bet both Anders Breivik and Adam Lanza also ate toast, or wore pants, or saw The Sound of Music. In other words, this is a pastime so common that it can’t be linked to any particular sort of behavior. All sorts of people play Call of Duty. It has wide, massive appeal. One or two of them is potentially going to go off the deep end in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Their gaming habits aren’t relevant.

This week, the Internet has been awash with writeups arguing that video games did — or didn’t — lend a hand in the Sandy Hook shooting. I’m not going to go through them exhaustively, but you can check them out on the Backward Messages Pinterest boards. I do want to call two pieces of news and commentary to your attention.

In the first, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has introduced a bill to study the impact of violent video games on children. What a complete waste of taxpayer money. We’ve had dozens, even hundreds of studies — and even those that suggest a correlation between violent video games and aggression a) cannot prove that games lead to actual violence, b) only rarely show any verifiable link at all, and c) can’t prove whether it’s players’ need for an aggressive outlet which draw them to the games, rather than the games leading to aggression. Visit this blog’s video-games category to see articles on many of these studies.

In the second, the Washington Post looked at video games and gun violence in 10 countries and found, basically, “that countries where video games are popular also tend to be some of the world’s safest (probably because these countries are stable and developed, not because they have video games). And we also have learned, once again, that America’s rate of firearm-related homicides is extremely high for the developed world.”

A decade ago, studies showed that mass shooters tended to be kids who played video games less than average. Now that pretty much everyone plays a video game now and then — much more so than 10 or 20 years ago — it’s probably safe to say that these killers do play. But again, gaming is now so common that it’s akin to watching television or blockbuster movies; you just can’t say that engaging in it will lead to any specific outcome. And you can’t use one violent act to justify taking games away from the millions and millions of people who enjoy them safely.

In fact, it’s likely that Lanza enjoyed them safely, too. It’s likely that his gaming had nothing to do with his crime. It’s also likely that something in his mind went awry, and the fact that his mom trained him to shoot gunsnot the fact that he’d played a shooter video game — gave him the means to act on his brain’s break with reality.

Can’t we make up our minds about video games?


Video games are bad for kids. No, wait, they’re not. Who’s right? Photo by Flickr user sean dreilinger.

It’s 2012, and video games have been with us for almost 40 years. Kids of all ages have been playing them for that entire time. If video games were going to cause massive changes in the behavior or psychology of young gamers, we’d know about it by now.

And yet there are large chunks of society that cling tightly to the idea that video games — violent video games in particular — are bad for kids. Take, for example, a recent article on Wired.com that asks, “Do Violent Video Games Make Kids More Violent?” In it, GeekMom writer Andrea Schwalm writes about appearing on Al Jazeera’s The Stream on the topic of kids and gaming. The show focused, specifically, on Call of Duty: Black Ops II, of which she writes:

While my teenaged sons do play some M-rated games (currently, Halo 4 and Dishonored are in heavy weekend rotation), I wasn’t familiar with the Call of Duty franchise. After watching some YouTube clips of the game online, I wondered, “Is this how foreign countries think American children spend all of their free time?”

And yet, as the host of The Stream pointed out, the truth is, the game sold $500 million in its’ first 24 hours, was a trending topic on Twitter, and is played by children. If you look at the incarceration rates in America, it seems a legitimate question: does the ubiquity of video game violence beget real-life violence?

This is the kind of ridiculous logic that sends so many people down the wrong rabbit hole. The main problem here is, she doesn’t explain who is being incarcerated — if she took a look, she would realize it isn’t kids. America’s hefty incarceration rate, in large part, is due to the massive “War on Drugs” as well as the disproportionate number of minorities being jailed; it isn’t gamer teens winding up behind bars.

Fortunately, she turns to Doug Gentile. Now, I haven’t agreed with Gentile much on this site, but there are moments where I think he’s on the right track, moments where he puts his findings in broader context, and I’m glad to see at least one mom listening:

The only way that anyone does something seriously violent is if they have multiple risk factors and limited protective factors for violent behavior, and thankfully most of our children have a great many protective factors, can consume a lot of violent video games, and still never do anything violent.

Slightly more logical is a recent Kotaku piece from Phil Owen, which asks, “Do Video Games Make Depression Worse?” Owen also turns to Gentile who, after conducting a study on just that topic — and finding evidence that video games were indeed somehow making his test subjects’ depression worse — actually argued that it’s more complex than his results would suggest:

“I don’t really think [the depression] is following. I think it’s truly comorbid. … As you get more depressed you retreat more into games, which doesn’t help, because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. It doesn’t help your depression, so your depression gets worse, so you play more games, so your depression gets worse, etc. It becomes a negative spiral.”

Still, we can’t listen to the All-Doug-Gentile-All-The-Time Channel, can we? Thankfully, we also have the International Society for Research on Aggression releasing studies that show exposure to violent media increases the risk of aggressive behavior. (Oh, wait, Gentile is on the commission.)

This is one of those times when researchers look at the existing research and cobble it together to come up with some kind of meta-finding. The problem is, most of the research to date has been slanted in the negative direction — that is, it finds some relationship between violent video games and youth aggression, but that’s because it’s what society and researchers wanted to find, and because the research showing no such links — or showing violent games’ upsides — is just beginning to catch up.

IRSA chair Craig Anderson said, “Having such a clear statement by an unbiased, international scientific group should be very helpful to a number of child advocacy groups.” But any group that includes Anderson and Gentile — whose work overwhelmingly supports the violent-game/aggression theory — can’t be called “unbiased.” Sorry, guys.

So why is all this attention focused on video games? Has the sexuality and violence vanished from blockbuster movies, television shows, or young-adult fiction? Hardly. But for some reason, there’s little to no research — or public furor — focused on those old-hat forms of entertainment. Dan Houser, cofounder of Rockstar Games (home of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, among others), recently took note of video games’ pariah status in a recent Guardian interview highlighted on Kotaku:

“We never felt that we were being attacked for the content, we were being attacked for the medium, which felt a little unfair. If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie, people wouldn’t have blinked an eye.”

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Plenty of people see the good in violent video games, or at least the harmlessness.

If violent video games — first-person shooters, say — are such lousy influences, then how are they capable of engendering sympathy? Jens Stober, a game designer and PhD student in Germany, is developing a video game in which players can assume the roles of Australian border guards or foreign refugees. Stober has written other border-centered games, such as “1378,” in which players can assume the roles of border guards or refugees fleeing East German communists. In that game, the guards can shoot fugitives, which earned Stober death threats.

But, as with many games, it’s all in the eye of the beholder:

[Stober] claims [the games] actually penalise players for shooting, and that the main aim is to educate people about political issues using game mechanics.

“You can have a gun, you can use it, but if you use it you will lose points and lose the game,” he says.

The players who are refugees must cooperate to evade the border guards while the guards try to arrest them. Along the way, the game dishes out educational factoids designed to provoke deeper thought about the issues.

Another recent article, by Brian Hampel for Kansas State University’s The Collegian, makes quite a different case for violent video games and society as a whole: he argues that our media is so violent because, well, we just like violence: “Popular culture isn’t a thermostat that dictates our tastes and trends; it’s a thermometer that shows us tastes and trends that already exist in the cultural zeitgeist,” he writes.

But his conclusions come quite close to things I’ve said at Backward Messages before, so I’d like to close with them:

It turns out that the real [culprits] behind youth violence are depression, delinquent peer association and negative relationships with adults. Who would have guessed?

You wouldn’t know it from watching news networks’ coverage of school shootings, but it’s true. Not only is violence not caused by the media, but it’s also in decline. I guess it’s easy to get the impression that we’re violent by watching the news, which could very well be the most violent medium of all.

In Ridgeway death, “goth” is scapegoated again


Sensationalist media have had a field day with Austin Reed Sigg, Jessica Ridgeway’s alleged 17-year-old killer.

Is Austin Reed Sigg a goth who was infatuated with death? Did he hang out in the “goth corner” with the “metal heads” at school? Was he a Nazi wizard (whatever that is)? Did he play World of Warcraft and Call of Duty?

Over the past week, plenty of news has come out about the demise of 10-year-old Colorado girl Jessica Ridgeway and the 17-year-old boy who led police to human remains, which were underneath his house. He has allegedly confessed to killing her, and a prosecuting attorney has said there is DNA evidence against him.

It’s almost funny how many different tropes the media have tried to pin on Sigg: goth culture, heavy metal, violent video games.

Did Sigg do it?

If so, what would his choice of clothing, school hang-out spot, video games, music, or even speculation about a cross found at a crime scene have to do with it?

Whether or not Sigg committed this horrible crime is for the court to decide, and let’s hope that he has a fair trial, with competent people working both sides of the case and a jury that is capable of setting aside its biases. And let’s also hope that, if Sigg did kill Ridgeway, that he gets more than locked in a hole for life, because a 17-year-old (or anyone) who commits such a crime needs help, not isolation and abuse.

I say that because while I was away, I was lucky enough to see a press screening of West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s new documentary about the West Memphis Three. It is such a stark, vivid reminder of what happened to Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley, who were jailed for 18 years on charges of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas. Their case has some of the same hallmarks as Sigg’s: a gruesome crime against a child, a community hungry for justice, a teenage boy whose interests are less-than-socially-acceptable; a confession. Yes, there are differences, particularly the fact that Sigg turned himself in, had body parts under his house, and the DNA evidence (if the prosecuting attorney can be trusted); there was no such thing as DNA evidence when the WM3 were convicted, and there’s now ample DNA evidence that they were not involved.

Still, my point is that mistakes can be made this early in the game — mistakes that can send the wrong person to jail for a long time, while the killer may walk free.

My point is that a community starved for a scapegoat will sometimes land on whoever’s most convenient, particularly if he looks different or just never fit in. If something seemed “off” about him. There’s a big difference between someone who makes you uneasy and someone who’s guilty of murdering a child. One is a personal feeling. The other is for a judge and jury to decide.

My point is that calling this kid a goth doesn’t make him any more guilty than he may already be. Calling him a “Nazi wizard” doesn’t, either. All it does is imply that somehow the simple act of being a goth, or even a neo-Nazi, means you might as well be a murderer. And that’s an awful thing to say about a group of people, no matter how you feel about their beliefs.

Goths, understandably, are concerned. In that forum, “CallaWolf” said, “This, to me, almost felt like scapegoating. I wear all black on almost a daily basis (and as I’m writing this, I’m actually wearing a Slayer shirt), and while I do not know any fellow goths outside of this site, I still kinda consider myself a part of it in one way or another, but the very idea of doing these things is apalling to me.”

“Nephele” said, “This happens periodically: The news media confusing sociopaths with goths.”

And CanCanKant said:

Even if the perpetrator does consider themselves a goth, I don’t necessarily think that it was his “gothic” tendencies that caused him to commit heinous crimes. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met that are goth are very cerebral, calm, introspective types. Hardly the kind to do anything harmful to another human being, especially on this scale.

It’s the tendency of the general public to equate dark, or especially black, clothing, band paraphenalia, tattoos and piercings with the word “goth” that causes this confusion. So many music and art related subcultures use these things, but not all of them would be considered goth. You notice how it’s used to shock. It’s quite sad.

Studies find violent games boost pain tolerance, and in-game cooperation nixes aggression


Do first-person shooters boost gamers’ pain tolerance? One study says yes.

In universities nationwide, researchers are still prodding the effects of video games on human players. Do games make us violent or agressive? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do they have positive effects? How do they influence us? How long do those influences last after we set down the controller and walk away?

At Keele University, researchers Richard Stephens and Claire Allsop had 40 volunteers play first-person shooter video games, and then studied their pain thresholds afterward. The volunteers also played a non-violent game for comparison. After both games, the players stuck their hands in ice-cold water (ow). The volunteers were able to keep their hands in the cold water 65% longer after playing the FPS than after playing the nonviolent game.

Their explanation?

The increased pain tolerance and heart rate can be attributed to the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, which can activate descending pain inhibitory pathways in the brain reducing sensitivity to pain.

Hmm. Stephens and Allsop have also studied how swearing affects subject’s pain tolerance — and apparently tossing out a few cuss words also makes a plunge in icewater more tolerable.

Although some news reports are saying the FPS findings show video games have positive benefits, I’d like to add a few caveats: one, this is a very small study, and may or may not be a study of people who play FPS games regularly. Two, there’s nothing that says higher pain tolerance is better than lower pain tolerance. There are times you might want it (while in labor, for example — can you imagine birthing women playing Call of Duty during contractions?) and there are times you might want extra sensitivity.

That said, there’s nothing saying that triggering the fight-or-flight response in the safe confines of video-game make-believe is good or bad, either. It causes a certain physiological response, but that response is not lasting. What we could perhaps use is larger studies on how much of the time gamers spend in that fight-or-flight mode, and the long-term affects on their health.

Two studies at Ohio State University recently examined how cooperative modes in violent video games affected gamers. In one study, researchers David Ewoldsen and John Velez had 119 college students play Halo II with a partner. In some of the groups, the students competed with their partner, while in others, the pair cooperated. Afterwards, the players engaged in a real-life “tit for tat” scenario to see how they would react to competitive or cooperative behavior from their partner — and found that those who cooperated in the game were more likely to cooperate in reality, too.

In their second trial, Ewoldsen and Velez had 80 Ohio State students play video games with people wearing t-shirts from University of Michigan, Ohio’s rival university. The pairs played Unreal Tournament — some as rivals, and some as cooperative teams. Afterwards, real-life tests revealed that the cooperative players were more likely to be cooperative away from the games, while rival players were less cooperative.

Velez said:

“You’re still being very aggressive, you’re still killing people in the game – but when you cooperate, that overrides any of the negative effects of the extreme aggression.”

Again, these are small and limited studies of young people, and we don’t know whether they are regular gamers or folks who have never seen Halo II or Unreal Tournament before in their lives. Gender and ethnicity may also be factors.

Of course, seeing these studies side by side, I wonder if the cooperative players in the Ohio State research showed the same fight-or-flight response and increased pain tolerance seen in the Keele study.

Despite the limitations, it’s clear that video games’ affect on players is complex — as complex as any other activity humans enjoy. If we’re going to keep studying this, we need bigger, more longitudinal, more comprehensive studies that reject the biases of the past and seek neutral explanations and analyses of this popular pastime.

Video games: educational, or crime-sparking? Informed & uninformed voices in the debate


As teachers look for ways to bring video games into the classroom, a law-enforcement leader says they’re making teens get stabby.

Many people look at the hours that kids spend playing video games and worry about them wasting their time. Others, such as seventh-grade teacher Joel Bonasera, look at those hours and see an opportunity to harness kids’ passion and teach them something.

Apparently Bonasera was, at first, surprised to find that a girl in her class liked killing bad guys in Call of Duty as much as the boys do. That made him realize the pervasive lure of gaming in his kids’ lives. Although he recognized he couldn’t bring a first-person shooter into the classroom, he did discover another popular game around which he could create lesson plans: Minecraft.

As the name suggests, Minecraft offers players the opportunity to build things — houses, fortresses, gardens — using 3D cubes. You also dig for minerals. For many players, it’s creative, fun, and a little bit addictive. So, Bonasera sits his students down in front of the game…

And then he builds a lesson around the game.

“While you’re doing it, just write your thoughts down over here about what you’re doing. Okay, next week let’s plan out what you’re going to do and show the mathematical reason behind that. Okay, the week after that, let’s make a full blown blueprint.”

Other teachers are finding ways to tie video games into their lessons — connecting the hero’s journey in World of Warcraft to a reading of Tolkein’s book The Hobbit, for example.

Meanwhile, in Australia, at least one law-enforcement officer believes video games are to blame for an increase in teen knife violence.

New South Wales’ Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said recently that he believes young people are being desensitized by playing video games for hours. He didn’t specify which video games — or whether knife fighting was involved in them.

He said he had reached the conclusion that there was “nothing more potentially damaging than the sort of violence they’re being exposed to, be it in movies, be it in console games they’re playing.”

“You get rewarded for killing people, raping women, stealing money from prostitutes, driving cars crashing and killing people.

“That’s not going to affect the vast majority but it’s only got to affect one or two and what have you got? You’ve got some potentially really disturbed young person out there who’s got access to weapons like knives or is good with the fist, can go out there and almost live that life now in the streets of modern Australia. That’s concerning.”

However, what concerns me is something he says toward the end of the article:

“We grab them off the streets, children 14-13, who are drunk that we come across in the city in the Cross and in Oxford St.

“We ring parents and say ‘little Johnny’s down here, you better come in and get him’. And parents don’t even care. They say ‘he got there and can get his way back’.”

So he really thinks that video-game violence is inspiring these kids more than the treatment they’re receiving from their parents? Now, I’m certain we’re both generalizing: Scipione probably doesn’t receive that response from every parent of a kid who’s drunk and fighting. Nor is every parent who responds that way necessarily nonchalant or uncaring. At some point when kids act out, parents often would rather see them face police consequences, and maybe that’s what these parents are doing. However, this comment suggests frayed relationships between kids and parents, and that’s something much more likely to spark juvenile crime than blowing off some steam in a video game. In fact, kids with access to video games would probably be less likely to stab someone.

It’s true that with video games, they’re not all good or all bad. There can be video games that make sense in the classroom, and other video games probably best suited for late nights with friends. You can’t say that just because they’re good enough for school, there’s no way a video game could inspire a bad idea. Many — probably most — video games teach people valuable skills. And, once in a while, someone plays one and winds up hurting someone in reality, whether that act was influenced by the game or not. Heck, there’s no saying Minecraft, cute as it is, couldn’t feed someone’s fury — if that someone was already in a furious place.

However, it’s worth pointing out the contrast in these perspectives, in part because Bonasera saw a way to harness kids’ love of video game and turn it into something powerful and educational. Scipione, on the other hand, saw a month-long blip in knife crime, didn’t know what could have caused it, and blamed it on gaming — without even knowing the perpetrators’ gaming habits. Whose perspective is more thoughtful and informed? Given that, which one seems more worth heeding?