Look at this. Look at these things.
Look at their little armbands!
Wheee! I made some little plasticine models whilst chilling in my hotel room this week. Thanks PMPY!
In 2012, the Times (paywalled) ran a headline that was, for want of a better word, false.
“Breivik played video games for a year to train for deadly attacks”. The Vancouver Sun ran:
“Anders Behrig Breivik trained on video games World of Warcraft, Call of Duty”. Both headlines are outstanding examples of the news media’s knee-jerk reaction to Breivik’s opening statement of his high profile trial. What the press has failed to report is the direct quote from the yet-to-be-proven psychopathic serial killer responsible for the calculated shooting-spree death of 77 Norwegian civilians in 2011.
“…Pure entertainment. It doesn’t have anything to do with July 11th”
Despite the above dismissive statement published in articles posted by CBSnews.com and independent.co.uk, similarly armed headlines and quotes were published worldwide.
“Anders Breivik ‘trained’ for shooting attacks by playing Call of Duty”- surprisingly, The Guardian.
“Admitted Norway killed Breivik says he trained on video games” – CNN.
Not only do sensationalist headlines like these stir opinion and controversy, they do so based on completely unfounded grounds. This authoritative approach to reporting what is a tragic event with strong blame aimed at video games re-opens familiar debates. Again, the reporting of video games’ correlation to violent events continues a tradition of sensationalism and hyperbole that has haunted videogames ever since more graphic and realistic games entered the home, notably Midway’s Mortal Kombat in 1992 and Sega’s Night Trap, 1993. It was these two titles which were mostly responsible for the enforcement of a ratings system, finally settling in 1994 on the ESRB (previously IDSA) system.
Later, in 1999 after the Columbine High School Massacre, headlines were similarly polluted with accusatory slasher headlines about the role of video games in the killers’ training and inspiration. Why does printed news media consistently take this angle with such conviction, and why does it sell papers? Why is there a contradiction between the press headlines, and Breivik’s dismissive statement?
This essay aims to discuss the examples and explore the motives behind these reports. It is important to note that the cited reports come from news media outlets outside of Norway. The examples presented sell a fantasy of children unable to make choices; to control themselves, and to ultimately lead the ‘misguided youth’ towards violent tragedy. They here focus on the chosen fantasy life of Breivik, an adult man whose choices were absurd and inconceivable, rather than focussing on his political conviction. Videogame violence was used as scapegoat, in reality a distraction from the real source of news. The essay discusses the importance of generation differences, and it’s role in the climate of news media surrounding video games.
Headlines linking some videogames to extremely violent acts causes fragmentation of the industry. It puts the world of gaming on the back foot, defending against extreme statements to avoid more issues with classification, as well as defending profits. In what, creatively, is still a fledgling industry, strong media reaction can perhaps be expected.
In ‘Dangerous Media? Panic Discourses and Dilemmas of Modernity’ (1999), Kirsten Drotner accurately describes how “The intense preoccupation with the latest media fad, immediately relegates older media to the shadows of acceptance”. History has shown news media’s adversity to film, literature and music with releases such as Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel ‘American Psycho’ and Kubrick’s film based on Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’. When that film was released in 1971, it was considered a landmark in the relaxation of control on violence in the cinema. This caused it to be withdrawn from British cinemas, and given an X rating, later censored to an R rating in America. Likewise, ‘American Psycho’ has a standing R rating, and was restricted from sale in Germany and Australia between 1995 and 2000. Headlines toyed with the idea that Salinger’s novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was to blame for influencing the shooting murder of John Lennon. For years it sparked debate around whether it was an appropriate novel for schoolchildren to study. What here is different is the blame on the entire medium of video games- the suggestion that playing video games leads to violence. Journalist Tim Cushing eloquently states the current situation during his 2012 article at techdirt.com:
“Trading on fear and ignorance to present gamers as automatons one flip of the switch away from a killing spree is still altogether too common. Not only is this representation insulting, it’s also blatantly false. Gaming is the fastest growing sector of the entertainment industry. As the number of gamers continues to swell, the likelihood of the next sensationally violent criminal also being a gamer increases as well.”
In the weeks after Breivik’s massacre, and in the first weeks of his trial, a mourning nation and empathetic world wanted an excuse; an explanation.
How could a man become twisted with such violence? Why did this happen?
With the suggestion of video games supplied by the news media, the old debates concerning immersion in violent videogames were reignited. Counter-argument articles spawned quickly online, for example- http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/20/us-breivik-gaming-idUSBRE83J0MH20120420 and debates raged across web-forums for example- http://www.reddit.com/r/truegaming/comments/shyec/examining_reddits_response_to_the_norway_killer/. Offline, however, the articles trickled through newspaper opinion pieces. They were commented on but eventually the counter-arguments and debates died away. What was consistent, however, was the blame on video games as a whole, rather than World of Warcraft or Modern Warfare as stand-alone titles. Likewise with the Columbine shootings, it was video games as a homogenous mass which took a large part of the brunt of the headlines, rather than the title Doom. This is seemingly unique, when compared to the controversies surrounding aforementioned book ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and film ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Perhaps as time progresses so too shall the entire medium of ‘games’ become broadly understood, as have ‘books’ and ‘films’.
The generation effect here is important. If books or films as a whole medium were to be blamed for certain violent acts, news media outlets would be mocked with a louder voice than those supporting video games today, by people of older generations. VG supporters tend to voice their opinions online, and out of the range of an older or less-inclined audience, but with time this is likely to evolve. Video Games are facing a period of projected trepidation in the news media partly because of this generation gap.
In 1992, Kirsten Drotner observed:
“Children and young people are prime objects of media panics not merely because they are often media pioneers; not merely because they challenge social and cultural power relations, nor because they symbolise ideological rifts. They are panic targets just as much because they inevitably represent experiences and emotions that are irrevocably lost to adults.”
Drotner’s quote is relevant today. It is, as Dmitri Williams in 2003 writes, consistent and compelling:
“One commonality has been that in each case, the technologies tapped into tensions particular to the era….Starting with film, each case lead to a major series of social science-based media studies to determine what effect the newfangled technology was having on the unsuspecting populace, most frequently on children (Lowery and DeFluer 1995). Video games were no different.”
Williams builds on research by Wartella and Reeves (1983, 1985) to suggest that media coverage of new technology occurs in ‘three waves’; The first is the emergence of fears based on the role the new medium is replacing. Ironically, this is often the use of a previously feared medium. The second wave represents doubts concerning the health effects. The VG links to obesity scare of the 2000s was a hot topic for debate, merged with fears of an antisocial pastime which supports the theory of the third wave, social ills. Fears that ‘children’ are not out having real relationships (is living in the world of Jane Austen out having real relationships?) were another trending third wave example.
By the time most of these qualms were being discussed on the news media’s stage, these ‘children’ were adults, and with their age came constructive rebuttal. Older gamers who were independently funding their gaming habits had arrived on the news scene and applied a mature, reasoned voice which had so far been unheard. A new era of sophisticated dealings with the relevance of ‘video games’ and sub categories was starting to emerge. The third wave in the model, social ills, still works but Williams believes that today there may be ‘wavelets’; something more specific, e.g. rather than “video games” it may be “virtual worlds” or “GTA” etc. He believes that media framing around games isn’t anywhere near as bad as it was before,
“…primarily due to the cohort/generation effect. Those who grew up with them are going to get more conservative as they age, but not as much as prior generations. Kids playing Atari and Nintendo are now 30-50 years old and don’t react like their parents and grandparents did.”
The next chapter of commonplace video game reporting may well revolve around the perceived or perhaps evident correlation between war simulation as entertainment and war simulation as training, and even combat. It seems to be the perfect candidate for news media’s projected fantasy. Emphasizing or even creating a link between preparation for combat and video games has already been made multiple times, producing the same environment of fear and doubt among readers. Or perhaps as William’s believes, the media as a result of generational gentrification will become more learned in their descriptions- instead pushing blame towards a sub-genre of video games, e.g. “virtual worlds” or “GTA”, and perhaps one day an acceptance of the medium.
In the Anders Breivik case, he was in fact playing action games leading up to the murders. It is important here to remember that this man is psychopathic, and this raises two conflicting ideas. The first is whether audiences can take anything Breivik has stated during his trial as evidence enough to support the points raised in this essay. His beliefs are that of personal fantasy, and his online persona is just that- fantasy. Some Norwegian stores pulled games COD and other violent titles in the months of the trial, demonstrating the most direct result of the furore, despite his mental state. The second is to remind oneself of the weight of Tim Cursing’s eloquent reflections- it is likely all future murderers will have played videogames considering playing videogames is now the cultural norm.