The Oslo Massacre and the danger of damning a medium

Tuesday, 17 April 2012 10:01 GMT By Julie Horup

The World of Warcraft habit of Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik was presented as initial evidence in his trial yesterday. Julie Horup examines the fallout amid media demonisation of games.

It was being argued that games present us with a carnival mirror of the world, where they expose us to abhorrent actions that certain individuals, such as Breivik, may emulate in reality, and this is exactly where the argument about violent games inciting violence becomes difficult. Games are not reality.

Anders Behring Breivik, who claimed to have used Modern Warfare 2 as a training aid in preparing for a bombing and killing spree of July 2011 which left 77 people dead, is currently on trial in Oslo. During an initial presentation by the prosecution on Breivik’s life prior to the shocking attacks, or Oslo Massacre, his year-long, full time World of Warcraft habit was mentioned, and an image of his character, Justicar Andersnordic, was shown.

Prosecutor Svein Holden said the character would be referred to later in the proceedings; Brievik is said to have smiled when the character was introduced.

The judge asked: “Is the game violent?”

The prosecutor took a few seconds, then answered: “It depends on how you look at it.”

In the wake of the trial’s first day, local media seized on the ever-popular “do violent games incite violence” debate. The perfect example of this was shown on national television in Denmark just ten hours after the trial began. A victim from Utøya, the small island on which most of the murders took place, said games obviously were the cause of the shooting spree, while a stereotypical gamer tried to explain to the journalist that BioShock (which, apparently, is 200-300 hours long and extremely gruesome) wasn’t going to turn him into an introverted maniac.

While this was happening, the Russian airport scene from Modern Warfare 2 was running in every frame.

Whether Breivik’s gaming habits are relevant to his later acts of violence is just new dressing on an ancient debate on whether violence in gaming can be dangerous and is therefore unacceptable, or whether it’s as artistically justified as it is in other media.

Carnival mirror

One of the older interviewees concluded that violent games aren’t good for us because of how they portray our world. He emotionally explained how his parents had been in a concentration camp during World War II, and how games needlessly remind our society about the violent horrors of war.

The TV show failed to credit gaming with one of its most promising properties as an artistic and communicative medium. While I understand the old man’s concerns, it’s normal for creative media to reflect the world in which we live. Atrocities are real – Breivik is certainly very real – and it’s inevitable that the entertainment media will talk about war. Not every depiction will please everybody.

I had family in concentration camps, too, and while I’m not exactly fond of Nazis, it wouldn’t matter to me whether or not they appear in a game. The virtual Nazis didn’t force my grandfather to push around his dead friends in wheelbarrows, dump them in mass graves and pour chlorine on their starved bodies to disguise the rotting smell when they decomposed: the real-life Nazis did.

It was being argued that games present us with a carnival mirror of the world, where they expose us to abhorrent actions that certain individuals, such as Breivik, may emulate in reality, and this is exactly where the argument about violent games inciting violence becomes difficult. Games are not reality. They can paint a picture of things we know and relate to, but, as with all media, it’s up to us to understand how the picture should be processed in our minds, and how it translates into our everyday life.

Acts of violence appear in books, films and other forms of media because they exist in the world. Games are simply another way of exploring certain inescapable themes (and like other fledgling creative forms, produce more and less successful examples).

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s easy to argue the importance of exploring themes of war and violence in creative forms. We shouldn’t be afraid of being positive about games despite their sometimes violent nature.

Violent games aren’t developed with the sole purpose of feeding minds with aggressive thoughts despite some tossers trying to convince us otherwise. At worst they’re just boring, expensive entertainment and at best gripping, memorable education. While they stand out compared to films and music because of their interactivity, they should be recognised for that, not discredited and misunderstood.

Anders Behring Breivik’s appalling acts last July should not damn an entire creative form. As the prosecutor said: it depends on how you look at it.

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