What do the mass murderers of the 21st century have in common? It seems they all love to play violent video games. At his trial Anders Breivik told the court how he had used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to familiarize himself with the use of holographic sights and develop ‘target acquisition.’
According to Breivik, the faux-warrior who regarded the killing of teenagers at a summer camp as a military operation, the game ‘consists of many hundreds of different tasks and some of these tasks can be compared with an attack, for real. That’s why it’s used by many armies throughout the world. It’s very good for acquiring experience related to sights systems.’
Breivik, like the ‘Batman’ cinema killer James Holmes, was a devotee of the fantasy wargame World of Warcraft, which he once claimed to have played for 16 hours a day for the best part of a year. Hizia Miriam, the wife of the Toulouse spree killer Mohammed Merah, has also described how she and her husband were big fans of Call of Duty, and often played it together.
Now Peter Wlazuk, a plumber who worked in the house of the Newtown killer Adam Lanza has told The Sun how Lanza and his brother spent hours in a windowless basement playing Call of Duty and other military video games. According to Wlazuk,
‘The boys were fans of the military. They had posters all over the wall in the basement. They had one poster of every piece of military equipment the US ever made. It was a huge poster with every tank every made. The kids could tell you about guns they had never seen from the 40s, 50s and 60s.’
Such behavior has generated media speculation over the supposed ability of these ‘bloodthirsty’ video games to transform people into murderous zombies. Thus Connecticut Senator Joe Leiberman has declared in response to the Newtown massacre:
‘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.’
Personally I find such arguments somewhat reductive. On the one hand they attribute a kind of demonic agency to video games which ignores the fact that millions of people play them without becoming murderers.
At the same time the headshaking speculation about the violence ‘in our entertainment culture’ tends to overlook the broader overlap between virtual and real world violence which permeates contemporary culture – and American culture in particular.
This overlap has become an intrinsic component of the ‘military-industrial-entertainment’ complex, with its increasingly symbiotic relationship between the games industry and the US military, in which games such as Call of Duty borrow from ‘real’ war environments in their imagery and scenarios. In an article in the Washington Examiner the robotics expert Pete Singer described Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II as
‘the new video game phenomenon in which the player fights in contemporary conflict zones. As part of a US special operations team, the player roams everywhere from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, winning hearts and minds with a mix of machine pistols and Predator drone strikes. ‘
For its part the US military uses game imagery in the simulations and virtual combat environments used to train its soldiers. Such games are also regarded by the Pentagon as highly-effective recruitment tools, so much so that the military has created its own free online game America’s Army to attract video gamers to make the leap from the virtual to the real.
According to Singer, Call of Duty has been a particularly useful point of contact between the youth and the military. He quotes a 2008 study by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that ’30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.’
Singer also describes a meeting with a US Air Force colonel, who claimed that video gamers often made excellent ‘drone’ pilots, though the same colonel noted that ‘The video game generation is worse at distorting the reality of it [war] from the virtual nature. They don’t have that sense of what really going on.’
Not much doubt about that. Take the anonymous correspondent who posted the following question on Yahoo! Answers:
‘ Well, I’m 18 years old and was thinking about enlisting in the US Army because I’m really good at call of duty. I always get like 30 killstreaks (tactical nuke) and do really good with certein weapons people on the game tell me to join the army all the time so I’m thinking about it. I guess if I’m good at this game I will be good being in like Irack [sic] right? It’s like the same thing right?’
For some people the answer is, like, yes. Such as the Apache helicopter pilots in the Wikileaks video who attacked a group of Iraqi civilians on 12 July 2007, killing up to 25 civilians, including 2 Reuters journalists.
For these pilots, the lives they took had no more significance than the computer-generated imagery generated by video games. Such detachment is a natural corollary of high-tech 21st century warfare, in which ‘the enemy’ is increasingly reduced to a cursor or a distant target on a computer screen.
These targets might consist of ‘terrorists’ in Gaza…
‘Militants’ killed by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Pakistan…
Or the fantasy war environments of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4:
There’s a powerful and revealing profile of American ‘drone’ pilots in Der Spiegel, which provides some unusual glimpses into the impact of such warfare on the men and women who engage in it. One former pilot named Brandon Bryant remembers the first time he fired a missile and killed two men:
‘ As Bryant looked on, he could see a third man in mortal agony. The man’s leg was missing and he was holding his hands over the stump as his warm blood flowed onto the ground — for two long minutes. He cried on his way home, says Bryant, and he called his mother.”I felt disconnected from humanity for almost a week,” he says, sitting in his favorite coffee shop in Missoula, where the smell of cinnamon and butter wafts in the air.’
To his surprise, Bryant found that the distance of remote-controlled killing actually humanised his targets and brought him inadvertently into a kind of morbid proximity to them. The Spiegel reporter describes how he looked at Afghanistan through his computer screen and found it reminded him of his native Montana.
‘He saw people cultivating their fields, boys playing soccer and men hugging their wives and children. When it got dark, Bryant switched to the infrared camera. Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one,” he recalls. “I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.’
Such empathy is unusual, and from the point of those ‘higher up in the chain of command’, not particularly desirable. In the high-tech wars of the 21st century, the distance from the target is intended to make warfare a voyeuristic activity for the people who fight these wars and the public that watches and consumes them.
The result is a constant blurring between virtual and ‘real’ war, between war-as-news and war-as-entertainment, which has transformed violence and killing into an object of everyday consumption, not only through military-driven video games, but through dazzling ‘Shock n’ Awe’ news clips of aerial bombings, pilots video footage of silently exploding buildings, Youtube atrocity videos, and soldiers’ mobile phone photos of dead Iraqis.
‘Bloodthirsty’ video games might provide fantasy dress rehearsals or ‘training’ for killing for men who are already predisposed to such actions. Some may take false comfort from the notion that banning video games will prevent further crimes like Newtown.
But the pain-free, recreational killing of such games is essentially a symptom rather than a cause, of a wider dehumanising process that is far more pervasive and widespread than we are prepared to recognize. Its a process that belongs as much a part to the ‘normal’ reality that we all inhabit as it does to the darkened basements where disturbed young men sit staring at screens and dreaming of perfect, cathartic killing.