Games don’t kill people – but gamers sometimes do.
The latest example being Anders Breivik, who claims in his manifesto to have used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as a way to train himself for the massacre which caused the deaths of 76 people. He describes himself as a hardcore gamer who, before embarking on a career as a terrorist, devoted a year of his life to playing World of Warcraft.
These are the details which are currently bubbling up through the media. It has become a familiar ritual in the aftermath of these cases. The initial shock and horror is followed by an attempt to make sense of a seemingly senseless act. The killer’s past life is analysed and dissected in a search for a reason. What made him do it?
As the typical profile of a lone gunman is a socially isolated male, aged between 18 and 35; it’s not surprising that many of them have also been gamers – and the games they play tend to involve running around shooting people.
With Anders Breivik you don’t have to look far. His 1,500 page manifesto goes into exhaustive detail about his preparations for the Oslo attacks; planned over the course of seven years. It is often hard to separate fantasy and reality in Breivik’s writing; much of which is a self-aggrandising attempt to sell himself as a terrorist martyr. But the descriptions of his day-to-day activities are convincing; mainly because they are so mundane.
In an entry dated February, 2010 he states:
I just bought Modern Warfare 2, the game. It is probably the best military simulator out there and it’s one of the hottest games this year. I played MW1 as well but I didn’t really like it as I’m generally more the fantasy RPG kind of person – Dragon Age Origins etc .and not so much into first person shooters. I see MW2 more as a part of my training-simulation than anything else. I’ve still learned to love it though and especially the multiplayer part is amazing. You can more or less completely simulate actual operations.
Later entries in the manifesto seem to confirm that Modern Warfare 2 was not typical of the games he liked to play. He talks elsewhere about World of Warcraft, Dragon Age 2, Fallout: New Vegas and Bioshock 2; all of these are set in fantasy worlds and, in gaming terms, are not particularly bloody or violent.
When you look at Breivik’s overall behaviour during the years leading up to the attacks, the influence of Modern Warfare 2 appears to be negligible. He saw it as an interesting tool – a neat distraction – but he certainly didn’t need it. The preparations for his killing spree were being played out in his head.
The role-playing and simulation he indulged in did not require a PC or console – just a brisk walk. During the years of preparation for the attack he maintained a daily ritual:
I simulate/meditate while I go for a walk, playing my Ipod in my neighbourhood. This consists of a daily 40 minute walk while at the same time philosophising ideologically/performing self indoctrination and the mental simulation of the operation while listening to motivational and inspiring music. I simulate various future scenarios relating to resistance efforts, confrontations with police, future interrogation scenarios, future court appearances, future media interviews etc.
To put it in less grandiose terms; each day he would walk around and fantasise about killing people. He gives an insight into these daydreams when he describes a track from an Age of Conan soundtrack which he finds particularly inspiring:
You hear this song as you push forward to annihilate one of their flanks, head shotting two of your foes in bloody fervor trying to survive. This angelic voice sings to you from the heavens, strengthening your resolve in a hopeless battle. Your last desperate thrust kills another two of your enemies. But it isn’t enough as you are now completely surrounded; your time is now. This voice is all you hear as your light turns to darkness and you enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
So if Modern Warfare 2 was an influence on Breivik then so was walking; so was chintzy soundtrack music. They are all just fragments of a life dedicated towards an end goal of committing mass-murder. Everything he did during these preceding years can be seen as part of the process. Despite a burst of enthusiasm for Modern Warfare 2 his overall use of games appears to have been more as a way to escape from the obsessive and nihilistic world he had created for himself.
But while games do not appear to have affected Breivik’s actions, you can see a more general influence which expresses itself, not in what he believes, but in the way he chooses to express it. His writing often feels more like an instruction manual for a game than a terrorist manifesto. There are rules to learn, ranks to “level-up” through, scenarios to complete and medals to unlock.
These are gaming conventions he would be intimately familiar with. In his manifesto he says that at the age of 25 he “took a year off” to play World of Warcraft, which he describes as having been a life ambition. Interestingly, both of the characters he would play as appear to have been female.
He claims to have used World of Warcraft as a tool to detach himself from his old life, which he refers to as ‘the game’, and to prepare himself for the ‘coming operation’. You could speculate that having rejected one “game” – the real world – he set about replacing it with another of his own making. And that his manifesto can be viewed as a design document for a game in which Breivik casts himself as the all-conquering hero – a one-man-army.
There are definitely elements of this to be found. He creates a convoluted honours system to award followers who kill specific combinations of enemies or enemy buildings. These mimic the style of game achievements – with the player rewarded for carrying out mini-tasks.
The gamer influence can also be found in his descriptions of terrorist operations. He discusses these in the manner of a World of Warcraft raid – analysing stats and gauging the risk of success or failure. This is how he describes one scenario:
I know there is a 80%+ chance I am going to die during the operation as I have no intention to surrender to them until I have completed all three primary objectives AND the bonus mission. When I initiate (providing I haven’t been apprehended before then), there is a 70% chance that I will complete the first objective, 40% for the second, 20% for the third and less than 5% chance that I will be able to complete the bonus mission.
These examples of “gamification” can be found throughout. Everything is neatly ranked and categorised: the effectiveness of weapons, the hostility of nations, the power of steroids.
So did Breivik view this massacre as some kind of a level in a game? Probably not. You could say his background as a gamer flavoured the way he expressed himself but there is nothing to suggest it had any impact on his actions or beliefs.
What it does highlight, however, is the danger of searching for meaning in the aftermath of incidents like this. It would be comforting to think games were to blame. It would allow us to make sense of what happened and to takes steps to prevent it from happening again.
But in truth, you could use Breivik’s sprawling manifesto to create an infinite number of similar narratives about different aspects of his life: family relations, trance music, steroids, religion, graffiti, politics, the online community, sexuality, Freemasonry or even his needle-work (Breivik took pride in hand stitching his customised body armour).
And none of them could adequately explain how an individual is able to murder 76 people in such a cold and calculating way. But then…maybe he is just nuts.
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