Can compulsive war games create killers?

Sat, Apr 21, 2012, 01:00

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik is drawing attention for the details of his gaming habit as well as for the scale of the killings he carried out

THE TRIAL OF Anders Behring Breivik has been filled with graphic accounts of his killing spree in Norway last July and troubling insights into his extremist beliefs, but one of the details that also attracted attention was the description of how he spent a year, from the summer of 2006, playing the computer game World of Warcraft for up to 16 hours a day.

World of Warcraft is the most popular “massively multiplayer online role-playing game”, an immersive swords-and-sorcery environment in which more than 10 million players take part in a continuous alternative reality. The game is effectively a fantasy-world social network for dedicated gamers, valued as much for the friends made as for the battles waged.

But those friendships go only so deep. One gamer, interviewed for this article, said a friend of his had played in the same guild as Breivik.

“He says Breivik had expressed racist views, but he did not stand out as being an insane extremist, didn’t seem like a religious fanatic,” says the player. “He blended into this group. They had no idea what his thoughts were; he didn’t ally himself with extremists. There is always the question they ask themselves: ‘Did I miss anything?’ I’m not going to say he’s blaming himself, but he’s questioning whether they missed something that could have alerted them to how dangerous he was. He would have talked to Breivik several times, they chatted; they were on raids [in the game] and would have been on conference call up to 12 hours a week. But nothing – he had a completely different persona in the game.”

The tendency to blame violent movies and video games for depraved acts goes back a long way, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Much research, including two recent longitudinal studies, have concluded that exposure to such content has no bearing on youth violence. And just last year the US supreme court repudiated the claim that violent video games were “harm-producing”.

That hasn’t stopped people seeking to draw conclusions from Breivik’s extreme gaming. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a sociologist at the University of Oslo, who is being called as a witness by Breivik’s defence, suggests that he “does not seem to be very successful in distinguishing between the virtual reality of World of Warcraft and other computer games and reality”.

But perhaps of wider concern than the cartoonish violence in World of Warcraft is the amount of time that extremely committed players put into online games. All video games are designed to be addictive, but a multiplayer role-playing game must prove addictive on a much larger scale than, for example, a console game: players pay a monthly subscription, so long-term playability is critical. Plus, there are the social effects of playing, both peer pressure to engage in lengthy “raids” and the network effect of wanting to maintain friendships.

One Irish former player, Seán O’Briain, felt he had to give up the game because of how time-consuming it was becoming. “I used to play the game for years, but I cut it out. I found it too addictive and time-consuming, really. You can play it for hours and hours and hours and not feel like you’ve been playing it that long. I know people who could play it for 24 hours solid, no problem.”

In recent years, clinics have opened in Europe and the US to treat video-game and internet addiction. These are so-called process addictions, in the same bracket as gambling or compulsive spending. The increasing market for professional counselling in this area is illustrative of the difficulties some people have in moderating their screen time. One Australian hypnotherapist has targeted World of Warcraft addicts, claiming he can cure their compulsive game-playing.

But those extreme cases should be kept in context. Rodolfo Rosini, chief executive of Namaste Entertainment, which is developing a multiplayer role-playing game, called StoryBricks, that allows players to design the game, sees it as part of a larger problem. “It boils down to how you architect the game. Whatever market you’re in, 1 per cent of your user base will abuse your product. In society, there is a certain proportion of people who are prone to compulsive behaviour: whatever you give them, they will abuse it. As a company, you should take responsibility, but it’s a balancing act.”

It turns out that Breivik was all too aware of how his compulsive game-playing was perceived by others. In his 1,800-page “manifesto”, he advises other extremists to use one of the games, or MMOs, as an alibi: “You will be amazed on [sic] how much you can do undetected while blaming this game,” he wrote. “It is usually considered ‘tabu’ or even shameful in our society today to be hooked on an MMO.”