Tragedy struck Norway on Friday when a combination bombing/shooting killed over 70 people, making it the deadliest attack on Norwegian soil since World War II. Not much is known about the suspected shooter, 32 year-old Anders Behring Breivik, except that he is a political extremist, and a possible conspiracy theorist. This appeared to be another unfortunate side effect of living on a planet with over six billion people, some of whom are crazy. That is, until CNN reported that Breivik “trained” himself using Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That sound you’re hearing is all the gamers in the world bracing themselves for the media firestorm coming to blame their pastime for yet another act of violence. This hostility towards videogames from the media goes back a long way, but it started in earnest with the U.S. federal government.
In 1993 Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Wisconsin’s own Senator Herb Kohl held senate inquiries on the video game industry, specifically violent video games. The media latched on to the hearings, running story after story on the supposedly provable negative effects that these games have on children. Amongst all the grandstanding on the downfall of western civilization, the legitimate issue of the industry’s inadequate rating system emerged, prompting the creation of the ESRB. Satisfied with the system, the government, or at least the federal government, backed off the issue. However, the media, ignorant of the fact that the scientific studies they were using were either biased or faulty, never let it go.
Some media outlets, like Fox News and ABC, have been guilty of ignorance, running stories that anyone who actually played video games would know is not true. That sort of bad journalism tends to be about specific video games, not the whole industry, and will go away in time. Far more worrisome has been the coverage that has linked games to acts of violence. There was the attempt to tie Doom to the Columbine shootings, MSNBC’s Bob Arnot blaming flight simulators for 9/11, MSNBC blaming the Virginia Tech shooting on Counterstrike, CBS linking a cop killing to GTA, and countless others. This brings us to Friday and the events in Norway.
Brievik’s comments will almost certainly be picked up by the media at large, since the link between the shooting and Modern Warfare 2 was provided by Breivik himself. His claim that the game “trained” him will be portrayed as evidence of the mal-effects of video games, but if anything its evidence that Breivik is a nutcase. First, the connection between operating a controller and operating a machine gun is weak at best, and Breivik has been a “gun-nut” long before the game was released in 2009. Second, MW 2 is primarily about combat against armed enemies, which has nothing to do with what happened Friday. Third, the controversial “No Russian” mission in MW 2, where you can gun down civilians in Moscow airport, is tactically dissimilar to what he did. Lastly, Breivik set off a car bomb, which no game, MW 2 included, will show you how to make. Despite these facts, the media will parade Call of Duty as a culpable party, and Norway will likely pass an Australia style video game ban as a response.
The media blaming pop or youth culture for society’s ills is not new. Comic books in the 50’s, rock music in the 60’s, heavy metal in the 70’s, Dungeons and Dragons in the 80’s, and gangster rap in the 90’s all have been media scapegoats. What’s different about video games is that it’s not a fad, a trend, or something that can be easily defended. Video games are a medium, and it will probably never fade from the media’s crosshairs. The industry has to learn not to send someone like Geoff Keighley to defend them every time a supposedly reputable source misrepresents one of their products. Also, gamers must realize that it doesn’t matter how many Fallouts, Heavy Rains or L.A. Noires the medium produces, as long as games like Postal, Duke Nukem, and Bulletstorm are released the industry will need defense. If game companies don’t start preemptively protecting themselves from the media’s accusations, laws like the one California tried to pass won’t get overturned, and the industry will suffer damage in may never be able to repair.