Can videogames teach you how to kill? More specifically, did they train Anders Breivik how to perpetrate the massacre on Utoya island? The media, who’ve spent the week breathlessly poring over Breivik’s court case, have been hyping the fact that he spent a lot of time playing Call of Duty and Warcraft. “Breivik played video games for a year to train for deadly attacks,” shrieked a Times headline. Even the normally moderate Guardian went with the headline “Anders Breivik 'trained' for shooting attacks by playing Call of Duty.”
Yet the mainstream press consistently failed dissect what Breivik was actually saying about his gaming habits, preferring to take the statements of a psychotic at face value to shoehorn in the “videogames are evil” narrative and boost their pageviews in the process. The fact is that the games Breivik played could have never trained him for the massacre and to claim otherwise is a distraction from the real issues at stake.
The time that Breivik spent playing World of Warcraft was, in his own words “a sabbatical year”. He felt that after working long hours on his failed business projects he deserved a break to fulfil a “dream” working on his manifesto and gaming all day. Many have taken this as evidence of Breivik’s social isolation. In a certain sense this is true, but it isn’t the full picture.
The year living with his mother and playing the fantasy game Warcraft upwards of 12 hours a day did serve to cut him off from the old life that he was soon to give up. The point that many commentators have missed is that Breivik developed a new social group in the online realm. Developing Breivik’s three characters to the highest levels in the game meant he spent countless hours questing, raiding and chatting to other players.
During his time Breivik even ended up becoming a guild leader, corralling players together to complete the hardest of the game’s challenges. His leadership skills were somewhat in question, he wanted the guild to move away from its casual roots and its members to dedicate more energy to questing. He rubbed a few people up the wrong way, but wasgenerally regarded as a valuable player, a good tactician, a better listener than he was a talker but generally “normal".
World of Warcraft is a sideshow in the Brevik trial. Warcraft is a fantasy game more akin to fast paced team chess set in a cartoonish middle earth and could have never prepared him for the killings. If anything it only served as a cover for Breivik to break his old social and emotional ties, giving him the time and space to plan his attacks. “Some people like to play golf, some like to sail, I played WOW. It had nothing to do with 22/7.”
As for Call of Duty, Breivik is rather more explicit in its role in his “training”, but even then manages to misrepresent what is actually possible in the game. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a first person shooter set in the present day, you play as a soldier running along a scripted set of corridors/streets/outdoor spaces gunning down reams of enemies. In this sense the game is disturbingly similar to Breivik’s actual killing spree. But to call it training really stretches the bounds of possibility.
Specifically Breivik says:“It's very good for acquiring experience related to [gun] sights systems.” Yes, the game does give a decent simulation of looking down a barrel of a gun, but it would be of little use in the real world. Breivik himself even admits that you could give a holographic sight “to your grandmother and she would have been a super marksman.” The point is that a gun is a pretty intuitive thing to use and “practicing” in a simulation as crude as Call of Duty isn’t going to teach you anything. Call of Duty also gives an excellent simulation of running and jumping but letting your still crawling infant play the game isn’t going to teach him how to walk.
Any tangible gains that Breivik might have gotten from the game are likely to be found in what he calls “target acquisition”. Training your mind to parse a target from your field of vision and focus on it. A twitchy, reaction-time based shooter like Call of Duty probably would give you some improvement in this skill, but joystick twiddling aim in the game simply doesn’t translate to handling a real life weapon. Call of Duty didn’t make Breivik a hardened commando, he was never anything more than a psychopath, with vastly overpowered weapons, killing unarmed children.
Videogames didn’t train Breivik to be a killer, he was a killer who played videogames. In the search for a scapegoat for the atrocity the mainstream look to the easy targets, something that they might be able to legislate against. The terrible truth is that you can’t legislate against the moral perversion (never mind mental illness) that Breivik clearly suffered from.
What actually trained Breivik for his shooting spree was quite obviously his time practicing with the actual weapons he used to commit the crime. What made him inclined towards killing was his sense of frustration, a dearth of right-wing propaganda and a clear mental imbalance. Videogames are such a small part of his story they don’t deserve to be brought up.
A fact far less publicised is that in his manifesto Breivik extensively quotes the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and Jeremy Clarkson. Saying videogames made him a killer is just as fatuous an argument as saying that reading the Mail or watching Top Gear is going to turn you into a killer too.