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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Video Games and Aggressive Behaviour: Anders Breivik and World of Warcraft

Thursday, April 19, 2012

There is naturally a great deal of interest surrounding the trial of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian responsible for the killing of 77 people in a nationalist terrorist attack. Currently, the media are reporting on his comments that he spent a year playing the online role playing game, World of Warcraft, for around 16 hours a day.

From the case of the Bulger killers who had obsessively watched violent horror videos, to teenagers in America who shot and killed two car drivers after playing the game Grand Theft Auto, the media has been quick to latch on to violent games and videos as a key factor in aggressive behaviour. No doubt, the same sorts of headlines will emerge in relation to the Breivik trial. Such reports offer a populist solution to a potentially complex problem, implying that these children or terrorists would have been normal people, were they not immersed in a violent media culture. Of course, this circumvents the fact that the Bulger or the GTA killers were watching and playing games and videos in family structures that did not regulate their behaviour, and that did not offer alternative sources of cultural enrichment that might put the games and videos into the wider moral framework that most of us possess, so that we can differentiate violent play from actions that are acceptable in the real world. 

Similarly, Breivik's game playing should hardly be seen as more serious than his engagement with right-wing websites or fascination with guns which pre-existed and followed his playing of World of Warcraft. Although prosecutors have latched onto the fact that he only wrote his manifesto after his year of obsessive game playing, he played the game during the year 2006-2007. Another five years elapsed between this, and putting any actions it inspired into practice - hardly suggestive of a direct causal link.

The fact that computer games are typically symptoms rather than causes of socially pathological behaviour is suggested by various studies of the links between gaming and aggressive behaviour. The most recent large-scale study that I am aware of looked at 135 participants. Half of these played Grand Theft Auto IV for 12 hours a day over a period of 3 weeks - thus not dissimilar to the intensive playing adopted by Breivik. The other half acted as a control group. When they were compared on measures of trait aggression, attitudes towards violence, and empathy, there was no relevant difference between either group. There was a small increase in pro-violent attitudes in the game-playing group.

It is worth acknowledging that of the 100 or so studies that have been done on gaming and aggression, the link has not always been so clearly dismissed. Looking at the more short-term effects of game-playing, for example, some studies have shown that it does increase aggression temporarily, in line with the effect of playing competitive physical sport. On the whole, though, the most recent meta-reviews are contradictory (compare this meta-review which did find a link, to this counter-example); this suggests that even if there is a link, it is not necessarily sufficiently strong to motivate extreme and widespread anti-social behaviour. 
Indeed, as Cheryl Olson has pointed out, gaming is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon (the games industry now grosses more than cinema) yet it has been accompanied by decreasing trends in youth violence over recent years.

Clearly, playing anything compulsively for 16 hours a day is not positive, and is indicative of an obsessive lack of rational perspective. Reading books, working, playing sport for this long might all contribute to a disrupted mind, whilst serving further to perpetuate the detachment from reality that must be necessary to carry out violent acts. The precise medium that is used - in this case, violent games - should not be mistaken for the message about the behaviour and pathology of the user that it sends out. 

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Posted by Alistair at 9:34 am


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