Monday, 21 May 2012


Labour MP Keith Vaz has tabled an early day motion calling for more stringent government controls on violent video games. In the motion, he mentions Anders Breivik who shot and killed 69 people in Norway last year and who claimed to have prepared for the attack by playing Call of Duty.

In 2010, Vaz called for clearer rating of violent games after a shooting in Sweden when the game Counter-Strike was implicated and last year he tabled a motion about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and claimed similarities between game scenes set in the London Underground and terrorist bombings in 2005.

Martin Robbins has neatly demolished Vaz's so-called evidence in his Guardian article.

But Vaz isn't doing anything new. In earlier times, whenever something terrible happened, the devil or other supernatural malignancies were blamed. This lead to all sorts of consequences, from throwing salt over your left shoulder to burning 'witches'.

Some people still blame the devil and there are still exorcisms, sometimes of children, sometimes with fatal consequences. Those of us who consider ourselves more secular and enlightened now often blame technology for the evils of society. I wrote here about social networking destroying the fabric of society, causing a loss of empathy, the destruction of the English language and even suicide - and here about how the internet 'causes' depression.

What all of these accusations have in common is that they place the blame on something outside of ourselves, something Other. No normal human could possibly do something so terrible without some outside influence. We saw the same reasoning (for want of a better word) when the media was full of stories about satanic child abuse. We like our photos of Breivik to look sinister and evil.

We like to think that we are mostly well-behaved animals. We may rob a bank, lie to our nearest and dearest or even stab someone in a pub while watching football on TV. These are considered within the comprehensible parameters of human behaviour. But when there is a large-scale horror or something truly 'inhumane', then we look for an external agency.

Everything humans do is part of human nature, even the actions that revolt or frighten us. Human behaviour doesn't just cover the nobler acts, or even the criminal but understandable ones. If a human does it, it is a human act, not an inhuman or inhumane one.

Not everyone is capable of doing what Breivik did. The problem is that we don't know if we are or not, we fear there may be something lurking within us like a hidden cancer that might one day reveal itself. Some people do terrible things. They may be people we know or people we're related to. They may even be us. There will always be acts that apparently come out of nowhere, too close to home for comfort, that we can't neatly ascribe a cause to. This causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, so we displace our anxieties onto the Other, whether that is a supernatural malign influence or technology - which is something most of us don't really understand and many of us are anxious about even though it was invented by humans.

We also fear threats to our society (real or imagined), which is where some of the internet scares come from, as well as our responses to terrorist activities. We like things to stay comfortably the same but they never do so rather than accept that change is part of life, we blame something or someone for forcing it on us. That could be a change to our society or, just as frightening, a change in the way we think about what it means to be human.

When he blames Call of Duty, Vaz is no different from a Mediaeval peasant blaming the evil eye for making his crops fail. The evil eye could be warded off, games can be banned or heavily regulated, giving an illusion of control and understanding.

Blaming outside agencies or freaks of nature is comforting but we need to grow up and put the comfort blanket aside. If we do blame games for violent actions and suppress or heavily regulate them, then the next time there is an atrocity, we'll have to come up with some other cause, some other thumb-sucking excuse.

I wrote about other aspects of passing the buck onto 'evil' here.


  1. Well, yes and no. To say that inhumane acts are just part of innate human behaviour is not the whole story. If that were true, then the level of violent crime in all countries would be the same. It's not. There must be external factors that increase the likelihood of people becoming violent. Given that we are (at least in part) influenced by societal norms, then it's not completely bonkers to question the effects of the media, and entertainment like computer games. I don't think it helps to dismiss that question as being comparable to saying "it's the work of the devil!". The problem is whether there is any conclusive evidence. And there isn't.

  2. The difference between supernatural (the Devil) and technology (Violent games etc) is that technology has a defined and obvious model of violence to imitate; it can be seen in the game and its influence might be measured in activity and thoughts of the person influenced (alledgedly) - the Devil is just a made up invisible being that is blamed for all kinds of stuff, without any evidence whatsoever.

    Your assertion that people demonize whatever is currently 'wicked' is true however, so your main point is correct. We do look for things, outside influences etc to place some blame onto, but I wonder if there is something in that inate reaction that is based in unconscious 'reason'? We would naturally look for a cause of random violence, if it meant preventing its reoccurrence - actions not entirely based on logic, but more on reflexive action. That is why we put criminals in prison, to punish the obvious demon.

    I have read somewhere that societies that encourage self-seeking attitudes are more likely to foster sociopathic/psychopathic behaviour. This suggests that the cultural norm, or background level of acceptable behaviour, allows for more extreme behaviours along that spectrum - the natural braking effect of compassion and kindness are diminished in those societies.

    Of course, a nutter will do nutty things, even if they've never seen anything harsher than Bambi - but the nutter may state that watching certain games helped to formulate their violent actions. I suggest that nutters will simply use whatever is 'out there' to justify or to avoid blame for their actions. I have no real idea if violent games make children more violent or not. Boys will always play violent make-believe because boys become men, and men are evolved to compete with each other, usually in a violent way. It is in our nature to kill and to maim anything that threatens our position or resources. That is why we have wars. Brievik was a random bad thing. Wars are acted out by entire nations who send their soldiers to do what Brievik did, and to get medals for it. The violent games are simply models of reality - they are make-believe warfare. So I say that we are putting the cart before the horse - its the warfare that is wrong for influencing the games manufacturers, if that is indeed wrong. D

  3. There are of course external factors - it's always a mixture of nature and nurture, even if the two can be hard to disentangle. It can be argued that innate human behaviour has a component evolved to be influenced by external factors - being influenced is part of our nature.

    It's the lack of evidence that is key -Martin R deals with this in his article, which is why I didn't go into it. I wasn't dismissing the question, just the answers.

    Although games are different from the devil, there was a complex and extensive demonology as a guide to 'diagnosing' possession and supernatural activity, along with much oral tradition, so there was a model of sorts, both for the accused and the accuser. And, like the accusations made against technology, this model was based on fabricated evidence.

    It may well be that there were similar acts of mass violence to Breivik's in the more recent past that we didn't hear about before technology made news instant and international. It would be interesting to know if these happened in say the 19th century, what they were blamed on.

  4. Going back to Norse legend and Mythology, it was considered a holy and blessed state to be a Beserker. This is where a warrior would go into an uncontrolled frenzy and be able to kill more enemies. We still have 'Warrior Worship' as an integral and unquestioned part of our culture, or almost any culture. I am as guilty of it as anyone, and we all feel a sense of intense pride when hear tell of past military glories. It's just a part of being human and therE is a part of all of us that is Brievik - except we mostly don't act it out, other than in rare fantasies that we may try to suppress, only to have them emerge in dreams or idle fantasy. Realistic games are very graphic and not for the faint hearted. I have played 'COD3 Modern Warfare' with my lads, and was surprised at their seeming lack of compassion for the 'targets'. After some time I soon got used to it and just found it entertaining, and eventually boring. I have not been plagued by voices in my head or toyed with fantasies of mass murder, I haven't scoured the interweb for info on bomb-making or posted insane rhetoric on extreme political social network sites. I still drink tea and walk the dog and wash my car occasionally. Am I a freak? D

  5. I disagree that everyone feels intense pride about past military glories. They're of historical interest and I respect the sacrifice made by people who fought to keep us free of invaders but that's as far as it goes.

    I don't think we all have a part that is Breivik either. We may at some time imagine killing someone but that is generally because of some personal connection - it's an emotional response to someone who has hurt us or our loved ones rather than a calculated mass attack on strangers for (warped) political reasons. And we're generally not proud of that instinct.

  6. OK. I overegged my point and now it looks as though I meant we are all wannabe gun toting crazies. Not what I meant, but that's my fault for being unclear :-) but you have stated it more concisely

    As for feeling pride in past military glory - I was really talking about a boyish enthusiasm for stories of derring-do backs-to-the-wall type of dramatic history. People like to identify with a National narrative that confirms a feeling of moral superiority, against all the odds and against a 'worthwhile enemy'. It's not meant to stand up to close scrutiny and analytical critique because it is just an unthinking emotional response, an entertainment. Hollywood makes serious bucks out of exploiting it, and politicians harness it en masse to stir up mob support for often immoral foriegn adventures..