Violent games might be tasteless, but are they dangerous?

In defence of <i>Call Of Duty</i> and the rest.

Are violent video games ever to blame for acts of real-world violence? The question came up again in the wake of Anders Behring Breivik's terrible massacre, when it emerged that his rambling "manifesto" approvingly mentioned the Fallout series, BioShock 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, among others.

In response, the Scandinavian retail chain Coop Norden has temporarily removed 51 video games and war-themed toys from its shelves. For many in Norway right now, the association between virtual and actual violence is clear -- and upsetting.

That is understandable. Yet since the right-wing commentators who were also mentioned in Breivik's manifesto have been defending themselves vigorously from the idea of "guilt by association", it seems fair that someone should do the same for video games. And as it happens, I have played all three of these games, so if they're on trial here I'm happy to speak in their defence.

The Call of Duty series is the most troubling, as its violence takes place not in some distant dystopia but in the recent past of the cold war and the US's military adventures in the Middle East. The instalment that generated the most criticism on its release was Modern Warfare 2 (2009) -- specifically the "No Russian" level, in which you play an army ranger, Joseph Allen, working undercover among a Russian terrorist group. To test your loyalty, the Russians take you along with them to a massacre at a Moscow airport. You don't have to kill any civilians but the game gives you the option (you can also skip the whole level).

Yes, it's disturbing -- but that's part of the point. When you reach the end of the level, you realise why it's called "No Russian": the terrorists have been careful not to speak their native language, because they knew you were a spy all along.

Once the killing is done, they shoot you and throw your dog tags at you. The airport atrocity looks like a US act of war and so triggers a global conflict.

As a piece of drama, it hits hard; it's also an intrinsic part of a story about what men are prepared to do in the service of their country. You might still find the violence excessive or tasteless, but it is not mindless. Compare that to the gung-ho sadism celebrated in the television series 24.

Sports mad

As it happens, there are several computer games in which the violence is so gratuitous that I simply don't enjoy them -- the latest Mortal Kombat springs to mind -- but I feel we should keep the "taste and decency" argument separate from the one about real harm. The research on the second subject is mixed and often of dubious value. As the US Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia said in June: "Before video games came cheap novels depicting crime, motion pictures, comic books, television and music lyrics -- all of which were blamed by some for juvenile delinquency." Violent games make up a small proportion of the titles released -- 5 per cent -- though they sell well. Between 2003 and 2008, the Call of Duty series shifted 35 million copies and the latest instalment, Black Ops, made £223m on its first day of sale last November. With those kinds of statistics, it would be more surprising if some nasty people didn't play them.

There's a saying among scientists, however, that the plural of anecdote is not data. So how do you test for a causal link between violent games and real-life violence? The closest that most researchers can get is testing for physiological signs, such as a faster heart rate, or psychological reactions, such as increased feelings of aggression. Several studies have found that violent games cause this.

Case closed? Not quite. A Huddersfield University study has found that sports games cause a greater emotional surge than shooters. Why? "The player can identify with a real-life experience and call up those emotions and aggression more easily than in a situation they would not have encountered, such as killing an individual," the co-author Simon Goodson says. So if we were to ban anything, perhaps it should be losing at Wii Sports?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era