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.
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?