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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.