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Videogames, aggression, Anders Breivik – let’s not join the dots

Playing violent games didn’t make Anders Breivik a mass-murderer. alessio.sartore

“Violent videogames cause people to become violent in real life”. It’s a familiar refrain for anyone who has read a newspaper in the last 15 years.

Today, the media reporting surrounding the trial of accused mass-murderer Anders Breivik has dusted off this old chestnut to explain a shooting spree and bomb attack that claimed the lives of 77 people in Oslo last year.

Breivik has testified that he used World of Warcraft and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to train for his attacks. He also testified to be a member of the anti-Muslim militant group Knights Templar and refused to recognise the authority of the federal court system.

The fact that videogames play no demonstrable part in Breivik’s (or any other) act of violence hasn’t stopped the media from creating and re-creating this narrative, even to the point that university media officers are picking up the chant.

The research shows what?

A University of Gothenburg press release about a new study is entitled Researchers questioning link between violent computer games and aggressiveness.

The release reports that the authors are “questioning the whole gaming and violence debate”. The study itself, published in the International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning is entitled How gamers manage aggression: Situating skills in collaborative computer games.

Taken together, these two titles might lead one to interpret the study in a similar vein to researchers Craig Anderson or Christopher Ferguson. That is, it would make sense to argue either that violent videogames do (Anderson) or do not (Ferguson) have a meaningful effect on players’ aggression levels in real life.

Instead, the research is actually a detailed study of how players of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) – such as World of Warcraft – cooperate to manage the attention of powerful, dangerous enemy characters (known as bosses). In MMO parlance, that attention is known as “aggro”.

The aggression being managed, then, is not that of the players, but of the computer-controlled enemies. How, then, is this research linked to the debate about media effects?

Hint: it’s not.

The ‘media effects’ narrative

As Dan Golding pointed out in an earlier article on The Conversation, the media only seem equipped to discuss videogames in three ways:

The press release announcing this new study, as well as coverage of Breivik’s trial by the Sydney Morning Herald, among others, falls right into the first category.

The notion of media effects and transfer (from medium to real-life) is perhaps as old as communications media themselves. Even Plato was wary of the power of the poet “because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason”.

Today’s “violence and videogames” narrative is well-worn. So much so that even a public relations officer at a university takes a study on videogames with the word “aggression” in its title to be examining a “link” between mediated depictions of violence and real-world aggression.

But the link to the media effects research such as Anderson and Ferguson’s is not entirely facetious: the Swedish team of researchers are in fact questioning the basis of the videogame violence debate; the “transfer” mentioned earlier.

Transfer, as the study points out, is a contentious construct of educational theory. It is, to quote from the article: “the appearance of a person carrying the product of learning from one task, problem, situation, or institution to another”. In this case, the “transfer” of aggression from videogames to real-life.

The authors of this study rightly point out that the nature of transfer is contentious, ill-defined, and rarely agreed upon. Thus, there are disagreements about how to empirically measure the effects of media on an audience.

But instead of pursuing this, the paper moves on to conduct a close study of [raid encounters]( (where numerous players attempt to take out a boss together), documenting the skills and knowledge used by players who cooperate successfully.

These skills include:

  • spatial awareness and the importance of positioning one’s avatar in the immediate geography around the boss before and during the fight
  • case-specific knowledge about additional enemies entering the fray and appropriate responses
  • reacting to other unexpected events during the fight, such as the death of a healer (a team member who’s role it is to heal fellow players).

The depth and precision of the details presented in this study are valuable and will certainly provide excellent reference material for future scholars who are researching and writing about MMO gameplay. But this study simply isn’t focused on violent videogames leading to aggression in the real world.

Overcoming the narrative

The aim of the study I’ve been discussing was, in fact, to take a step back from the debate entirely and avoid assuming the straightforward transfer of media, with regard to videogames.

The authors “approached collaborative gaming where aggression is represented as a practice to be studied on its own premises”.

To that end, the study is working around what media researcher James Paul Gee calls “the problem of content”. That is, looking past the representations of violence shown on screen and measuring what the human players are actually learning to do while playing the game.

In this case, players deploy very specific knowledge about the geography of terrain, the behaviour of bosses and the various skills their individual avatar possesses.

This study does not suggest that causing an avatar to swing a broadsword will incite the human player to do the same, or similar, the next time he or she steps out of the house for some milk.

Even though there’s no consensus on media effects nor the relationship between videogame and real-world violence, the international press still get completely lost in a frenzy as they pump out hysteria-filled headlines.

Gaming news outlet, Rock, Paper, Shotgun has called out a range of global outlets on their reporting of the Breivik case. Thankfully, publications such as these are interested in clarity and truth and refuse to allow the popular mythology of videogame violence to cloud basic reporting.

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