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Airport Massacre Revisited: How “No Russian” Might Have Influenced a Killer

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

When I first read John Sutter’s CNN article detailing how Anders Behring Breivik used Modern Warfare 2 to train himself to kill 77 people in Norway last year I thought “here we go again.” We could now lump this with countless other reports and studies linking video games to violence.  As a game scholar, I know that the results of previous studies on game violence and its effects on players have been very mixed.  As a former soldier, I know that shooting a weapon in a game in no way prepares you for firing the real thing.   By the time I finished the article and read some of the comments, I had already filed it into the nonsense folder.

But then I realized the article missed something.

This is not about how to fire a weapon.  That involves aiming, breathing, and trigger squeeze.  Neither a mouse nor a controller can teach you to do any of those.  Nor can a game in any way provide the feel of actually killing another person.  But what it can do in a superficial way is simulate a sense of control when killing many people.  In this case, only Modern Warfare 2 could do that. Had the news report mentioned any other game, I would not have given it a second thought. But MW2 is unique among modern shooters for one reason: “No Russian.”

Modern Warfare 2 is one of the games I used in my dissertation.  Specifically I used the now infamous “No Russian” scene where your character is deep undercover and forced to participate in the massacre at a Russian airport and I used it because it caused so much controversy.  I spent a lot of time analyzing that scene and what I found is that if nothing else, those few minutes allow the player to listen to the panic of “people” fleeing for their lives.  In “No Russian” you can gun down dozens of people in a few short minutes.  You can even watch the wounded crawl away.  Some cower in fear in various corners while others lie dead in pools of blood. MW2 is the only game I know of where your character enters a closed environment with scores of people and systematically guns them down as they try to run, help wounded bystanders, and try to hide behind shelves and columns.

So I ask you: if you planned to commit a massacre, what better game and scene to use? Not Grand Theft Auto.  The NPCs in that game can get away as they have open streets to run through.  However the airport is a closed space.  The people can only run so far.  And they never, ever get away. Worse still, another CNN article states that Breivik planned to film the killings on his iPhone.  Had he done that, it would have been from a first person perspective, just like MW2.

Anders Behring Breivik. Photo via DailyCaller.com

Of course I don’t know the motivation behind his thinking, but I can imagine him playing that one scene time and again and listening to the screams of people trying to live. Now most of the people in my study dismissed the terror of the “massacre” as simply graphic fiction, something that had no bearing at all on their feelings about violence or their sense of identity.  However there were some gamers who would not play that scene because it felt real. And this is the catch: if games are not real and the people we “kill” are not real, then why are some of us bothered by what we do in the game world?

Perhaps to Breivik the idea of cornering helpless people in an enclosed space and killing all of them was the ideal preparation for the real thing as he methodically killed 77 people.  I can’t say, but it troubles me to think about him comparing the deaths of game characters to real people.  What I do know is that it is a mistake to dismiss violent games because they are games.  Obviously most gamers can play shooters and function perfectly in the real world. Other realize that games do affect them and stay away from the violent ones.  However there is the third group, small in number, who we should pay attention to when they demonstrate that violent games influence them.

Not that any of this is the fault of Infinity Ward or Activision, the makers of MW2.  Ultimately how we use and react to our media is up to us. There is a reason Infinity Ward gave players the option to skip “No Russian.” However I doubt MW2 was the only reason Anders Behring Breivik committed mass murder. I do think, however, that the airport scene allowed him visualize how his real-life victims might react.

This is certainly not the end of the video game violence debate.  Our medium has the unique distinction of allowing consumers to interact with the virtual environment and because of that many think the influence is greater than the passive media of television and film.  What the research has revealed is that still more research is needed.  Yet this case and this particular game show us that we should pay closer attention to the most graphic examples of violence that while extreme, should not define our medium to those who do not play video games.

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The Human Condition

I’ve come across a lot of research that states how games must evolve in order to grow into true entertainment media (read: art).  In writing my dissertation, I cam across a series of videos about game design.  This one speaks about storytelling in games. Note: All the videos in this series are informative, funny, and all are right on point with their messages.

I wrote last time that games are on the cusp of becoming art.  And I do realize that “art” is subjective to say the least.  Well in order to be considered art, a game must effectively address the human condition.  We need to care about the characters and what happens to them.  This applies not only the main character, or the person I play in the game, but also to the non-playable characters (NPCs).  A good example of this concept can be found (almost) in Mass Effect 2.

As many gamers know, in ME 2, you can either import your character from ME1 or you can create your own hero. Your character, Commander Shepard, can be male or female.  You can also select one of three back stories for your hero. As you play through the game, you choose if your character will align with paragon (good) or renegade (evil) actions.  There are benefits to leaning one way and not straddling the middle.  I find I have become quite attached to Karen Shepard thanks to multiple trips through the two games.

In addition, in ME2 you have to recruit a team for a suicide mission.  However each person you add to your team has issues and so you soon find that need to criss-cross the galaxy on “loyalty missions” so that each teammate will not be distracted when final mission starts.

These missions reveal a lot about each character, and depending on what choices you make, can also lead to that character’s death at the end of the game.  Of course one of the purposes of these missions is to get you to care about each character. For example, your first officer, Miranda Lawson, must rescue her younger sister from her estranged father’s agents.  During the mission, we learn a lot about Miranda’s motivation for kidnapping/rescuing her sister years ago and the relationship she has with her father.  However a single loyalty mission is not quite enough to make me really care about her death, if that should happen.

Rather what needs to happen, and what developer BioWare is usually good at, it getting different NPCs to interact with each other during the mission.  The world of Mass Effect is so large that players spend a great deal of time moving from place to place, sometimes in combat, sometimes in exploration. For each mission, you take two team mates along for companionship and to aid in combat.  There are brief periods where your team mates will speak on different subjects.  These however are great places to have extended conversations about things both great and small. The problem with this is that with the different combinations of teammates available, hundreds of lines of dialogue would have to be recorded for the multiple pairings if the writers wanted players to get to know these people better.  That is a difficult, though not impossible task.  BioWare has shown it is willing to go to extra lengths to inserts as many lines of dialogue as possible.  Game developers need to realize that it is in those stolen moments that real characterization emerges.  While ME 2 makes a good effort, more is needed.  Unlike movies, where the viewer can experience everything, the branching nature of the role-playing genre means that players will never encounter some places and scenes.  That’s okay.  There has to be enough there so that I feel like I can’t wait to get to the game to see what happens to Karen, Miranda, and the others.  Once developers can combine that human condition with high production, good voice talent, a superb script and memorable game play, then we researchers and critics will be in a better position to say, yes, this game is art.