Copycat arguments

Claims that videogames such as Manhunt can provoke players to commit violence have been made many times before – but they remain unproven.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Politics

On 28 July 2004, 17-year-old Warren Leblanc pleaded guilty to the murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah in February. Giselle Pakeerah, mother of Stefan, pointed to the killer’s ‘obsession’ with the videogame Manhunt as the cause of her son’s death.

The following morning’s press reporting was predictably frenzied. For the Mirror, Warren Leblanc was an ‘Obsessed teen guilty of brutal copycat murder’. Stefan’s uncle Gary Broomes likened Manhunt to child pornography. The Daily Mail ran a two-page spread entitled ‘Trained to kill by computer game?’, and its front page was given over to ‘Murder by Playstation: horror images on computer drove teenager to kill his friend aged 14′ (1).

It is worth noting that the murder weapons were a knife and a claw hammer, rather than any computer game. It is also striking that much of the speculation about Playstation’s culpability was based on post-trial comments made by Stefan’s family, rather than hard evidence presented in court.

The electronic retailer Dixon’s has pulled the game from the shelves, and legal pressure on the game’s manufacturers Rockstar is increasing (2). Banned in New Zealand well prior to this week’s verdict in a Leicester courtroom, Manhunt now faces calls for a UK-wide ban, too.

If this gives you a sense of déjà vu it’s because we have been here before – both with computer games and with ‘video nasties’ (3). The papers and talk shows are working from an established script. Last year, the game Grand Theft Auto was in the same situation and it is still the subject of a lawsuit following shootings in Tennessee (4). Moral panics over videogames have been around almost as long as the gadgets themselves; only my strong work ethic stopped me from resubmitting a tweaked article entitled ‘Sonic the Scapegoat’ that I wrote in 1993, in response to this latest panic. All that has changed, it seems, are the games.

There are some basic problems in postulating a link between videogame violence and the real thing (and these problems hold for film and TV violence, too). Many of the experts discussing this topic proceed from category errors, and other pundits point to flawed research in an attempt to prove a link.

BBC Radio 5 Live brought in psychologist Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University to discuss how violent videogames can influence the behaviour of adolescents. According to the BBC, Griffiths ‘felt a link had already been proved between violence and videogames in children aged eight years or below but more study was needed into the long-term impact of bloodthirsty games on the behaviour of older children’. Griffiths himself claims that ‘research has shown those aged eight years or below do in the short-term re-enact or copy what they see on the screen’.

The focus on copying and re-enactment tells us little. First, only a small proportion of videogames are open to direct imitation by children: no kid can run at the speed of sound (Sonic the Hedgehog) or drive in Gran Tourismo-style when they switch off the console to play outside. So the kind of videogame-related playacting that will show up in research is that which is directly imitable (such as martial arts, stealth and stalk) and not the huge proportion of games relying entirely on fantasy, sports or operating vehicles. This creates an inbuilt majority of ‘violent’ games showing up when children play in an imitative style.

Secondly, even when imitation in play can be shown to occur, it is daft to treat real and imaginary violence as the same thing. As with the discussion of violent video films, context is often missing from the statistics. For example, the notorious three-figure death toll in the film Die Hard 2 was bandied about throughout 1990s controversies, with critics of Bruce Willis conveniently not mentioning that it was a pretend plane crash that accounted for most of the fictional fatalities.

Thirdly, there is a lack of convincing research to explain the Manhunt players who were not adversely affected by the game. In other words, somebody needs to account for the hours of bludgeoning and strangulation done by the vast majority of Playstation users with absolutely no behavioural consequences. Without this data, the widely cited ‘proof’ of ill effects elsewhere is meaningless. Personally, I have enjoyed killing literally every single ‘Covenant’ (alien) on Halo’s ‘assault on the control room’ mission, but have yet to kill someone in real life. They are not the same thing.

Fourthly, there is a crucial difference between cognitive and behavioural influences. Plenty of media have a cognitive influence – otherwise why would we bother with them? To varying degrees computer-mediated communications will certainly enter our consciousness. For example, most of us hope to go on holiday at some point, and the holiday advertising around us might influence this decision. But few of us are agonising over the choice of murder weapon to use, just waiting for a videogame to help us make our minds up. The evidence of games and videos influencing our thinking is pretty strong, expressed in the memories and conversations that researchers can elicit from their test subjects. The mistake is translating this information directly into predictions about our behaviour.

I have every sympathy for Stefan’s family, who live about a mile from where I grew up. I can only begin to imagine the shattering impact of the killing on local people. What I don’t like to see is their grief being hijacked by quack theories and dubious evidence. Neither should their grief give them a veto over the games industry and its products. While there is talk of bringing corporate manslaughter charges against Rockstar Games, commentators would no doubt be furious if Leblanc had used the same logic to obtain an acquittal. ‘It wasn’t me, your honour, it was the Playstation.’

How often do we sceptics have to repeat these points? Some games may even benefit from their notoriety. Back in 1993, I claimed that ‘the latest video nightmare scenarios were made in marketing heaven…when every columnist and news broadcaster is already telling your target audience that you’re the devil incarnate’. The Xbox and Playstation have superseded Sega consoles, but 11 years later we’re still having the same arguments. Let’s move to the next level.

Graham Barnfield lectures at the University of East London and blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox

(1) Manhunt game withdrawn by stores, BBC News, 29 July 2004

(2) Store withdraws violent video game, Guardian, 29 July 2004

(3) From one extreme to another, by Graham Barnfield

(4) Grand Theft Auto comes under fire, BBC News, 4 May 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today