Modern Warfare 2 has not made me a terrorist

The hysterical campaign against the greatest videogame ever made is based on outdated effects theories.

Shane O'Neill

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Last week, what many are describing as ‘the greatest videogame ever made’ was released. It sold five million copies in the US and the UK on the first day of sale, raking in a record £186million in 24 hours. It is an involving, intense and immensely playable game. Yet how have many politicians and pundits responded? By being curmudgeonly; by calling for the game to be banned; by suggesting that it will warp the minds of a generation and create an army of glazy-eyed, thumb-wagging terrorists who will commit violent acts in the real world.

Behold the latest violent videogame scare, with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 being held up as the destroyer of morality on a par with the kind of stuff produced by Joseph Goebbels.

The hysterical attacks on Modern Warfare 2 were led by the New Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz. He says he is ‘absolutely shocked at the level of violence in this game’. He is ‘particularly concerned about how realistic the game looks’. I was amazed by its realism, too – but in a good way.

Modern Warfare 2 is a whirlwind of a game, visually stunning and thrilling from beginning to end. You are a counterterrorist soldier and the action takes place five years in the future. The gamer carries out missions everywhere from Afghanistan to Washington DC. It is the most in-depth, absorbing game I have ever played. The map is seemingly infinite, the missions are tense and, yes, frequently scary, and you can even play online, allowing you to pit yourself against friends (and enemies) all over the globe, making Modern Warfare 2, not an isolating, brain-warping experience, but a form of collective play.

The bit of the game which has caused most uproar is a mission in which you must pretend to be a terrorist in order to infiltrate a terrorist gang. And in order not to blow your cover with your evil ‘friends’, you have to kill civilians. Perhaps some gamers will find this scene distressing, which is why Infinity Ward – makers of Modern Warfare 2 – have included a ‘skip option’ (though I don’t know anyone who has skipped it).

The Daily Telegraph describes the civilian-shooting scene as ‘harrowing, terrifying, despicable’. It can indeed be all of those things, which is what makes it so intense, but at no point does one forget that this is just a game. Just as I don’t play Grand Theft Auto and then go out driving a Ferrari on the pavement in order to knock down pimps and junkies, or play Tekken and then pop out to have a fight with a kangaroo in boxing gloves, so I didn’t play Modern Warfare 2 and think to myself: ‘I must somehow procure these kinds of guns and hand grenades and then use them against the civilian population in an airport.’

Vaz claims that his desire to restrict access to games like Modern Warfare 2 is ‘not about adult censorship, [it is] about protecting our children’. But access to the game is already restricted: it has been given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification, meaning that you have to be an ID-carrying adult to buy it. No doubt many children are playing the game, and, whether Vaz likes it or not, that means that an adult – a parent, an uncle or an older sibling – will have made the decision to buy the game for an under-18. Big deal. I would far more trust an adult within a family to judge whether a child is capable of playing Modern Warfare 2 than trust Keith Vaz to enforce blanket censorship in the name of ‘protecting children’. Vaz, and others, want to act in loco parentis. Under the cover of ‘concern for children’ they are really spreading suspicion about the decisions and actions of adults, the only people, after all, with the ability to purchase Modern Warfare 2.

The hysterical response to Modern Warfare 2 echoes the ‘video nasties’ moral panic of the 1980s, when there was outrage amongst religious groups and right-wing censors over the distribution of horror movies that depicted scenes of violence. Only today, videogames have replaced video nasties, and frequently it is liberal and ostensibly left-wing politicians rather than the religious right who demand censorship. One spokesperson for a Muslim community group even said on TV last week that Modern Warfare 2 was similar to the hateful entertainment promoted by Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany, in that it desensitises young people to hatred and violence. What nonsense.

Both the video nasties and videogames panic are based on outdated and discredited ‘media effects’ theories, the idea that media – what we watch, hear and play – has a potentially explosive impact on how we think and act. Effects theory has taken many forms over the decades, changing its focus and arguments every time it has been disproved and discredited. In 1920s America there was the ‘Hypodermic Needle Model’ – the idea that watching media directly injected thoughts into people’s minds. The audience was seen, in the words of one historian, as ‘passive, empty vessels’.

By the 1980s, such a crude view was unfashionable… but it had been replaced by the idea that a combination of dangerous media material and the viewers’ background, personality and ‘cultural context’ might generate violence. In other words, things should be banned or restricted in order to keep vulnerable people under control; everyone should be denied access to material in the name of preventing individuals in a certain ‘cultural context’ from going off the rails.

Supporters of effects theories now focus on violent videogames, arguing that the fact that young people actually take actions in relation to this violent media increases the chances of a detrimental ‘effect’. They often cite the academic study by the Americans Craig Anderson and Karen Dill, which claimed that ‘graphically violent videogames [increase] aggressive thoughts and behaviour’, because the games ‘reward violent behaviour’ and are ‘highly engaging’. However, some intelligent sceptics have pointed out the labs in which these experiments on young people’s responses to games were carried out ‘are not representative of real-life situations’. They also point out that the ‘exact contribution that videogames play in shaping children’s behaviour is virtually impossible to isolate when considered from broader intra-personal and environmental contexts’, and no study has shown any real, causal link between gameplaying and violence (1).

The truth is, rational human beings are not sponges that soak up information: we process stuff, we think about it, we put it into one part of our brain, and we know the difference between killing an avatar and killing a human being. A lab full of academics examining a youth’s every reaction to gameplay is about as far away from real-life gameplaying as you will ever get. Just as rock’n’roll was said to have warped a generation of Teddy boys, and punk was said to have destroyed a layer of British youth, and video nasties were said to have encouraged rape and murder (although there’s no pesky evidence for this), so today we’re told that shoot’em-up games might encourage young people to… well, shoot them up. Like Frankenstein’s monster, with new bits of cultural theory and flimsy evidence attached to its ageing and grotesque body, Effects Theory is stalking young people’s fun once again. I say, let’s turn our (imaginary) guns on these killjoys: Modern Warfare 2 is a masterpiece, and it will not give rise to warfare.

Shane O’Neill is a third-year Physics student at Imperial College London.

Watch the trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2:

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons wondered who was afraid of Manhunt 2? Graham Barnfield called for the Video Recordings Act of 1984 to be abolished. He also untangled the supposed links between videogames and violence. Tim Black wondered why the BBFC is so scared of arousal, and reckoned that it is scarier than The Dark Knight. Or read more at spiked issues Liberties and Free speech.

(1) Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics, J Springhall, Macmillan, 1998

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