When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was first released a few years back, I played it relentlessly for an entire weekend. After 48 solid hours, I was a little bit twitchy. In fact, when I finally managed to wrench myself from the me-shaped depression in the sofa to venture out into the real world, I found that my eyes were constantly darting towards all the high positions around me. The reason? I was checking for snipers.
Thankfully my local Tesco is light on snipers, and I was more likely to run into the path of a mobility scooter than an armoured vehicle packed with dead-eyed enemy combatants. But still, I skittered across the open space of the car park as if my life depended on it.
I later encountered a group of burly Russian men at the self-service tills who were scanning a random selection of items from their basket, which included 24 cans of premium strength lager, a bratwurst and Finding Nemo on DVD. Given that I’d spent so many hours in virtual combat against Russian Spetsnaz forces, it’s perhaps surprising that I didn’t suddenly snap and beat them all to death with their truncheon-like sausage, or attempt to waterboard them with the Munch Bunch yoghurt they were incongruously adding to their shopping bags.
But then again, it’s not really surprising at all. My brain was certainly tired after spending hour upon hour tearing around the war-torn virtual environments of Modern Warfare 2, but the experience hadn’t turned me into a violent killer. I could still separate the virtual from the real, right from wrong. My checking for snipers was more habit than a genuine belief that I was still inside the game and about to be ambushed. If anything, my lengthy gaming session had left me with nothing more than a heightened sense of awareness (and a t-shirt spattered with chicken Super Noodles).
The seemingly annual debate over whether violent computer games fuel aggressive behaviour twitched back into life last week. On Tuesday, 15-year-old Daniel Bartlam was jailed for a minimum of 16 years for murdering his mother with a claw hammer, before setting her on fire. And on Wednesday, a motion at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) annual conference called on ministers to introduce “stringent legislation” to counter the “negative effects some computer games are having on the very young”.
It’s been widely reported that Daniel Bartlam’s sickening crime was inspired by his “favourite” soap opera plot, which saw Coronation Street character John Stape bludgeon Charlotte Hoyle to death with a hammer before leaving her body in the wreckage of a tram crash in order to cover up his crime. The police said that Bartlam saw himself as “a murderous soap character” and they apparently discovered a montage of violent clips from a number of other soaps, including Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. He’d even written his own violent soap opera plot a few days earlier on his computer (a wonderfully cryptic tale about a character called ‘Daniel’ who murders his mother with a hammer and then sets fire to the family home).
Yet in spite of these details – and with several newspapers referring to Bartlam as the “Corrie copycat killer” – many reports were still keen to highlight the disturbing influence of violent video games. “Children as young as four are becoming addicted to the kind of violent computer games from which twisted teenage murderer Daniel Bartlam got his kicks,” warned an article in the Mirror (which you could only start reading once you’d scrolled past Bartlam’s police mug shot, with his doe-eyes, teenage cherry lips and expressionless face).
Of course! Video games are the problem here! They’re much worse than the early evening kill-fests that soap operas have become in the relentless pursuit of ratings – and much easier to create a moral panic about!
There’s a distinct lack of good news stories about video games. It’s always “violence” this and “aggression” that, and media-led calls for bans, boycotts and blame. If David Berkowitz had gone on his brutal killing spree today, blaming his murderous actions on his neighbour’s demonically possessed dog, Harvey, the press and mainstream media would probably call for a ban on the sale of Nintendogs.
But violence in soap operas, well, that’s just entertainment! Some might even call it healthy population control. Let’s face it, without the staggering amount of deaths from blunt force trauma ‘soap land’ would be hopelessly overpopulated. Characters have been dispatched with hammers, spades, crow bars, monkey wrenches, irons, doorstops, statuettes, ashtrays and picture frames (although there will always be a place in viewers’ hearts for good old-fashioned stabbings, shootings, beatings and maybe the odd hit-and-run). Not to mention the more creative attempted murders, like, say, burying your cheating husband alive or gassing your entire family.
If Eastenders’ Ethel Skinner was still alive today, doddering around Albert Square with her little Willy, it would only be a matter of time before she popped up in the Christmas Day episode to hurl a beaker of acid into the ruddy faces of some Walford carol singers. The scene would probably go on to win a British Soap Award for ‘Best Depiction of Random Violence Leading to the Horrific Disfigurement of Innocent Extras’.
During the trial of Daniel Bartlam, prosecutor Sean Smith said: “The boundaries between real life and fiction became very, very tragically blurred.” Not the boundaries between the virtual and the real, but the boundaries between real life and fiction. That distinction obviously doesn’t make Bartlam’s crime of parricide any less shocking and reprehensible, but it does make me wonder why the influence of video games has been a prominent talking point in some of the reporting on the case.
In a speech to the aforementioned Association of Teachers and Lecturers annual conference last week about the influence of video games, Alison Sherratt, a teacher at Riddlesden St Mary’s Church of England primary school in Keighley, West Yorkshire, said: “We all expect to see rough and tumble, but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting and thumping in the classroom for no particular reason.”
I grew up in a time before video games invented violence, but I still remember kids hitting, hurting and thumping each other for seemingly no reason. And as for the “graphic scenes” that kids are supposedly acting out in the playground – is that really all down to video games? When children pretend to “throw themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion” and act out blood “spurting from their bodies”, how do teachers know they’re acting out scenes from a violent video game and not the denouement of the latest ill-fated Eastenders, Emmerdale or Coronation Street love triangle?
Alison Sherratt also said: “Obesity, social exclusion, loneliness, physical fitness, sedentary solitary lives – these are all descriptions of children who are already hooked to games.” I certainly don’t doubt that these can all be by-products of a life spent slouched in front of the TV pressing shapes on a joypad repeatedly, but video games are designed to entertain – they’re not designed to provide parental nurturing and support.
Captain John ‘Soap’ MacTavish isn’t going to pause midway through an intense firefight in Modern Warfare to remind children to go and eat a healthy, balanced meal, or to go outside and get some exercise, or remind them of the importance of maintaining real-world relationships with friends and family. That is, and always will be, the parents’ responsibility. (‘Soap’ MacTavish is only ever going to tell a child to “stay frosty”.) If parents allow their children to have a games console in the bedroom and buy them violent, age-restricted video games for Christmas and birthdays, they can’t then complain that said video games are a dark and corrupting influence.
Still, I can’t talk. I think there are snipers watching me.