Gamers occasionally get a bad rap, especially when violent psychopaths are revealed to have also been gamers at some point. The recent tragedy in Isla Vista was committed by a sick, sad person who clearly wanted to hurt the world, but in his manifesto, Elliot Rodger goes into great detail about his World of Warcraft addiction. He paints his addiction in the same rage-red hue he uses for everything else in his life:
These recent events cause me to withdraw even further away from the world. I drowned all of my misery in my online games. World of Warcraft was the only thing I had left to live for. My grades at Crespi dropped dramatically. I just didnÂt care anymore. I hated that school. I didnÂt think about my future. The only thing I gave any serious thought to was my WoW character. I had become very powerful in the game, and I was in one of the best guilds. With this guild, I participated in lots of five-hour raid events to collect better gear and armor for my character.
Over the years, I've seen fingers being pointed at video games - and MMOs in particular - as the cause for a lot of awful things. American senators and congressmen have spoken out against video game violence on many occasions, and a number of mass-murderers claim to spend a lot of time playing shooter games or fantasy MMOs. The unscientific minds of the world, often fueled by suggestive, irresponsible media, seem to believe that correlation equals causality - these people play these games, therefore these games must be responsible for these terrible actions.
The rest of us know otherwise.
Most of what I read in Rodger's manifesto just made me angry - apparently he was just always a little douche who regularly threw tantrums when he didn't get what he wanted. But it really kinda got to me when he kept going on about World of Warcraft. Not because it's a terrible game, or because it is to blame for his later actions - it is neither of those things - but because it paints a bad picture of the MMO audience in general. "Guilt by association."
Rodger claims he sought refuge in WoW from his terrible world of loneliness and despair. Considering when this manifesto was written (after he had already decided on the course of action that would make him infamous), I'm not sure how factual his claims might be. But that's a fairly common negative perception of MMO gamers: we hide in our games because we fail at life.
I call bullshit on that one. I won't deny that that exists in some small quantity, but it is far from being true for most gamers. I would dare to say that most MMO players have active, healthy social lives outside of the games they play. The "social refugee" is the rare exception, and absolutely not the rule.
Elliot Rodger isn't the only mass murderer from the past few years that has been an avid gamer. The Sandy Hook shooter, the Oslo shooter, the Columbine shooters and loads of others were heavily into violent video games. But so are a bajillion teenagers with stable family lives and no genetic propensity for organic mental disorders. And a bajillion well-adjusted adults who own and enjoy guns. And a bajillion pot-heads who don't go on shooting sprees fueled by the devil marihuana. And a bajillion people using psychiatric drugs for anxiety and depression, who also don't arm themselves with an arsenal of guns and march on the nearest shopping mall.
There are other correlations between many mass-murderers. I'm willing to bet that most of them drove cars. I'm also willing to bet they were all wearing pants at the times of the shootings. Does this mean cars and pants cause violent behavior? Of course not. It means that driving cars and wearing pants are something that tons of people do every day. Video games tend to target a certain demographic (males, aged 18 - 49) which is an enormous percentage of the population. That same demographic also happens to produce damaged, broken people that commit violent acts more regularly than other groups. It also likely produces the most doctors, physicists, humanitarian workers, ditch-diggers, and pretty much everything else.
Mass murder isn't something new that only came about after Nintendo was invented - Charles Whitman never played a video game in his life when he climbed the clocktower in Texas. Manson and his family had never even heard of Call of Duty or World of Warcraft back in the Summer of Love. Andrew Kehoe, the perpetrator of the deadliest mass murder in a school in United States history, probably didn't even have a TV back in 1927, when he blew up the school in Bath Township, Michigan. TV never really entered American homes until 20 years later, after World War II - which, incidentally, is another act of horrific violence that was also not inspired by violent video games.
Truth be told, we don't really know why these people end up committing these horrible acts. Some assume that they snap because they can't take it anymore; they don't. Rodger planned his rampage for over a year. So did the Sandy Hook shooter, and the Columbine kids. There's no one single root cause common to all cases of mass murder, and to imply that there is is overly-simplistic at best. Human behavior - even the broken kind that causes tragedies like the Isla Vista shooting - is incredibly complex. "A causes B causes C" simply doesn't work when describing why humans do what they do.
I do believe, however, that we as a community owe it to the world to monitor ourselves more closely. It's possible that we can catch killers like Elliot Rodger or Anders Breivik before they reach that terrible tipping point, and take steps to get them the help they need. Keep an eye out in game chat channels for the warning signs of impending violent behavior:
- threats of real violence and/or suicide
- preoccupation with specific violent incidents in real life (school shootings, bombings)
- bullying or antisocial behavior that goes beyond normal trolling
- frequent anger or hate-speech targeting a particular group (women, ethnic groups, religions, etc)
- indications of personal stress (e.g. if the person talks about major personal issues in game - failing in school, loss of a job, family or relationship issues, feeling hopeless)
- indications that the person frequently feels persecuted, bullied or picked-on
- blaming others for anything that goes wrong, never taking responsibility
- sudden changes in personality
Not all of these things are sure indicators that a person will be violent - especially in MMO or other Internet chat. MMO chat is vastly different from real life outside of a game. A stranger lashing out at other strangers for no reason, or espousing shocking personal values, is probably just trolling because he's bored. It will be hard to really gauge these behaviors in people you don't know or speak to regularly, but if you see the same person exhibiting these traits on a regular basis, or notice them developing over time with a guildie or a buddy on your friends list, it may be an indication of trouble.
Most games have a function to report players for various causes, which will usually just get the offending player banned - be sure to send as detailed a report as possible, and indicate that you are worried about real-world violent behavior. It's possible - however unlikely - that the GMs may be able to monitor chat logs, keep records, track IP numbers and inform local authorities. In many cases, this is not likely possible for a variety of reasons... but that shouldn't be an excuse stopping anyone from doing what is right.
It might not be a good idea to try to "talk the guy down" if you see someone exhibiting the warning signs. Most of us don't have the psychological training required for dealing with someone in a state of psychosis. But you can always offer to listen if the other guy wants to talk. It might be all that the person needs to calm down - someone willing to listen without judgement. But, again, if you are not trained in the field of psychology, you may want to find someone who is. Call a help line on your cell phone, contact the authorities - do what you need to do. Check the links posted below.
If we can prevent just one Elliot Rodger by reporting alarming behavior, we will have made the world a less-terrifying place.
Here are a few helpful links
American Psychological Association - warning signs of violence
California Department of Education - warning signs of violence
Ontario Mental Health Helpline (Canada) - crisis assistance
HealthyPlace.com's Mental Health Hotline Numbers and Referral Resources - American crisis assistance