I was appalled to read this article today about a 27-year-old man who flew into a violent rage when told to quiet down his game of WoW. For those of you not wanting to read through the article, here’s a brief summary (based on what I’ve read – the details are somewhat hazy):
– 27-year-old James Swan lived with his mother, grandfather and several related children in a house in Florida. Swan plays World of Warcraft.
– One night around 10pm, he had been drinking and his gameplay was disturbing the children so his mother asked him to turn it down. He refused.
– After being asked repeatedly to stop he became very angry and violent, throwing his mother and one of the children on the bed.
– His mother tried to call 911. He ripped the phone off the wall and then began to choke her, yelling he was going to kill her.
– Swan’s grandfather shows up and, unable to stop Swan from attacking his mother, grabs a revolver.
– There is a struggle and the grandfather shoots Swan in the head. The bullet only grazes him but he is incapacitated.
– Everyone involved survived (just). Swan was arrested and refused treatment.
I had three thoughts upon reading this upsetting report. First, this guy is a violent and pathetic wanker who needs to be locked up for a long time and receive some serious rehabilitation. Second, the media is going to go crazy over this and some are already blaming the game at least as much as the man, if not more so. The third issue, and the one I wish to discuss here is whether the media is right to do so? Disturbing instances like this do raise the important question: How harmful is World of Warcraft and other computer games?
My initial answer to that question is common amongst gamers when addressed with scenarios like these: its not right to blame the game. The guy clearly has issues, is violent, was drinking and it just happened to be a game that acted as the catalyst for his violence. If his mother had interrupted something more socially accepted, such as watching Little House on the Prairie, the media wouldn’t be blaming that for his behaviour. It seems a common tactic in modern news reporting to blame things like horror films, rock music and computer games for violent acts, rather than placing blame on more obvious causes such as alcohol abuse. Similarly the fact that the guy could just be a bastard seems to be overlooked. The way computer games are reported on these days is often little more than scaremongering. Take for example this follow-up article from the same news site entitled ‘World of Warcraft: The Crack-Cocaine of Gaming Life’. Slightly judgemental perhaps? Not to mention irresponsible journalism. People are accountable for their own actions and at the end of the day the game certainly did not make James Swan attack his family.
However on further reflection I feel that disturbing occurences such as this should not be simply dismissed out of hand, as many amongst the gaming community are prone to do. Due to the news media’s sensationalist approach you tend to get a polarised response to these issues, with the journalists and terrified parents saying a game is entirely to blame and the gamers fighting back and saying that the game cannot be responsible in any way. I feel the latter is an unhelpful response on our part in the WoW community. Obviously Warcraft did not turn James Swan into a violent man, but can we really say that it had no negative impacts upon him whatsoever?
Whilst the scientific jury is still out whether gaming is addictive, let us not edit the truth about what gaming is. Playing a computer game is an enjoyable experience, it stimulates the brain, gets the adrenaline going and as players we have a lot of fun. If this wasn’t the case we wouldn’t be playing it. Now as a fun activity we have to admit that some people do get rather absorbed in it, again that’s part of the joy of it. I was just saying last week how I want to get as immersed in my game as possible. We have to admit these things and by doing so we also have to consider that some people, not the majority but some, are going to take things too far. Addiction is not simply a physical process but a mental one. Whilst alcohol and drugs are addictive physically, people also become addicted to things simply because they are enjoyable. People get addicted to such pastimes as going to the gym or Sudoku. So it is irresponsible for us to say that World of Warcraft cannot be addictive.
This is doubly so given the nature of WoW as a game of constant improvement. It is a common adage that you can never win at WoW and its true. All you can do is the be the best you can be, completing as many quests as you can to level up, then upon reaching max level hitting those dungeons and raids repeatedly to get better and better gear. You rinse and repeat your actions to get a constant dribble of rewards, which allow you to move up to the next stage and repeat them there. This model is a guaranteed method for prolonged fun, but its also potentially addictive. I’d be lying if I said I don’t get a bit obsessive-compulsive about my gametime. On some level at least WoW addiction happens. Of course in most cases this is not bad thing. As mentioned above all kinds of fun can be addictive and most people manage to indulge in their respective pastimes without turning into antisocial morons. However there are those who are in some way negatively affected by gaming because they get far more into it than is healthy. WoW players enjoying the escapism of an immersive world = good. WoW players never seeing sunlight or real-life friends = bad.
I say all this for one important reason: we as gamers have the power to engage with those who would have all games banned. It doesn’t matter whether James Swan attacked his family because he was addicted to WoW or not, because the media will portray WoW as the cause regardless. This is something WoW players can address by having a realistic and balanced discussion about this issue, something that most news media doesn’t show any indication of doing. If the WoW community rightly shows disdain for the actions of James Swan, and discuss how Warcraft could be a harmful product when used obsessively maybe we can get somewhere. Admitting that a very small number of people suffer addiction or antisocial behavioural problems from playing WoW is not admitting that the fretful parents and politicians are right. Instead we’re proving them wrong by taking a mature attitude and discussing what may be a problem amongst some of our fellow gamers. Ultimately we will win a lot more acceptance by having a balanced dialogue than a knee-jerk reaction.