On the Importance of Differentiating Fantasy from Reality

Ban These Evil Games “The parents of murdered schoolboy Stefan Pakeerah yesterday led a mounting clamour for violent games to be banned. Giselle and Patrick Pakeerah’s 14-year-old son suffered an horrific death at the hands of 17-year-old Warren Leblanc, said to have been obsessed with the game Manhunt. The hammer-and-knife killing mirrored scenes in the ultra-violent game.” — From the front page of the Daily Mail newspaper, Friday 30th July 30, 2004

The summer months in Britain are customarily a languid time for the news media. Parliament is no longer in session, and unlike the US, we don’t have any electioneering to distract us (at least no explicit electioneering). Yet while politics-obsessed news editors disappear to sunnier climes, front pages don’t stop being hungry. This period is traditionally known as the “Silly Season”, when deputy editors must make do with desperate bids to save Minkie whales washed up on Scottish shores or golden eagles that have somehow contrived to escape from London Zoo. But the conviction of a 17-year-old for the brutal murder of a 14-year-old is clearly far from silly; even if the subsequent press response is very, very silly. Not to mention, exploitative, tawdry and most importantly, profoundly anti-democratic.

The story is undeniably tragic. An adolescent, Warren Leblanc, is apparently obsessed by a notoriously violent video game: Rockstar’s Manhunt, already banned in New Zealand. Leblanc plots to murder his young friend, Stefan Pakeerah, using weapons familiar from the game: a hammer and knife. The would-be assailant lures his unsuspecting friend to a wooded area, and carries out his intention. Fans of otherwise discredited stimulus-response notions of audience consumption — whereby individuals act, automaton-like, upon images or ideas presented to them by the media — nod their heads sagely and reach for the statute book.

The case was the cue for a vitriolic response from the most vociferous of conservative organs in the UK (sure we don’t have right-wing radio shock jocks like the US, but our infamous, pernicious press more than makes up for it). The Daily Mail, enduringly popular middle-market tabloid and purveyor of a peculiarly English (rather than British) form of bigotry against anything and everything artistic created after 1950, immediately launches a campaign to get violent games banned.

The British tabloids are, of course, world renowned for their hypocritical moralizing. Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch’s Thatcherite The Sun newspaper, often considered the tawdriest of the so-called “Red Tops” (the lowest end of the tabloid market), was curiously mooted regarding the murder of Stephen Pakeerah, choosing to cover the story some way down its news agenda. Conversely the Daily Mirror, left-wing tabloid and supporter of the ruling Labour Party (not quite mutually exclusive activities yet, but time will tell), wasn’t shy about running the story on its front page, in common with the Daily Mail. So the hysterical response isn’t about left and right politics, per se, so much as ideas of democracy and freedom of speech. Which is why the Daily Mail‘s forceful response needs to be met with equal vigour.

While the Daily Mail gives us brief summaries of the scenarios in each game’s case, the list of offending products it wants banned makes no effort to differentiate in terms of content. So The Suffering and Hitman: Contracts nestle alongside the sci-fi and horror shenanigans of Unreal Tournament and Doom III. (That anyone would consider Rockstar’s deeply rubbish State of Emergency, which the Mail also brackets in this list, realistic enough to presumably provoke riots is genuinely terrifying. That I paid for the thing is either more scary).

Even though the Daily Mail‘s outraged argument seems to reside in a belief that a game like Manhunt is somehow too real, its censorious attack lacks the finesse to differentiate scenarios in which the player must fight off futuristic warriors or zombie-like monsters from scenarios in which recognizable images of people are brutally executed. But then the Mail‘s response isn’t constructed around a particularly nuanced argument, and problems in differentiating fantasy and reality seem to be a continuing motif of this whole nasty affair.

I accept that we have to tread carefully, here. A child died, his family and friends are still grieving. Others, too, will grieve in a different way for the murderer. For thoughtful liberals and libertarians such cases are tricky ones to manoeuvre without tying ourselves in knots of hyperbole and exploiting the situation as assuredly as those of a reactionary bent. But if a cultural object is being blamed for causing the tragedy we need to investigate the circumstances, rather than just rolling over and letting another piece of our democracy get bitten off and swallowed whole-sale.

Now it may be that the murderer in the Stefan Pakeerah case was already into hammers and knives and violence before Manhunt came into his life; the picture painted of him by the various newspapers covering the story is certainly one of a fairly unbalanced individual. Maybe, indeed, he acquired Manhunt precisely because of this predilection for violence. In which case blaming the game retrospectively seems a jump in logic too perverse for even the most ingenious of conservative thinkers.

Let’s assume, though, like the Daily Mail, that this wasn’t the case. Let’s assume the relentless ultra-violence on offer in Manhunt caused Leblanc to transform into a monstrous individual capable of murder. There’s a lot of material here to make the causal observer think that the game might have a deleterious effect on a kid. The player adopts the role of a serial killer who has narrowly escaped the death penalty. His or her role is to negotiate their way through the grim urban environment, killing as they go. Along the way various weapons are supplied, which the player can then use to dispense with some pretty vicious enemies in grisly fashion: asphyxiating with a plastic bag, slitting an enemy’s throat, or punching and kicking an opponent to death. And that’s just for starters.

Aesthetically speaking, the game is very impressive, evidenced by the fact that you even feel a bit grimy afterwards. At the beginning of the game, as the Daily Mail took relish in pointing out, the player is encouraged to turn the lights off, and pull the curtains before starting to kill. Even with the curtains drawn, I had to raise the brightness on my television quite considerably to stand even a moderate chance of navigating my way through the shadows without walking into groups of lethal thugs or simply getting stuck, inexorably colliding with a wall or fence. This is a dark game in more ways than one.

I don’t believe that games don’t have an effect: if I thought a cultural object didn’t have an effect on me, whether it’s a film, a novel or video game, I wouldn’t bother engaging with it. I want to be entertained, or scared, or surprised, or made to laugh or to have my mind expanded, whatever. In fact, if the cultural artifact fails to do this well enough then it’s probably no good as a cultural artifact. God knows, advertisers seem pretty convinced that their work has an effect. But the reason the Stefan Pakeerah case made the front pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror and rated mentions in several other media publications is precisely that such an extreme response is so very unusual. Do we really want to ban a game on that basis? Furthermore, do we really want to ban a whole slew of games on that basis?

An obvious response is to call for the proper enforcement of classification legislation as a means of preventing minors from purchasing inappropriate games. When non-gamers learn of my professional and personal interest in video games, the first subject they inevitably reach for is the issue of violence. Often this is because their offspring or young relatives or friends have been playing one of the games mentioned in the above list or something equally bloodthirsty. The individual in question has inadvertently witnessed their kith and kin or acquaintance ruthlessly eradicating some unsuspecting Non-Playable Character in an elaborately violent and visceral manner.

In a few cases and to my barely concealed incredulity, the adults in question have bought their kids the material themselves. Intriguingly, when I then try and point out that British video games are classified by the British Board of Film Classification and that it’s illegal both to buy and sell such games to minors, I tend to be greeted by blank stares.

The Daily Mail‘s subsequent coverage of the Manhunt case — or rather the cranking up of their campaign to get violent games banned — provides an illustrative demonstration of where the British classification system currently founders. In a manner much like Charles Dickens’ Fagin, the newspaper sent out a small retinue of children to purchase various violent games from vendors around Britain. None of these individuals apparently encountered any problems purchasing the games in question.

For gamers, the non-enforcement of classification laws is an unsurprising outcome. Indeed, the issue of children purchasing inappropriate products has been of concern on the letters page of the British gaming magazine Edge for some time. Simultaneously reassuring and contradictory as the idea of compassionate, concerned gamers might seem, Edge is nevertheless a small-scale publication compared to the Daily Mail and so the idea that gamers think about this stuff tends to go unnoticed. As I’ve argued in Trivial Pursuit before, getting the wider culture to take video games more seriously as an art form might make retailers and adult purchasers of games think more carefully about enforcing classification rules.

But in Britain, in terms of digital games and films at any rate, adulthood is enshrined in law as beginning at 18 years of age. Manhunt is consequently classified for people of this age and above. The murderer Warren Leblanc is 17-years-old. Now, it strikes me that some 17-year-olds are remarkably mature and thoughtful individuals able to differentiate fantasy from reality, and able to understand the real-world consequences of real-world violent actions.

However, it also strikes me that some 18-year-olds are immature, unreflective individuals who may have a limited grasp on reality. But then, occasionally I meet people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s about whom I might make the very same judgment. In other words, age is a blunt weapon (given the circumstances, apologies for the enforced metaphor) in protecting individuals unable to discern when something is real or not. The correct enforcement of classification rules might protect younger children, but to me it seems an inadequate response to the case in question. There is a much better response.

In the ’80s, the self-same Daily Mail was at the forefront of a campaign to get so-called “video nasties” like Driller-Killer and the first two Evil Dead films banned for reasons searingly redolent of their current splenetic attack on video games. In the case of video nasties, the ruling Tory administration capitulated. Some 20 years later many of these films have subsequently been released with little if any ripple of attention from anyone in the press, and scant evidence of any effects other than delight or fright from the purchasing demographic in question. Certain individuals, like Sam Raimi, director of the Evil Dead films, even get to direct family fodder like the Spiderman films.

Hopefully one day organs like the Daily Mail will succeed in adequately differentiating fantasy from reality. Until then, the onus is on liberals and libertarians to offer alternative arguments for not simply capitulating to the forces of conservatism (and God knows there’s a lot of it bantered about on both the left and the right) and banning every game on the Daily Mail‘s list with immediate effect.

The best response to a case like this? The best thing we can all do when something as tragic as this happens is to investigate the case rationally, and offer the individuals concerned as much compassion and understanding as we can muster. But in terms of legislation and our democracy, the very best thing we can do is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.