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Does the Secret to the Norwegian Massacre Lie in an Online Computer Game?

On the opening day of the trial, one focus of the prosecution was the revelation that Anders Breivik played World of Warcraft, an online immersive virtual reality game, apparently almost "full-time" for a year.

On the opening day of the trial, one focus of the prosecution was the revelation that Anders Breivik played World of Warcraft, an online immersive virtual reality game, apparently almost "full-time" for a year. In a clue as to where the central argument may turn on over the next few weeks, the prosecution described this game as 'violent'.

Yet this description has already met with resistance from gamers, resenting the implication that fantasy games such as World of Warcraft can be held responsible for real world violence, particularly of the kind alleged to have been meted out by Anders Breivik.

Perhaps of most interest to forensic specialists observing this case is that how someone might play or represent themselves in these virtual alternative realities, could reveal valuable clues to psychiatrists trying to understand the perpetrator of an unsual of crime, which makes no sense to the vast majority. The latest thinking in psychology is that the way we represent ourselves in a virtual world reveals more of our inner psyche, than we might realise. For someone trying to guard against psychiatric examination, the fact they played such games could be a way into the inner recesses of their minds.

But none of the psychological research on these kinds of popular on-line games finds any evidence that the vast majority of players suffer any kind of psychological abnormality.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been in the court room before - Larry and Lars Daniel, authors of the book Digital Forensics for Legal Professionals, argue that these games could become an increasing source of important forensic evidence when players end up in trouble with the law in the real world. They list newspaper reports of where some met each other through the game and later went on to commit crimes, such as under-age sexual encounters in the real world, therefore potentially implicating their computer records during game play in court proceedings.

This is not to argue that playing such games in itself represents an indicator of any kind of criminal or aggressive bent. Given the combined players of World of Warcraft and Second Life now amount to over 25 million from all across the globe, statistically, just through random chance, some will get accused of real world crimes. However where things get forensically interesting is where the timeline of their digital activity could become material evidence - such as whether they were on line at the time of an alleged real world offence.

It is possible this kind of data recorded by playing World of Warcraft may become a crucial aspect of the Breivik case, even if the game itself is not implicated in evidence as to what caused the alleged murderous spree.

The research evidence that video games such as World of Warcraft causes or influences violence is mixed and controversial. These games have become ever more popular in recent times, and some researchers have argued that real world violence in the young adult populations most likely to be absorbed by such games, has statistically been declining over the last few years. You would expect the opposite trend if the games were a significant contributor to aggression in the real world.

Larry and Lars Daniel point out that contrary to the popular stereotype, in fact people from all walks of life play these games, from successful business types and professionals to housewives and the retired. Recent surveys they quote in their book find the average age of such game players is 34 years old, with 60% male, and 40% female. This contradicts the stereotyped image of such players as being unemployable light deprived adolescents skulking in their parents' basements.

In these virtual worlds, authentic friendships develop. Many meet online via these games, get acquainted, then cross countries to live together and start serious romances, even ending in marriage. Larry and Lars Daniel point out that in one survey of 30,000 participants in such games, 5.1% of men and 15.7% of women had physically dated someone who they first met in an MMORPG.

But will forensic investigation of Breivik's on-line game playing activities provide useful evidence as to his mental state? Books such as the Daniels' Digital Forensics for Legal Professionals highlight the increased use of such data by forensic scientists investigating crimes, from servers retained by hosting game playing companies, and also from the game players' own computer.

The other reason data from how Breivik played online might be particularly crucial is there is evidence that such 'lone wolf killers' take their inspiration from extremist advocates who include obfuscation and dissembling as part of the ongoing strategy following capture. This may explain why the clinicians examining the Norwegian suspect have found it difficult to come to a consensus as to his sanity and motivation.

In the late 1990s, the influential United States White supremacists Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis first coined the term 'lone wolf' exhorting those they encouraged to perform the kind of spree killings which Breivik stands accused of and to then "... Never truly admit to anything..."

If a suspect is not reliable for various reasons under examination, then evidence that can be gleaned from their computer or from a gaming server as to their activities in role-playing games such as World of Warcraft could let slip vital clues as to their mental state.

A spate of new research reveals intriguing parallels between the kind of personality your avatar exhibits in such virtual worlds and games, and your own real life character.

For example, a study of 40 players of the game, just published in the academic journal Computers in Human Behaviour, has found that the personality of the avatar you create and pilot in World of Warcraft is linked in crucial ways to your own real life persona.

The study led by Michael McCreery and Randy Boone of a team based primarily at the Universities of Arkansas and Nevada, in the United States, might be particularly relevant to Breivik's case, if he did indeed immerse himself in World of Warcraft for a year, as the prosecution allege.

This is because their study found the strongest link in personality between the character of the avatar representing a player in World of Warcraft and that player's own personality, was in the realm of 'agreeableness' or its converse 'disagreeableness', which is the aspect of personality linked most to warmth or a lack of it towards others, interpersonal attitudes, self-interest, concern for others, and social harmony.

The authors of the study, entitled, Defining the virtual self: Personality, behaviour, and the psychology of embodiment, point out that the main purpose of interaction within World of Warcraft is character advancement, and as much of this progress centres on group ventures, i.e. forming partnerships or collaborations, most of the observed behaviours in the game tell us something about a person's character in the domain of attitudes to others. The challenges of game play test your personality particularly in relation to cooperation or antagonism, and this might provide vital clues as to Breivik's character, when possibly he wouldn't be as guarded as he might be now.

It's not just how a perpetrator on trial played the game which might provide evidence as to his mental state, but when precisely they played, according to another just published study. The research, just like the study above, focused specifically on World of Warcraft players (in this case a big sample of 646) and was conducted by a team lead by Sakari Lemola and Alexander Grob based mainly at the Universities of Basel and Zurich in Switzerland.

The title of the paper Habitual Computer Game playing at Night is Related to Depressive Symptoms reveals the key finding which is that habitual computer game playing of World of Warcraft between 10pm and 6am was linked to an increased risk of depression. Adolescents (ages 13-17 years) were most vulnerable when habitually playing during early night (i.e., 10-12 pm), while young adults (ages 18-22 years) showed more vulnerability to depression when habitually playing late at night (i.e., after 2am).

The authors of the study are at pains to point out they found no evidence that players of World of Warcraft were in any way more maladjusted than the general population. Rather, they contend, it was the sleep disturbance engendered by playing through the night which had probably upset circadian rhythms, and produced the high scores on depression scales.

The authors appear to have chosen to study specifically World of Warcraft because they suggest it's the computer game with the highest addiction risk, and this is linked to the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing aspect. The authors explain that MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) involve role-playing in cooperative groups which gather for online-playing appointments, and as the success of the whole group depends on the collaboration of all group members, individual players are pressured to join the gatherings, which may explain the addictive potential.

Only just recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the authors of this study contend the game itself doesn't cause depression but more the disturbed sleep cycles caused by staying up late to play is the key culprit.

A further study may be deployed by those involved in the Breivik case as it has also found you can make predictions about aspects of a player's personality depending on which side of the game they chose to play in World of Warcraft. The intriguing paper just published in the academic journal Computers in Human Behaviour, is entitled 'Trait and symptom differences between factions in online gaming: The vulnerable side of evil'.

A team of researchers lead by Emily and Robert Orr at the Department of Psychology, University of Windsor in Ontario Canada, explores differences in psychological traits and symptoms of gamers who are aligned to one of the two character factions of World of Warcraft - the Horde and the Alliance. One of the more surprising findings of the study was that the members of the Horde recorded higher scores on 'dependent' personality style.

This kind of person reports more frequent worries about losing someone close to them, feelings of loneliness, hypersensitivity to signs of rejection, and persistent worries about potentially sabotaging their relationships. The authors argue it may not be surprising that these types take part in a game that promotes cohesion among faction members.

In the lore of the game, the 'Horde' arose out of several forms of evil: the betrayal of an extra-planar being; powerful black magic; and demonic energy. More recent versions have abandoned labelling the Alliance as the ''good side'' with the Horde as the ''dark side,'' with the Horde evolving into a more peaceful faction. Nonetheless, there were violent origins of this faction.

Traces of its dark roots remain in names evoking images of violence (e.g., blood elves) and death (eg the undead).

This spate of just published research suggests that Breivik may inadvertently reveal more of himself via various activities, including playing World of Warcraft, than he may have planned to.

These may represent small clues, but anything that can help understand the psychology and motivation which lies behind such tragic events is enormously important. These fragments of evidence grow enormously in importance given how uncooperative past similar perpetrators have been, and Breivik may be the first to leave an extensive on-line trail inadvertently through his activities in the virtual gaming environment, where he may have felt relatively safe, and he have been unaware that recent advances in psychological research could uncover links with his real world mental state and motivation.

Whatever assists in identifying potential candidates for such acts earlier, might lead to possible prevention strategies.

Dr Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London, and Emeritus Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry. Dr Ramón Spaaij is a specialist in the area of lone wolf terrorism and author of Understanding Lone Wolf Terrorism: Global Patterns, Motivations and Prevention published by Springer. He is based at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

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