There is something weirdly familiar about ISIS snuff videos. True, they are basically political propaganda, recording the application of Sharia law to the infidels and Shia and Christians and Yazidis by beheading, crucifixion, shooting and immolation. But they also have a theatrical quality which reminds you of a geeky teenager living out his fantasies on an X-Box in his bedroom.
The most repugnant of these (until the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians last week) was the immolation of a Jordanian pilot in a cage. ISIS soldiers drenched his clothes with petrol and then set him alight. The camera lingers on his last agonies.
This is horrifying, but images just as ghastly are being created in the teenager’s bedroom. The death of the pilot is basically a real-life enactment of the sadism of the Grand Theft Auto V, a game about gang violence which has made more than US$2 billion. It didn’t take much work for me to find a YouTube video in which a youth with a British accent gloats about disposing of his victims in the game in the same way.
“I thought it would be fun just to burn people, just to burn then alive or kill them and burn their bodies. I was at that stage in Grand Theft Auto when you kind of get bored doing the same thing – doing missions, driving cars — so I used the cheat to get all the weapons in the game, and then I got out my jerry can and I got out my Glock …. It’s just kinda funny to watch them burn really helplessly … You punch a girl in the face and then you burn her. She’s not dead, but she’s gonna get burned anyway.”
ISIS is aware of the power of the terrorist entertainment complex. It has been making recruiting videos based on GTA5 emblazoned with an ISIS logo. They exhort geeks to leave a cream-puff life staring at a screen and to join them staring down the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle. One of them opens with the slogan “Your games which are producing from you, we do the same actions in the battelfields (sic)!!” The characters ambush convoys of trucks and riddle with bullets the quivering bodies of police officers.
Last year Sky News interviewed a Briton who spent time in a Yemen jail for terrorism, Shahid Butt. He believes that games like GTA5 and Call of Duty help to groom potential recruits:
“You got an 8 or 9-year-old child playing those kind of violent games with heads blowing off and limbs blowing off, what kind of mentality is that kid going to have? You dehumanized that person. To go and fight in Syria is as easy as going on holiday to Disneyland. Because you’ve made it easy!”
The key word here is “dehumanised”. Video games allow gamers to get up close and personal with their victims in a virtual world. Bodies drop dead everywhere. Blood spatters on the screen. You can even see the grimace of their death agony. The messages are that human life is cheap; might makes right; and that cruelty is legitimate entertainment.
Whether this makes gamers more violent is a matter of debate in among media and psychology academics in the Ivory Tower. But not among the recruiters at ISIS. In appealing to young Muslims in the West – and probably in countries like Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – they are doing their best to glamorise jihad as the ultimate video game. It’s a strategy which works.
For New York-based Rockstar Games, the manufacturer of GTA5, ISIS is an embarrassment. It has purged ISIS “crews”, online gamers who compete with each other, from its chatrooms. But doesn’t it have to shoulder some responsibility for the blood flowing in the Middle East? Shamefully, it didn’t even acknowledge the existence of ISIS video. Like gun enthusiasts who argue that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”, it has washed its hands of the bloody business.
For years, gamers and game manufacturers have denied that virtual brutality has any effect upon the people who play it. Now they have proof that it affects at least some people. They may be alienated unemployed no-hopers in Birmingham or Marseille whose kicks used to come from spraying cops in GTA5 drive-bys. But with a Kalashnikov in their hands, they become real-life psychopathic killers who aspire to take jihad to New York.
No technology is neutral; it shapes mind and hearts. The sophistication of GTA5 is mind-boggling. Its graphics and narrative are an incredible technical achievement. But unless technology is used for humane purposes, it will destroy us. We have learned that lesson with natural ecology as we fret about the impact of pollution upon health and climate. How about the impact of entertainment upon human ecology?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.