A virtual reality war game turned horrifyingly real this weekend as two ‘warring tribes’ fought a running street battle in Liverpool city center, leaving three dead and 47 injured.
Millions of people all over the world immerse themselves in online conflict games, playing a bewildering variety of roles from warriors to witches, wizards and orcs. But online players in this North England city, mainly young men, but supported by a surprising number of women, took things too far in the game Battle for Blood when rivalry spun out of control.
The buildup started when members of the ‘Gudrun’ tribe launched an all-out virtual attack on neighboring ‘Warlin’ – all in the spirit of the game. But things turned personal when a well-known hacker and member of the Warlin tribe replied with a real-world disabling spam attack on computers belonging to key members of the Gudrun tribe.
A war of words quickly turned into a challenge to meet face-to-face in the city centre on Saturday night. Routine police patrols were totally outnumbered as more than 200 ‘warriors’, many in costume and carrying weapons, turned up. The street battle that ensued resulted in one young woman being shot and killed, a man fatally stabbed and another hacked to death with what police described as “a homemade battleaxe.” Forty-seven people were injured, including two policemen and five pedestrians who were simply in the wrong place at the time.
“We’ve long argued for controls on the levels of violence in these games,” said police spokesman Alan Cope. “This is a horrifying example of just how they can distort people’s minds.”
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
The combination of radical improvements in graphical computing, memory and online access has made virtual reality into actual reality for tens of millions of people around the world. And some of the most popular forms of online entertainment are games of conflict.
From games emulating real-world conflicts like the WW2 simulation Hours of War to fantasy games like World of Warcraft, vast numbers of people engage every day in long-distance battles, usually with people they have never and will never meet. But often ardent gamers meet at gaming conventions or marathon gaming sessions, where hundreds of people sit in darkened halls, hunched over computers as they battle for global supremacy!
Many of the games are astonishingly violent and realistic, with virtual opponents blown up, hacked to pieces or shot to bits in a welter of blood and gore. A number of parent groups, educationalists, psychologists and police groups have been pressuring legislators for some form of control on the games, particularly for children. Some game makers have responded with age recommendations on games, but this has done little to control usage.
Real-world violence around the games has been rare, although the playing of such games is often cited as a causal effect in crimes of violence.
Real-world digital attacks have been more common, for example, when hackers in China linked to an unnamed gaming company brought down a server providing access to a competitor site. The ripple effect slowed servers across the network, affecting online access for 300 million people. Two were arrested as a result.
No doubt this latest incident will lead to heightened demands for controls on the level of violence in online gaming. But perhaps virtual reality has just become too real.