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Gaming, simulation and killing

The recent killing of a seven-year-old girl by a teenage online gaming “addict” in Vietnam raises important and disturbing questions. From reports it is apparent that Mong The Xuong, 15, tempted Anh Nhu to accompany him into the woods near their northern Vietnamese village of Yen Hoa with the lure that they could pick fruit to sell at the local market. He confessed to killing her by first pushing her down a 20-foot drop and then crushing the back of her head with a rock. The reason: he lacked the funds to play his favourite online game — Vo Lam Truyen Ky (Swordsman Online) — at a nearby internet cafe, and apparently saw in the earrings she was wearing a potential source of money. Ironically, and anomalously, he did not rush to the first place where he could sell the earrings for the requisite funds, but cut them into pieces and hid them instead, possibly indicating a belated realisation, on his part, of the severity of his deed.

The game in question has been described as a “violent, massively popular multiplayer game in Vietnam, based on Chinese kung fu stories”, and in the article on Yahoo where this comes from it is further stated that: “Online Gamers Anonymous, a US-based support group for addicts, said the killing — and the level of violence used — highlighted the need for action to be taken to restrict excessive gaming. Anh Nhu’s killing is the latest in a long line of deaths and violent crimes around the world attributed to video game addiction.”

Why do I say that this raises important questions? Isn’t it just another misguided murder of an innocent, of which there have been innumerable instances in the history of the world? I don’t think so — while I believe that “action … to restrict excessive gaming” is not the desirable course of action, one’s course of action (educating young people on the nature of images, for example) should be informed by an understanding of what might broadly be called the “psychology of online gaming”, which is linked to the broader field of the “psychology of image-reception”.

In a nutshell, an understanding of the differences between image-reception (-assimilation) and word-reception offers valuable guidelines for addressing the kind of behaviour that may sometimes result from excessive exposure to images of violence. Please note: I said “may sometimes result from”; NOT “is invariably caused by”, because it is not a simple causal relation which is at stake here. It is an interpretive one, or more accurately, a failure of interpretation that sometimes gives rise to the violent killing of a person by someone who has been excessively assimilating images of violence. Let me explain.

In the 1990s there were a number of so-called copycat killings in the US, following hot on the heels of the movie circuit showing of Oliver Stone’s over-the-top violent movie Natural Born Killers. Murders which were dissected from many different sociological as well as psychological angles in a variety of magazines and journals. All the articles that I read at the time, posited some causal connection between the film, which the perpetrators had cited as a factor in the commitment of their crimes, and the deeds in question, but none could pinpoint what, exactly, the causal connection was. Obviously it was not direct, nor was it “necessary” or unavoidable, because many, in fact, most, people who had seen the same film did not subsequently commit any murders. That set me thinking, and because I was working on Freudian theory at the time, I eventually realised that Freud gives one the conceptual means to grasp what was going on in these perplexing cases of “copycat” killing (which was not the case in the Vietnam teenager’s murder of the young girl, but nevertheless also implicates images of violence). Briefly, this is what I came up with.

In Freud’s early theory, which is more fecund, semiotically speaking, than his later structural theory, he distinguishes among three aspects of the human psyche, which, importantly, function according to different principles. The unconscious — the most familiar manifestation of which is found in dreaming — operates in terms of what he calls the “primary process” of image-generation, also described as “hallucinatory”, while the preconscious and conscious obey the “secondary process” of thought, language and motor movement.

Importantly, both processes — primary as well as secondary — serve what Freud calls the “pleasure principle”, that is, the principle according to which the psyche (in fact, the psychophysical organism) will always attempt to avoid “excitations” such as pain, distress, tension, anxiety, and so on, and when they do occur, will always strive to return to a condition as close as possible to “homeostasis” (the lack of tension or excitation). Paradoxically, therefore, “pleasure” here means (more or less as it did for the Epicureans of the Hellenistic era), “the absence of pain”.

The difference between the primary and the secondary processes lies in the means of attaining “pleasure” or absence of pain. The primary process uses images to achieve “hallucinatory” pleasure or satisfaction (as it happens in dreams, or in daytime fantasies, for instance), and as the term “hallucinatory” indicates, such “pleasure” is not “real”. Dreaming of eating a delicious meal turns out, on waking, to be mere “hallucination”; for “real” satisfaction of hunger one has to think, perhaps use language to order a meal, and somehow get to the place where you will eat — all elements in preconscious and conscious, “rational”, ways of achieving “pleasure” (by removing the source of excitation or distress, namely hunger).

The difference between dreaming and waking life can therefore be articulated in terms of the difference between the primary process “solution” for the removal of excitation, which is hallucinatory, and the secondary process solution, which consists in the rational negotiation of the “reality principle”, where one comes up against all kinds of resistances that are not easily removed, as in dreams, by hallucinatory means.

The problem of understanding what happens in the case of copycat murders, which sometimes follow after exposure to violent images, may be approached in terms of Freud’s distinction between these two kinds of process, except that one has to add something about dreams. For Freud, dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”, as long as one understands how the “dream work” operates, namely through processes like “condensation”, “displacement” and “secondary revision”, all of which operate by means of images which disguise the unconscious, repressed thoughts embodied in them. Why disguise? Because, says Freud, dreams are the “guardians of sleep”, in addition to which they are essentially “wish-fulfilments” (something that explains their hallucinatory aspect). Their wish-fulfilment is in disguised form, of course, and they function as guardians of sleep in so far as the rational preconscious acts like a gatekeeper, only allowing properly disguised thought-images to appear in dreams. Occasionally, as we all know, a nightmare (a negative wish-fulfilment, about something one wishes to avoid) manages to wake the dreamer, and for Freud this happens when the gatekeeper (the preconscious) is not strong enough, in the face of particularly disturbing images, to exercise its gatekeeping function.

Here lies the connection with copycat murders that can be linked to the “consumption” of images — whether on television, in cinema theatres, on the internet, or wherever. We live in a society saturated with images, as Richard Kearney argued so persuasively in his book The Wake of Imagination. So much so that in this context, known as “postmodernity”, many people regard images in simulated worlds to be more real than reality, that is, these images have a greater purchase on their psychic assent than things in concrete reality. (I have written about this before on this site, drawing on the work of Sherry Turkle and Rosanne Stone.)

Hence, my argument is this: in such a cultural situation, where simulated image-landscapes and -cityscapes (of hallucinatory fulfilment, for example in World of Warcraft) contrast with the demands of concrete reality, the juxtaposition between these two realms is comparable to that of dreams, which work according to the primary process of hallucinatory satisfaction, and reality (as described by Freud), which works according to the secondary, rational process of thinking and language. Just as, according to Freud, the preconscious is sometimes not powerful enough to render the dream-images from the unconscious harmless, resulting in the dreamer waking up, so, too, in the cultural context of today, reason, or the secondary process, is sometimes not strong enough to keep the violent images assimilated by online game players, among others, at bay. The result is that the tenuous boundary between them and concrete, physical action, crumbles, and those images are “seamlessly” converted into violent behaviour.

Needless to repeat, it is only in a minority of cases that this happens; most people are sufficiently stable, and capable of distinguishing between simulation and reality, to be able to maintain the distinction between these. But I believe that, in some cases, this border between these domains is “crossed” by the images in question, precisely because simulated “worlds” are widespread today, and as Turkle, for one, reports, many people regard the simulated realms as being more real than the real.

It is difficult to say whether this “Freudian” explanation fits the case of the Vietnamese teenager who killed the seven-year-old girl — his actions seem too calculated for that. And yet, why would he feel the need to bash in her head, instead of simply stealing the desired earrings? Because of the image-induced need, on his part, for some violent action, which was temporarily out of his reach in the cyber realm? Whatever the case may be, one thing seems certain: there is a connection between the obsession of many people with the cyber domain of images, many of which are images of extremely violent actions, and violent behaviour in social reality. I believe that Freud has given us the means to understand this connection, which is no straightforward one, as I have tried to show.

Readers interested in a more thoroughgoing version of the account, above, can see my paper, “Freud and the question of mediated social behaviour”, in: Society in Transition (Journal of the SA Sociological Association), Vol. 31(2), pp.163-174; November 2000.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.