When the Digital World Overwhelms the Real

The New Zealand massacre from a new angle


The digital world has obtained a life of its own and has now begun to conquer the real world.

On the Ides of March 2019, Brenton Tarrant, an Australian white supremacist, entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Carrying multiple guns, he killed fifty people and injured fifty more before he was arrested by the police. Tarrant had first announced his imminent attack on social media, invited people to watch the event on Facebook Live, and then filmed and broadcast his murderous spree as if it were a video game: He mounted a camera on his helmet that overlooked the tip of his shotgun ensuring a first-person angle as is done in most violent video games where the player’s task is to kill as many enemy combatants as possible. He then went on to kill innocent people praying in their house of worship while his camera filmed his killings in the exact same manner as is done in shooter video games. Many people who watched the video online where it quickly propagated were not sure whether this was part of a movie, a video game, or a real shooting. In effect, his video broadcast was transmuted into a digital action game, only now this game was being enacted in the real world with real weapons and bullets, real human beings, real mayhem, blood and death.

But the killing itself is not the most shocking part! More disturbing are the comment threads on the anonymous message board 8chan, where Tarrant’s initial announcement was posted, as well as the comments on other similar websites where many users conversed about the video as they watched it unfold live on their screens. One user complained that the streaming video was in low resolution and he could not see the killing clearly! Another user delighted in the fact that the video of these real killings was better than his favorite shooter game, another said he loved the music Tarrant played as he drove to the mosque, and so on. Many were cheering: One wrote “nice shootin.” Another, “Tarrant is a f***ing hero.” While another, “You’re an inspiration to all of us, mate.” A few mockingly addressed the poor victims with disrespectful and very disturbing comments like “Piling into the corners like rats is not how you survive this sort of shit. Buncha cowards…” In another forum where Tarrant’s video was posted, it achieved a rating of 3.5 stars. Thousands of people actually searched for and clicked the thumbs-up button under the video in order to rate a real murder video as if it were any other video! Others lamented that Tarrant’s association with 8chan might be the end of the site.

Apart from the utter sickening disgust I felt while reading these posts (which made me fall into depression for a few days), my constant feeling was that all these people were completely detached from the reality that Tarrant was hunting and killing real innocent people in real time. Many of these comments give the impression that a movie or video game was being discussed, as opposed to a murder spree in the actual real world.

It is now beyond obvious to me that we have entered the era in which many people truly live in the digital world. Literally. The digital world is the only world they know. And when they go out into the real world, some of them feel the urge to reenact, like in a video game, the very actions they are engaged in while inhabiting this digital world. Their world is not even the composite of a computer graphic world and a real world. What seems to be happening is actually even more frightening: There is no real outside world for them anymore. There is just this one digital world that extends to incorporate the real world. It is a unitary world governed, ruled, defined by the imaginary graphic world of violent video games that have become so much more real than the real world that the latter has unconsciously been absorbed and incorporated by them into the former as a subset.

Through the thousands of hours he had spent playing shooter games (and more recently, of course, practicing in real shooting ranges), Tarrant had gradually lost his ability to relate to other human beings qua human. The digital world he was inhabiting for many hours every day had no relation to the real world. Therefore, when he finally decided to “go on a mission,” he did not see real human beings in front of him. He saw “objects,” “moving targets,” dehumanized beings that were similar to the animated graphic figures he was shooting when he played video games. The outside world completely merged in his mind with that of the violent video games and lost its real nature. Eerily, this is also the cornerstone of twenty-first century military warfare, with the thousands of layers placed between soldiers and combat – drones, guided missiles, radar-enabled weaponry and augmented reality HUDs, all designed to reduce “the enemy” to dots on a screen. The digital soldiers’ detached actions extract the life-force of the people they kill before they do so.

But there is still an even more insidious and stealthy reality that dawned upon me: Tarrant was not being hailed as a hero by the gamers just because the latter are “racists and haters.” What I read through the lines was their admiration for Tarrant having had the courage to enact in the real world what they themselves do all day long in the digital world (shoot to kill) and what they themselves would like to have done had they boldly ventured into the outside world (kill the Muslims they loathe). By his killings, Tarrant was also making a definitive bold statement: Our gaming world need not be confined in the digital; it has the power to modify the real as per “our values” and our own modi operandi. The very first sentence of Tarrant’s post on 8chan says it all: “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make areal life effort post.” Through his actions, Tarrant was in effect leaving the digital world and digital postings in order to make “a real life effort post.” His killing was a type of posting. A posting that left the screen and forced real life to conform to the digital worldview of gamers. He became a hero because he achieved the superhuman feat of expanding the domain of this particular digital world through his own actions. Of course, when he sought to venture outside this familiar digital world and boldly extend its domain, at the point where the two worlds finally met, a huge catastrophe ensued. The digital world overwhelmed the real and absorbed it into its cruel, unfeeling, dehumanizing virtual graphic worldscapes.

The digital world’s worst elements are spreading out into the real world. Unless we address the matter fast, our youth, and consequently our future civilization, is in grave danger.

© 2024 Nicos Hadjicostis