Are violent video games responsible for the zombie knife epidemic?

And they wonder why machetes are spilling blood on our streets: In violent video games they’re glorified. Now, after months in lockdown, thugs are swapping screens for reality — with a savage attack every two hours, writes BARBARA DAVIES

There  are few more perfect places to sit than London’s Hyde Park at the end of a warm June day. The world-famous landmark is a green oasis at the heart of the capital; a magnet for those wanting to step away from the hubbub of city life.

But on Tuesday, amid screams of horror from onlookers, a gang of youths wielding machetes appeared in the royal park as if from nowhere, cutting through the calm of the quintessentially British summer evening as they chased their victim. What they did next was caught on camera by an eyewitness who filmed as the pursued man stumbled and fell to the ground where he was set upon and stabbed by his assailants.

There is a sense of unreality about the terrifying scenes that later went viral on social media and which are reminiscent of the kind of violent computer video games experts now fear are helping to fuel a terrifying surge in machete attacks across the country.

If you delve into online computer games it becomes clear the machete has become the cyber weapon of choice

People playing violent video games are able to attack each other using large machetes 

In Greenwich earlier this week, two men were seen slashing each other with large blades 

Latest figures indicate that a machete attack is taking place on our streets every two hours or so, with knife crime in general almost doubling in the past decade.

Amid more than 46,000 offences and 237 murders involving a knife or sharp instrument last year, machetes have become the weapon of choice for a whole new generation of young criminals, many of whom have been using them in a virtual world since their primary school days and are now recreating their on-screen attacks in real life.

Thought to have originated in South America as agricultural tools, today machetes are seen by many who carry them as a status symbol. They echo the kind of violent martial arts fighting that has become ubiquitous in computer games and allow those who wield them to keep opponents at arm’s length.

In fact, if you delve into online computer games it becomes clear they’ve become the cyber weapon of choice. Among the most popular, Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto feature several machetes and, in the case of Fortnite, a machete pickaxe.

Look further and you see the weapons everywhere: in Mortal Kombat X, an attacker in a mask wields a blood-stained machete. Assassin’s Creed IV features a weapon called ‘Mayan Machete’ and shows masked-up men wielding vast curved blades.

A hideous scene from Friday The 13th: The Game — Ultimate Slasher Edition shows a woman being sliced in two by her attacker. In Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, players must complete several challenges before they can ‘unlock’ their machete and wreak havoc with it.

And in The Last Of Us Part II, a young woman is seen with a blood-stained machete — fans of the game can even purchase a statuette of ‘Ellie with machete’.

Given that in many of these games, the weapons are used to literally cleave their victims in two, is it any surprise that young people are now playing out in real life the violence they have seen for years on screen?

A hideous scene from Friday The 13th: The Game — Ultimate Slasher Edition shows a woman being sliced in two by her attacker

Parenting coach Elizabeth O’Shea, who works with teenagers addicted to gaming, said there is definitely a correlation between the two, although young people are affected in different ways by the violence they see on screen.

‘A lot of parents are allowing their children to spend a long time watching their screens and letting them watch adult content. The children having too much screen time are the ones not learning social skills and developing close family relationships.

‘There are some games that are horrible. Even games that people think are perfectly normal. In Roblox, for example, which many young children play, you can shoot cops in a room.’

Detective Chief Superintendent Lee Hill, head of the Met Police’s Violent Crime Taskforce, told me this week that some of the ‘status’ weapons his officers come across were ‘horrendous’.

He said: ‘We see long bayonets and machetes and zombie knives. They very much glorify violence and it’s about status within your peer group or your gang.’

Hill added that the influence of violent video games was worrying: ‘I’ve got a young son who plays Fortnite and he comes home and tells me all about killing zombies and I do have to remind him that it’s not real.’

He added that the force was cracking down on those supplying machetes in illegal circumstances — for example, in large quantities or to those underage.

‘In an operation last month we identified two individuals who were actually supplying these type of knives to gang members and we recovered over 150 knives at one address alone, which shows the scale of what we are having to deal with.’

In Grand Theft Auto, players can use machetes to attack innocent civilians 

Hill added: ‘All types of knives kill. We have seen recent incidents, including those this week, which are all too sad. We are committed to tackling violence and bringing those responsible to justice. We are not complacent.’

According to child psychologist Ian Williamson: ‘What you watch is what you learn. If you’re watching or playing violent video games for a considerable amount of time in the week, it’s in your system.

‘Some of the games are shockingly realistic and so violent and bloody that it must have an impact on a developing child’s brain. At a time when their sense of self is still developing, children playing violent, often highly addictive, games for hours develop an altered self online.

‘The other problem with the violence of video games is that it takes place in a vacuum. There are no consequences when you kill and maim. There is a disconnect.

‘My three-year-old grandson plays swords with me and he pretends to stab me and it’s fine because he understands it’s all pretend and that nothing happens. But for children playing these games online, reality becomes more muddled.’

While latest data shows a nine per cent decrease in knife crime in England and Wales in 2020 compared with 2019, experts have attributed the dip to nationwide lockdowns during the coronavirus epidemic. As restrictions continue to ease, there are fears that numbers are once again on the rise.

According to police, the 17-year-old victim of Tuesday’s attack in London’s Hyde Park is recovering from his wounds in hospital, but it certainly wasn’t the only attack of its kind this week.

In Hyde Park shocking video emerged of a group of men chasing their victim with large machete 

What was once regarded as a problem confined to crime-ridden suburban pockets is now spilling out into affluent city centres and middle-class residential streets. Innocent bystanders are being caught up in the kind of bloody scenes they might once have only expected to see on screen.

In another explosion of violence, just a day after the Hyde Park attack, horrified residents in leafy Greenwich watched four men with machetes square up to each other outside their riverside homes in the middle of the afternoon. Just a stone’s throw from the O2 arena and with children on half-term playing nearby, they banged their weapons on lamp-posts in an attempt to intimidate each other before landing slashing blows.

Onlookers screamed at the men to stop their battle, which has left a man in his 30s fighting for his life in hospital with stab wounds.

One eyewitness recalled: ‘I could see a lot of people on the balconies watching, worst of all a lot of children. This sort of thing happening in broad daylight, it makes you question if cuts to policing continue, will these incidents be the norm or get worse?’

And on the same evening, dozens of police, including officers in riot gear, were dispatched to Brixton following a violent outbreak at a party. While one man was shot twice in the head, officers found two ‘foot-long’ machetes at the scene.

Nor is the problem confined to London. A series of machete attacks across Leeds over the past month have seen one teenager’s hand completely severed and a number of young people hospitalised.

Many of the attacks have taken place in broad daylight on residential streets, with children as young as 14 left with serious cuts and wounds. One machete brawl, which left two 17-year-olds with slash wounds, occurred in Woodhouse Moor in the Hyde Park area of the city in front of young families with children.

On May 4, a 15-year-old boy was left with a wound to his leg and a fractured skull after a machete fight. Just days earlier, armed police were dispatched to deal with four men brandishing machetes. On March 17, business owners in a shopping centre in the Briggate area of Leeds locked their doors as a machete fight broke out in the middle of the afternoon.

Statistics show how knife crime has soared over the past decade. In the year ending March 2020, there were around 46,300 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument across England and Wales, a figure 51 per cent higher than in 2010/11.

In Assassin’s Creed, the player uses a range of knives to kill enemies to progress through the game 

The increase has been linked to the ‘county lines’ gangs, a drug distribution system which sees criminal gangs exploiting children and vulnerable adults to move hard drugs between towns and cities and rural areas often via public transport.

Those involved are groomed by a combination of threats and promised financial rewards, but many begin to carry knives for their own protection. With more and more youths carrying knives, many are opting for bigger blades to intimidate their rivals. ‘They’re scared,’ says Lucie Russell, chief executive of StreetDoctors — a nationwide charity that trains young people affected by violence to give emergency first aid when someone has been stabbed or knocked unconscious.

‘There’s this vicious cycle; you must carry a knife because you need to protect yourself. It could be that the bigger the knife, the more you feel safe. That narrative gets blown up. Knife carrying is about protection.’

As easy to buy as a kitchen knife, machetes are available online from countless DIY, gardening and hardware shops although by law, like all sharp knives, they can only be sold to those aged 18 or over.

In 2019 the Offensive Weapons Act banned home deliveries of knives, although sellers can get round this if they can prove they took ‘all due diligence’ to prevent them being delivered to under 18s — meaning demanding proof of ID and age on delivery.

But as any canny teenager knows, such rules can — and often are — bent and overlooked.

And in the dog-eat-dog world of knife crime, there is clear evidence too that the carrying of a machete is a status symbol, providing the kind of dramatic images that make perfect fodder for dark social media accounts where gang members hiding behind masks pose with their weapons.

One of the most popular games among young people today and features large knives

In 2018, five gang members from West London, who made violent and confrontational ‘drill’ music videos in which they rapped about stabbing rivals, were jailed after being caught with machetes on their way to a revenge attack on another gang.

At the request of the Met Police, the judge at Kingston Crown Court issued three-year criminal behaviour orders, banning the men, aged between 17 and 21, from mentioning death or injury in their songs. But their music videos, including the sinister No Hook which was shown at their trial, is still readily available on YouTube, where it has been streamed millions of times.

While experts seek longer-term answers to the problem, for those who witness the kind of brutal attacks seen this week, the impact is more immediate.

‘This violence needs to end,’ wrote one Twitter user after the Hyde Park attack. ‘Who is bringing machetes to the park? Where is the value for life?’

As the summer heats up, further outbreaks of violence are expected as the dark underbelly of Britain’s burgeoning machete culture seeps out into everyday life.

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