The Great Video Game Shoot-Out

Battling the Forces of Collective Panic

"Media is a Rorschach test," says Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and new-media critic. "That's what makes online life interesting from a psychological point of view." The games, like the Internet, are neither good nor bad, says Turkle. "It comes down to the difference in people's personalities. It multiplies, or enhances, what's already there. If you're basically a mildly depressed teen— in other words, normal— these games aren't going to put you over the edge. But if, like these kids in Littleton, you're already vulnerable and in a paranoid state of mind, it's only going to exacerbate that." Parents, she says, are in the position to determine the difference, but due to general technophobia they wind up abdicating their authority. And government, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

It's not difficult to blame the video games. And in the current hysteria, they're certainly the easiest target. But it's a pretty unsavory prospect from a constitutional viewpoint. Video games are, after all, a form of expression. As Laurence Tribe, Harvard law professor and all-around con-law go-to guy, noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, "The same First Amendment that safeguards the right of Nazis to march through Skokie protects the right of an adult to put virtual machine guns aimed at lifelike human targets on his or her computer screen."

There is also the very legitimate fear that Littleton will obfuscate the empowering, liberating potential new media holds for adolescents. "Just imagine you're a gay teen in a small Southern town," says Justine Cassell, who coauthored From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games along with Jenkins. "You now have a community to tap into that wasn't there before the Internet." But the approach authorities seem to be taking is less one of considered appreciation than one of wholesale repression. In Wausau County, Wisconsin, a database has been installed in which the sheriff, local police departments, and school officials can track students who pose a "potential threat." Trench coats are being banned in schools across the country, and an increase in locker searches and metal detector installation will certainly follow. (Last week, the NYPD was already considering plans to add more metal detectors in the city's schools.)

In the meantime, we try frantically to satisfy our craving for explanations, for answers. And if the killings inspire a national reconsideration of youth culture, an earnest attempt to interpret, not condemn, the varied expressions of all sorts of kids, then at least something valuable will have come out of that horrible day. But so far, the dialogue has been about kids without including kids in the conversation. "These kids were being ignored," a former Columbine student told me. "They were screaming for attention and no one was listening." In the unhappy making of Klebold and Harris, video games were a minor ingredient.

e-mail: machineage@villagevoice.com

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