The Great Video Game Shoot-Out

Battling the Forces of Collective Panic

Eric Harris played video games obsessively, and even wrote his own levels for Doom. The 3-D architecture in the world of Doom resembles that of an average American high school in whose labyrinthine halls roam contemporary updates on the Minotaur. Anything that moves poses a threat. "Doom will become a reality," Harris promised on his Web site, but for him, it probably already was. For the boy killers, who composed the lowest, pitiful rung on the merciless high school social ladder, Doom must have seemed a lot like Columbine.

So it is not without reason that pundits and politicians now rail at the gaming industry. In our collective panic attack after the massacre, we're grabbing for any explanation that will stick. And we've found one in video games, specifically Doom and Quake, the first-person shooter games— those in which the player sees the game from the point of view of the protagonist— against which all others are measured. In this fevered climate of whatdunnit, the evidence weighs mightily against violent video games.

From the looks of it, the gaming industry should prepare for a good long run, with lawyers and legislators at their heels. (Currently, it seems they're gearing up for a siege, with id, the maker of Doom and Quake, taking the Fifth on all counts and issuing no comments to the media.) Last week a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania state legislature that would limit a minor's access to violent video games. Lawsuits on behalf of the victims' families in last May's Padukah, Kentucky, shooting, in which Doom was also a component, are under way, and more are sure to come. Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, who last week led an eager Ed Bradley through a 60 Minutes gaming industry exposé, says that "the heads of every law enforcement agency in the country will testify against these games." It worked against tobacco, after all. Grossman, a psychologist at West Point and author of On Killing, gets paid to make sure the people we pay to kill people get really good at killing people. Doom, as it happens, has proved a useful tool in this regard— the software is used to train marines. "Doom teaches you how to kill," Grossman says.

Limbert Fabian

Scientific evidence, such as it exists, hardly offers the gaming industry much cover. In fact, it puts good liberal social scientists in a nearly untenable position. Joel Federman is the former research director of Mediascope, a media watchdog group based in Los Angeles, which published The Social Effects of Interactive Electronic Games under his tenure. Federman says the majority of studies show that these video games increase aggressive behavior. "You're talking about games in which violence is a highly rewarded attribute. That doesn't mean censorship is a good idea, but just because I'm against censorship doesn't mean I can avoid the evidence."

Indeed, Grossman says that an ACLU rep told him "he could not even remotely see the ACLU defending the right of nine-year-olds to practice killing people." How palatable could it be to defend clients like Logitech, whose ads for its live-action bucking gun WingMan (a video game controller) carry the tag line "Psychiatrists say it's important to feel something when you kill." Or, say, the makers of the game Postal, in which the object is to mow down as many unarmed, unsuspecting bystanders as possible.

There's no doubt about it; these games are ugly. Take, for instance, Marathon, another popular first-person shooter game. The spaces in Marathon are shadowy and foreboding. The stone walls and sheet-metal fixtures bristle with sharp edges. There aren't any pleasant spots in which to picnic, or for that matter sit down. It's a perpetual tour of the city's worst subway stations. Everyone in Marathon needs to be exterminated. It's you or him; kill or be killed. Life in Marathon is brutal and harsh, of Hobbesian purity. I should know: I spend an hour or more a day there. It's virtual hell, and after a night of Marathon-inspired nightmares, I'll wonder why I keep coming back.

"Because it's fun," Thresh says. He was the first professional gamer, a living legend, and he spends hours a day honing his talent. In one Quake tournament he won a Ferrari. "When you hit someone in the game, it's a cartoon. It's cowboys and Indians, that's all." He's right. Quake is fun, and so is Marathon. I don't know why shooting games are fun, but however absorbing they may be, they haven't damaged my psyche, or made me more violent, and Thresh would hardly call them a negative influence on his life. The vast majority of people use games just the way I do: as a fairly mindless diversion. Henry Jenkins, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT, has researched interactive games for years, and scoffs at the notion that any element of popular culture could act as a motivational factor in a case like the Littleton killings.

"According to industry figures, 90 percent of American boys play these games, so connections between Doom and the shooters aren't very meaningful for the simple reason that the games are so ubiquitous," Jenkins says. The media mosaic constructed by Klebold and Harris was indisputably dark and disturbed, but Jenkins points out that millions of other teenagers use the same puzzle pieces to construct a positive mythology with which to identify. He cites a young girl whose Web site publishes creative fiction based on characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the WB television show, which owes its own debt to video games. "You can't say that popular culture did something to [Klebold and Harris]," he says. "It's more accurate to say they did something with popular culture." Doom, then, is in the eye of the beholder.

"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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