On April 20, two teenage boys walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and opened fire. By the time the shooting was over, 23 people were wounded and 15 were dead-including the two gunmen. Columbine had been transformed in a matter of hours from a place into an event.
Even before the bodies were brought out and investigators began sifting through the wreckage, people started trying to make sense of the event, to find some way to explain the inexplicable. Gun-control advocates blamed the boys' access to firearms-Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris somehow got their hands on two shotguns, a carbine rifle and a semiautomatic pistol. National Rifle Association mouthpiece Charlton Heston blamed the kids' parents for allowing them to wear black trenchcoats to school every day. Others blamed the parents for not noticing the sounds of pounding and breaking glass coming from Harris' garage. David Duke, displaying his usual slippery grasp on reality, reportedly blamed the whole thing on "radical homosexuals." Many in the media pointed to the Goth subculture, missing the fact that wearing black and listening to Marilyn Manson does not a Goth make.
And some people blamed video games.
One clip shown again and again on various news shows was a shot of investigators carrying a bag of possessions out of one of the suspects' homes; clearly visible was a book on Doom, the ultraviolent, gun-toting, stalk-your-opponents-through-corridors blast fest. "I don't believe violent video games lead to violence, but this was different," one Columbine student told the media. "They'd play these games for hours and hours and hours."
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In his weekly radio address after the shootings, President Bill Clinton stole a page from the Republicans' playbook and condemned video games and movies for glorifying violence. "You have enormous power to educate and entertain our children," he told the entertainment industry. "I ask you to make every video game and movie as if your own children were watching it."
Game developers are accustomed to being blamed for everything from illiteracy to the erosion of cultural values, but this latest frenzied round of scapegoating has left the industry a bit shaken. On the Quakefinger site (www.quakefinger.com), which is run by Costa Mesa-based GameSpy Industries, several prominent developers expressed their anger, resentment and sometimes anguish at the blame heaped upon them.
"I am a father of three girls, and I make violent video games," wrote Murphy Michaels, an animator at Ritual Entertainment in Dallas. "I also listen to Marilyn Manson occasionally, and I really love violent movies. And I go to church most Sundays. My children don't play Doom, they don't play Carmageddon, and they don't play my company's game Sin. If you are a parent, it's your responsibility to censor your home. You are the one who should decide what comes in and out through your front door and television."
"We'd have to really be either extremely stubborn, in deep denial or lying to say that the violence in our games doesn't affect people," wrote Raven Software's Mike Gummelt thoughtfully. "I had a kind of a moral crisis when I first started working in this business. I've always been against violence, but on the other hand, I kinda get a kick out of it. Everything affects people, even in the most subtle of ways. But Doom is not going to turn a normal kid into a killer."
"A lot of people have e-mailed us in the past few days," said David Kosak, GameSpy's creative director. "Littleton is a big topic of discussion in the industry."
But Kosak, like most of the developers on his site, bristles at the suggestion that video games can cause the kind of devastating violence that erupted in Littleton. "Video gaming is another form of entertainment, just like movies," he said. "And it should be used responsibly. Parents need to pay attention to what their kids are getting out of entertainment."
For Irvine-based Interplay Productions, the blame assigned in Littleton is particularly bitter. The Colorado shootings came barely a week after the parents of three students killed in a 1997 Kentucky shooting filed a $130 million suit against 25 entertainment companies-including Interplay. The suit alleges that the killer in that case, Michael Carneal, was influenced by violence in the media and that shooter games such as Interplay's Redneck Rampage train their players to kill.
Interplay's Kirk Green said the company can't comment on the litigation. But he had plenty to say about a society that blames make-believe violence for real-life violence.
"I think that right after something like this happens, people are very emotional and very upset. Anyone who's a parent is going to react in an emotional way," he said. "But you have to look at it in context. There are many things people are exposed to. Video games are one. Millions have read The Catcher in the Rye. How many went out with a gun like Mark David Chapman?"
Green also points out that of the 200 games Interplay has released, only three-Redneck Rampage, Carmageddon and the forthcoming Kingpin-have received a Mature rating (reserved for the bloodiest games). Guess which games have gotten the most media attention? And the average age of Interplay customers is 38 years old-a far cry from those impressionable teenagers everyone's so worried about.
Green has a problem with Clinton's call to make every movie and every video game suitable for children. "I think that's a very knee-jerk reaction. You have to look beyond that," he said. "If that were true, we'd all be watching Bambi without Bambi's mother getting shot. You'd be bringing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Everything would be vanilla. There's still something called freedom of speech and the ability to make choices."
Lucky for him. Because if it were up to public opinion right now, game developers would be looking for another line of work.
Rage against the machine age at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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