Lawyers, Guns and Gamers

Illustration by Bob AulI was really hoping for fireworks from KUCI's April 10 discussion of violence in the media and its impact on teens. Alas, it was more a snuggle fest than a riot. Evan Simon, host of the Topics discussion show, and his guest, PC Gamer editor Dan Morris, practically fell all over each other in their haste to agree that the real problem was not violence in video games and movies but careless parenting. They were ably aided by "Brian" from LA, who called in to say that he'd been playing games for years and he'dnever gone on any murderous rampages.

It was an interesting chat, but anyone hoping for a little Springeresque chair throwing came away disappointed. Indeed, it served to suggest that maybe the temperature of the rhetoric, red-hot in the year since the Columbine High School massacre, might finally be cooling.

There are other signs, such as a recent shift in the debate—away from blaming such social influences as video games and movies for inspiring teenage killers and toward blaming mental instability and bad parenting. On April 9, The New York Timespublished a story analyzing more than 100 "rampage killers" dating back 50 years and found compelling traces of mental illness throughout. The next day, the National Association of Attorneys General released a report stating that the most important factor in preventing youth violence is a stable, loving home. And on April 6, a judge in Kentucky threw out the $33 million lawsuit filed by the parents of children killed in Paducah against a number of video-game and entertainment companies.

The suit, filed in April 1999, alleged that the makers of games like Quake and movies like The Basketball Diaries had pushed teenage killer Michael Carneal over the edge so that his only possible response was to go out and shoot up a prayer group. The suit also accused first-person shooter games like Doom of training Carneal "to point and shoot a gun in a fashion making him an . . . effective killer without teaching him any of the constraints or responsibilities needed to inhibit such a killing capacity."

The courts disagreed. "This was a tragic situation," Judge Edward Johnstone wrote in his opinion, "but . . . tragedies such as this simply defy rational explanation, and courts should not pretend otherwise."

Part of Johnstone's ruling was based on a case from the early 1980s involving a teenager who committed suicide; his mother blamed his death on his involvement with the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. (For an excellent analysis of the D&D flap, see www.religioustolerance. org/d_a_d.htm.) Although her suit was thrown out, it launched a nationwide debate on whether role-playing games were harmful to kids. That debate has now largely died; only in a few fundamentalist circles do people still fret about satanic influences in D&D.

One Orange County company has particular cause to be grateful for the more rational tenor of debate: Irvine-based Interplay Productions, which was one of the defendants named in the Paducah lawsuit. The suit alleged that Interplay's game Redneck Rampage, which features two sons of the soil named Leonard and Bubba on a—surprise!—rampage through bars and trailer parks, helped contribute to Carneal's violent tendencies and, presumably, aiming skills.

"We were optimistic that the judge would dismiss the case," said attorney Paul Smith of Jenner & Block, the Washington, D.C., law firm that represented Interplay in the suit. "There are very traditional, well-established limits under tort law on the extent to which person A can be held responsible for what person B does to person C. It has to be a foreseeable, predictable reaction, and it has to be a normal reaction to the product. This is a one-in-a-zillion case.

"These [shootings] are obviously tragic cases—it's too bad, as the court said, that these things happen—but it doesn't help the situation to bring claims against parties that couldn't have done anything to prevent it," he added.

As for the plaintiffs' claim that games like Redneck Rampage teach kids how to shoot a gun, Smith dismissed it as "rather silly."

"The level of the relationship between what you do in those games and actually shooting a gun is so low," he said. "In terms of teaching the player, it's worthless."

The families of the Paducah victims have promised to appeal the ruling.

"There was a big upsurge of media attention last summer," Smith said, "but it seems to have tailed off some. The fact that there has been no such claim filed in Colorado [following the Columbine shootings] may be an indication that there won't be more suits."

That's not to say we're out of the woods yet. The Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony in March from one of the Kentucky parents that America is "addicted to violence" and that game companies deliberately market violent games to children. Meanwhile, amid a raft of statistics that juvenile crime is dropping, California voters on March 7 passed Proposition 21, a ludicrously draconian "get-tough-on-crime" package to put more children behind bars. And in North Carolina, the Pinkerton detective agency (of Dashiell Hammett fame) has started a program to enable high school students to nark on potentially violent classmates, thus relying on teenagers to make complex psychological assessments and reviving the fascist tradition of anonymously informing on your neighbors.

The video-game industry may be breathing a little easier, but the kids who play those games are still in trouble.

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