Video games not to blame for deaths

My best friend Ken’s birthday is April 19. Everything seems to go wrong on that day. In 1993 more than 80 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, died in a showdown with federal agents. Two years later the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up. Two years after that, the Hale-Bopp comet loomed large on the horizon. This year, I thought we had made it over the hump when I called Ken to wish him a happy 28th. I was wrong; the hump came a day late, on Hitler’s, not Ken’s, birthday.
On April 20, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold marched into Columbine High School, guns blazing. Within hours, one teacher, 12 students and the gunmen were dead. As the initial shock that overwhelmed the nation has begun to dissipate, we look for an explanation. What could have driven two students to kill their peers and themselves?
The left points to weak gun laws, renewing the crusade against the National Rifle Association. The right points to the breakdown of family values in popular culture. Everyone has a favorite scapegoat.
I don’t know who is right. Maybe none of the theories nails down the correct source. Maybe most of them do. Maybe we should just write it all off to millennial madness — the end of the last millennium saw its own share of problems. What I do know is that a frequent scapegoat is not to blame: video games.
In response to the Columbine shootings, many have jumped on the anti-video game bandwagon.
Republican congressional leaders called for a National Conference on Youth and Culture. In a written statement by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), video games headed the list, apparently more dangerous than drugs. “This conference should examine important issues facing students and society, including video games, drugs in school, Hollywood, prayer in schools, parental involvement and local control of schools.”
President Clinton, not to be outdone, wants to host a White House Youth Violence Summit to focus on violence in popular culture and the entertainment industry.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, in the formal GOP response to President Clinton’s weekly radio address, beseeched parents to pay more attention to what video games their children play.
Jefferson County, Mo., District Attorney Dave Thomas cited video games as a possible nefarious influence on the youth of America.
Even academics are joining the witch hunt. University of Miami psychologist Margaret Crosbie-Burnett has placed the blame squarely on violent video games, alternative music and dark clothing.
Yet before we ban all violent video games in the name of wholesomeness, we should step back from the brink and think about what is actually going on.
Explicitly violent entertainment has been with us as long as people have been looking for diversions from the daily grind. We find it at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. Homer’s “The Odyssey” contains the most disgusting, graphically vulgar, nausea-inducing scenes in all of literature. As Odysseus witnessed the devouring of his crew by the Cyclops, the details literally turned my stomach. The scene is so deftly written that mental images of it are more vivid than anything in a movie or video game.
The Romans had gladiators. During the Middle Ages, jousting and combat were king. French revolutionaries revelled in beheadings by the guillotine. Nineteenth century Americans idolized mass killers like Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Something about the human psyche makes us enjoy the suffering of others. As much as we want to deny this truth, to be compassionate, to pretend we are idealized lovers of peace and understanding, the popularity of football, hockey and “real” television reminds us otherwise. Violent video games are only the expansion of these deep-rooted ideals into the digital age. At least in its latest incarnation, the violence is virtual.
But it is not just part of our nature. Misunderstanding of video games stems from the inability of adults to grasp the “cool” entertainment of their successors. Popular youth pastimes morph from one generation to the next. Adults try to stay cool, trying to remain ahead of the trend curve, but it is impossible. Eventually, as we get older, what was the pinnacle of hip becomes old hat, and the new apex shocks our sensibilities. Adults want to protect young people from these perceived bad influences, but the influences are not necessarily bad, just different. Elvis’ pants were too tight. The Rolling Stones preached anarchy. Disco taught loose sexual practices and drug use. Video games teach kids to kill.
When I was in junior high and high school back in the ’80s, the concerned adults focused on a game called Dungeons and Dragons. The elderly sanity-police were convinced playing a game that involved fantastic, imaginary depictions of monsters and demons that players of the game were expected to slay using dice and pencils led to mental instability and Satanism. These fears were even portrayed in a made-for-television movie called “Mazes and Monsters” in which a young Tom Hanks (post-“Bosom Buddies,” pre-“Splash”) went insane playing a Dungeons and Dragons clone, becoming permanently lost in the fantasy world and nearly killing one of his friends by stabbing him with a dagger.
Today video games bear the onus. I cannot wait to see the movie: Jonathan Taylor Thomas plays one too many games of Half-Life, loses it and thinks he is really fighting off an alien invasion from another dimension.
The other part of the problem is the media. Packaged news for mass consumption requires conflict to be genuinely entertaining. Today, video games are an excellent target simply because most people, including reporters themselves, do not comprehend the rapidly changing culture that surrounds them. We keep hearing that Harris and Klebold played online computer games that included death matches against other people around the world. Which game did they play? From which game are we repeatedly subjected to screen shots? Doom.
News flash for anyone who is not a gamer: Doom lost its popularity years ago. If these guys were still playing Doom with any degree of regularity, then they were alienated not just from their classmates but also the video game playing public. Gamers today play death matches with Quake II, Half-Life or Sin. Doom may have the evil-sounding name, but modern games blow it away with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher when it comes to graphic displays of death and destruction. If you want to see your opponents head explode like an over-ripe tomato, try out Half-Life on a computer with a 3D-graphics accelerator. Doom looks comical in comparison.
The non-gaming world doesn’t seem to realize that playing these games is not about learning behavior to transfer into the real world. The games are about competition and doing the things we specifically cannot do in the real world. Living out one’s undesirable urges on a computer screen is safer than picking up a shotgun in real life. A death match does not teach you new, socially unacceptable behaviors; it lets you blow some steam and have a good time. The catharsis is fun precisely because no one gets hurt.
Some argue, however, that video games socially isolate players as they spend hours alone in front of a computer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of the enjoyment of violent games is the aftermath. When the game is over, people get together in cyberspace and talk about how the game went. They talk about the novel strategies that had paid off; about how opening that door to block a .357 Magnum shot and then firing the plasma rifle through the door was a great idea; about how getting shot in midair was a horribly cool experience. Basically, they socialize. They come out of their shells and make friends with people who share a common interest, just like everyone else.
It is time for the watchdogs of public safety and morality to start fervently looking for the causes of shootings like the one in Columbine. Video games, however, are a red herring. They are not even a symptom of moral decay. They are just the manifestation of youth entertainment that will forever remain incomprehensible to older generations. The times change, but the desire of young people to shock their parents remains the same. Adults must recognize that they will not be cool again. Let the new generations shine brightly for a while; they will grow up eventually and find themselves in the same boat. Before I lose my coolness, though, I am going to put my black t-shirt on, crank up some music and go frag my buddies.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]