Tragic timeliness

Feed's fine special issue on games went up just two days after the Littleton massacre.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was one of those in-depth responses to a hot current issue that was so timely and comprehensive that you couldn't quite believe the editors put it together so fast. And in fact they didn't. Only two days after the Columbine High School shootings introduced mass America to "first-person shooters" and other types of newly notorious video games, Feed magazine posted the first part of a massive special issue, "Brave New Worlds," exploring the future and the present cultural ramifications of games.

But according to Feed editor Austin Bunn, who masterminded the issue, the timing was an "unfortunate synchronicity." Or, given some of the heated accusations against gaming in the past week, a fortunate one. A thoughtful piece by kids' CD-ROM auteur Theresa Duncan (Chop Suey, Smarty) on the positive side of video game violence -- she notes, for instance, that psychologist Bruno Bettelheim considered often-gruesome violence essential to children's fairy tales -- "was planned for months" before the killings at Columbine. In fact, Duncan had wanted to revise the piece to take the news event into account, which, Bunn said, raised a journalistic question: Do you rewrite the official record by revising the piece, let it stand or offer both the original and revisions?

Duncan's piece ended up running largely as it was, with a few references to Sen. Joseph Lieberman's attacks on video games; instead, Bunn used Feed's well-integrated reader discussion section, the Loop, to pursue the question. "Lieberman might make easy targets of Carmaggedon and Postal," he began the debate, "but we might be making too easy a target out of him ... Don't video games have some influence on us?" In part, the Loop made a virtue of necessity for a smaller online publication; Bunn noted that, even if he had wanted to rework the issue to respond to Littleton, "we're only seven people over here."

And, Bunn said, there was the question of whether to let current events drive the discussion; overhauling the issue could have organized the debate on the talking heads' terms. In fact, the issue goes far beyond hot-button issues like violence; with pop-culture savvy and accessible intellect, the package takes the characteristic Feed position that digital media shape our understanding of the world and are evolving into new art forms. Critic Neil West looks at the evolution of computer games from the text-based adventures of 20 years ago to today's graphic extravaganzas; there's an interview with Myst and Riven creator Robyn Miller, now working on computer-generated feature films (which hopefully will be a touch less "tranquil" and "Zen-like" than his CD-ROMs), and a dialog examining aesthetic and technological issues in game design today. The future of gaming, the issue implies, will be as much about art and emotion as firepower: "If the booming market for PC, Playstation, and Nintendo games has been built on technologic innovation -- well, that and shotguns -- the broad popularization will be staked on feeling," Bunn writes. Part two, which explores the links between video games and film and examines the politics of SimCity, goes online Wednesday.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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