Quake, Doom and blood lust

Violent games aren't a problem, says the computer gaming press -- while lovingly hawking the latest innovations in pixelated gore.

By Wagner James Au

Published May 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I think it was on the "Crusher" level of Doom II that the joy of killing really kicked in for me.

I liked the plasma gun and the BFG, sure. But futuristic weapons seem so abstract, compared to the homey utility of a double-barreled 12-gauge. Aim just right, and you can take down two, three men in the same blast; their chests bloom with blood and gore, and they go down howling. Crack the barrel, chamber two more shells -- backpedaling and dodging all the while, as the survivors converge -- and fire again. Timed just right, it becomes a perfectly choreographed danse macabre (fire, reload, dodge, fire) on a stage you quickly turn into an abattoir.

It's been a while since I last played Quake or Doom. But when the news came out that Littleton killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were devotees of those games, and that their appalling revenge on the world was perhaps shaped in part by playing them, I had to reflect on my own experience with first-person shooters -- and acknowledge that, yes, they very likely did have something to do with it.

I should note here that I'm a lifelong game lover; as a freelance writer, I often review computer games, violent and otherwise. It's necessary to state this, because soon after the media descended on Littleton, Colo., the computer games debate devolved into uninformed, anti-game alarmism on the one hand and overwrought denials from the put-upon gaming/online community on the other. But now, with some distance on the massacre, and on the eve of the annual E3 conference -- the video and computer game industry's premiere showcase -- constructing a more nuanced conversation is possible, I think.

And necessary. Because so far, gamers and their online advocates have largely preferred instead to point the blame elsewhere, anywhere -- peer ostracism, poor parenting, access to guns and so on -- before retrenching behind a carpet bomb of false dichotomies, non sequiturs and inapt reductio ad absurdums. Slashdot columnist Jon Katz, for example, seems to think raw numbers qualify as refutation, arguing: "Tens of millions of kids all over the world play computer games ... Yet violence among this group, never very high, again has been plummeting even as online use has mushroomed." Meanwhile, PC Gamer's deputy editor, Dan Morris, offers up a winningly bizarre counter-argument: "It's a safe bet that almost every person arrested for embezzlement last year had Quicken ... Just as we would never reasonably consider banning Quicken, we cannot reasonably consider banning Quake." (How do you say "argument which seems to get me off the hook" in Latin?)

Few politicians have actually suggested banning violent games. Rather, the most common proposal is merely -- and in relation to First Amendment rights, which must remain inviolate, not unreasonably -- to restrict their sale to minors. Even if most people may play first-person shooters and suffer no antisocial consequences, it doesn't follow that all gamers will remain similarly unaffected -- especially a select number of adolescents already in a problem state. And even if there were more pressing factors involved, that doesn't mean we can't devote any attention to the culpability of first-person shooters.

In the most plausible explanation, voracious sociopathy like Harris' and Klebold's must involve a whole fetid stew of corrosive influences. But the move by gamers to reject, outright, any role for violent first-person shooters is telling -- since they've played these games, and should know better.

Play a first-person shooter long enough and its morbid reality seems to descend over your awareness like a grid, accompanied by a kind of adrenalized hyper-awareness and euphoric rage. Grid, adrenaline and rage stay with you, far past the point when you exit to the desktop. Walk away from the computer, and they still persist. You find yourself stealing up on street corners as if preparing to strafe the adjoining block; you seem to see a crosshair traced across the bodies of passersby.

For the overwhelming majority of us, with well-adjusted social lives and a diverse range of interests, the grid recedes. But it's not at all hard to conceive, absent those factors, that the grid would remain in place. It's not at all hard to conceive, with the added fillip of daily humiliation, detached parents and mounting despondency, that it would end up permanently soldered there. Knowing the dark urges these games evoke in me, I can easily picture Klebold, Harris and all their pathetically savage predecessors, slack-jawed before their PCs and game consoles, misappropriating them to dress-rehearse the revenge melodrama they've already scripted in their heads.

One wonders what kind of ruminations the incident stirred among game makers, but those are largely fated to remain private. Researching an article on the subject, Time editor Joshua Quittner slammed straight into corporate stonewall: "Though none of the game companies Time contacted was willing to openly discuss violence in e-games, one game developer agreed to talk on the condition that he not be named."

Game journalists and reviewers are in the best position to force the conversation forward. But if their response to Columbine is any indication, they don't exactly demonstrate any inclination -- or capacity -- for such an exchange.

For example, Aaron John Loeb, editor in chief of Next Generation Online, offers an essay that shamelessly invokes the Holocaust to decry the scapegoating of gamers. But he also calls on producers to imbue their products with moral meaning. "If you are a game designer ... Give us heroes that are actually heroic. Your games will be better for it. And when the crowd at a movie you're watching cheers when the hero shoots the bad man in the head, boo instead." But a recent review of a first-person shooter on Loeb's site leaves you rather unclear as to when the booing is meant to begin:

"Death animations are intricate, elaborate affairs. Creatures react depending on where you hit them, from grabbing their arm and stopping the blood flow (and there is a LOT of flow), to having limbs blown off, to the inevitable and highly watchable head splatter. The feeling of joy and wonder ... is enough to make young girls sigh."

Elliott Chin, previews editor at Gamespot, has a more considered essay in which he asks gamers to seriously consider the concerns of non-fans: "We should at least dignify their legitimate question[s] with some soul-searching." Yet in the same week, a Gamespot preview for Max Payne, an upcoming 3D shooter, enthusiastically notes: "Slow motion will also be used as a reward of sorts for a well-placed shot on an enemy. If you score a difficult head shot, for example, a slow-motion instant replay will show the exchange from a different angle."

Apparently, soul-searching doesn't extend to wondering why such Zapruderian fantasias are worthwhile to begin with.

Kudos for near-parodic inconsistency must go to David Lapard, assistant editor at Adrenaline Vault. He closes his editorial with a self-justifying piety (inadvertently paraphrasing a tobacco executive before Congress): "The answer is not simple. If it were ... I would not spend another dollar supporting virtual violence." But before that, he acknowledges "This time, the game industry cannot coolly insist violent games had nothing to do with the incidents; the victims, past and future, deserve a critical analysis."

A few days later -- long since recovered from his tortured 10 minutes of moral disquiet -- Lapard is devoting his critical analysis to previewing Soldier of Fortune, a strategy first-person shooter adapted from the right-wing magazine of the same name, and praising its impressive rendering technology. The game is apparently "so advanced, snipers can shoot a weapon out of the hands of an opponent ... then, as a finishing move, erupt their head in a crimson explosion ... Hit a leg and the foe starts limping; target their groin and be treated to a spastic fit. The animation is so responsive and models so detailed, the victim's face distorts and his mouth opens to scream."

Here, one should probably resist the most immediate evaluation -- that they are blatant hypocrites -- and more charitably suggest that an industry where extravagantly lavish press junkets are standard is not one conducive to more consistent scrutiny.

This would include E3, the Platonic ideal of press junkets. The Littleton mayhem occurred, most inconveniently for all concerned, after the roster was already in place. Among the featured games will be Max Payne (with aforementioned slo-mo head-shots) and Soldier of Fortune (with aforementioned screaming victims). E3 will also host the long-awaited return of id Software, the patriarch of first-person shooters, and its Quake III: Arena -- whose FAQ promises, "Now limbs and torsos and chunks fly and bounce around a la Quake. Very satisfying." There are rumors that other publishers are taking proactive steps, pulling egregiously bloody games from their booths, to prevent the mainstream media from asking embarrassing questions.

But without satisfactory answers forthcoming, mainstream journalists will eventually depart. The irony is that the questions won't be pursued by their game industry colleagues, either, and this will do the most damage to computer games as a whole -- if only to the medium's shaky status as a nascent art form.

If the computer game is to join the cinema as a genuine artistic innovation of this fading century, it's incumbent on journalists and reviewers to treat it as such. But instead they obsess on the graphic quality of viscera, totally ignoring the moral and psychic implications of the products -- and that helps keep games relegated to the status of amusement park trifles. (And on the censorship front, there is no "Schindler's List" of first-person shooters to bolster their artistic legitimacy against the incursions of ambitious politicians.)

Meanwhile, after E3's tents are folded up and Littleton is forgotten, what becomes of all the culprits gamers were pointing to? Gun ownership will not be meaningfully reduced -- this country already has too well-stocked an arsenal. Barring nationalized therapy, families will grow no less dysfunctional. And certainly teens will go on tormenting dweebish outsiders, who will then return from school, bruised and vengeful, to their heavily armed, dysfunctional homes, and fire up the latest high-resolution FPS with the pistol-shaped control -- the one they'll read about in Next Generation or maybe Adrenaline Vault.

Until then, though, we can only dodge and retreat, as we chamber another round of sophistry, hoping it will be enough to hold off the current public relations assault. That's how we'll await the inevitable successor to Columbine High, when another blood-spattered school hall is hosed down, and the next wave of outrage begins.

Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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