Learning to love mass murder

I'm not a violent guy. But I just cheerfully burned an entire marching band to death, then kicked a woman's head downstairs. OK, it's all virtual slaughter, but I'm starting to scare myself.

By Peter Olafson
Published March 31, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

The head bounced down the concrete stairs. When it bounced, it made a hollow thump, and where it bounced, on every fifth or sixth step, it left a roundish red stain. At the bottom, it rolled in a silent, bloodless arc across a dirt path and came to rest tilting face down. Its dead face wore an expression, not of horror or pain, but of incomprehension.

This expression might have been my own.

I had separated the head from its body with a shovel I found near the dilapidated trailer that served as my home base in the computer game "Postal 2." Then I gave it a running kick -- as if it had been a soccer ball in a wig. It ricocheted off a dirt slope, skidded off the top of the stairs, and began to bounce.

Initially, I did not understand why I had done these things. It's not like me at all. I am usually gentle in games. Or rather, since games rarely encourage gentleness, I am as gentle as games allow me to be. In strategy games, I often build farms when I should be building military barracks. In role-playing games, I'm happiest when I'm just exploring. And in action games, where death is the official language, I kill only people who would kill me and, taking it on faith that my targets are bad people, those I've been ordered to kill. I don't usually attack innocent bystanders.

And yet, on my second day in the fictional town of Paradise, Ariz., in a space of less than five minutes, I killed 13 of them in the most brutal ways imaginable.

I was startled at what I had done and appalled at how I had done it. Even now, months later, I am a little appalled.

But I also found the experience oddly exhilarating. I couldn't seem to stop. And I can't be sure I won't do it again.

Killing is a familiar task to people who play computer and video games. In 23 years of gaming, I must have killed hundreds of thousands of enemies. Maybe millions. I have dropped bombs on them, blasted them with artillery and run them over with tanks. I have shot them with guns and arrows, slashed them with swords, and beaten them with clubs. I have punched them and kicked them off high platforms.

Typically, I haven't had other options. To make progress in most games, I have to kill my enemies. (It's only in the last few years that we've seen a steady flow of games, like the "Thief" series, that allow the player to sneak past them.) No moral ambiguities accompany their deaths. It's them or me.

But recent years have also seen games like the "Grand Theft Auto" series that permit the player to kill noncombatants. These are not bad guys. These are people just walking along the street and minding their own business.

I've occasionally attacked innocent characters, but usually by accident or for semi-practical reasons. Just recently, in the computer game "Call of Duty," too lazy to look in the manual, I shot one of my fellow Allied soldiers in the leg to gauge how careful I'd have to be with friendly fire. (Pretty careful. The soldier's health dropped a notch, and he flinched and complained.)

And in "Grand Theft Auto III," I hunkered down in the enclosed yard of a posh house and fired on passersby to draw out the police. I knew from experience in the first two games in the series that bad behavior produced an escalating response from the authorities -- eventually, they send in the Army -- and I wanted to see if the pattern would repeat. (It did, and I wound up stealing a tank.)

Even then, I stopped when the Washington-area sniper attacks began and game life and real life seemed too similar to each other.

I can claim no such excuses for killing the people in "Postal 2."

I didn't see the attack coming. Quite the opposite. I'd played the original "Postal" with a gathering distaste for its spree-killer conceit -- it treated good guys like bad guys -- and started the sequel (recently re-released in an expanded edition) with a determination not to kill when I didn't have to kill. Up to this point, I'd been successful. I'd made it through the first of the game's five days without hurting anyone.

When I was fired from my job at game developer Running With Scissors (the actual developer of "Postal 2"), I could have killed my boss in revenge. After all, he'd laughed right in my face after he gave me the boot.

But I just watched as he laughed, rocking back on his heels, and then took my last paycheck from his desk. When the Parents for Decency protesting outside then dropped their picket signs and launched an armed assault on the developer's offices, I escaped through the basement.

At the bank I waited in line, cashed the check, and then rode out a robbery huddled behind a balustrade. I did not loot the open vault, though I did think about it. I did not kill the young woman who cut into line ahead of me, or the police who responded to the robbery.

Some might argue that it doesn't matter whether I killed them or not. I'm a reasonably mature adult and, after all, it's just a game.

But why should I abandon my real-world principles in a virtual world simply because I can do so with impunity? Killing innocent characters makes me feel bad. It's as though a tiny creature with a fragile constitution has been placed in my care, and I've stepped on it. Invariably, my conscience nags at me until I replay the critical scene and spare the innocent. It doesn't make me feel better, but it doesn't make me feel worse.

The following day, my conscience temporarily abandoned me.

Tuesday started out much like any other day in the game. I received four seemingly mundane errands: collect eight signatures on a petition requiring "whiney congressmen to play violent video games," return a library book, get an autograph from celebrity Gary Coleman (who was signing books at the local mall), and confess my sins in church.

I wondered briefly what exactly I was expected to confess. I hadn't done anything wrong.

I had just crossed the giant litter box that passed for the trailer's front yard when I heard music. A band was marching three abreast, more or less, along a nearby street. The six men and three women wore white pants and bright blue tops with gold trim, carried saxophones, and played "Hail to the Red, White and Blue" over and over again.

I stood among passersby on the bleak residential street and watched them for a while. The band turned the corner and headed north, up the empty slope toward a small business district.

An evil thought slipped unbidden into my head.

In my wanderings on the previous day, I'd avoided picking up obvious weapons, but had nevertheless collected the shovel and a gallon can of gasoline. (I'd found the gas can in a neighbor's bathtub. My conscience is oblivious to virtual trespassing.)

When I put the marching band together with the gas can, something clicked, and I acted swiftly and almost without thinking. I restored a saved game from the beginning of the day and, this time, instead of watching the band, I raced ahead of it. When I was far enough ahead that no one could see me, I spread my small store of fuel in loops across the band's path.

Then I stepped back and waited. And when the band entered the section of road where I'd poured the gas, I lit a match.

It was a holocaust. The flames, much more intense than I'd expected, raced along the line of gasoline. When they reached the lead marchers, the marchers instantly burst into flame, as though their uniforms were already soaked in fuel. They ran around screaming and holding their heads. When they bumped into other marchers, the other marchers caught fire and began running and screaming as well. The blaze spread and spread, consuming onlookers and neighbors.

It almost claimed me, but I stepped back and allowed the burning figure to run past me. Standing behind a tree, I stared at the flames and listened to the screams, swept up in corrupt fascination with what I'd done.

Eventually, the gasoline burned itself out, and the fire ran out of victims. I counted 12. Most of the bodies were in the street. Two were huddled in the bushes beside the road. Another was on the porch of a nearby house and another in the doorway, as though the victim had been trying to escape the carnage -- or had just walked in on it.

And one was alive. A red, blistered figure crawled on its belly along the side of the road. Its pain was so palpable that I looked around at the other bodies for a gun to put it out of its misery. (When a character dies, anything it was holding appears beside its body.)

By the time I returned, the figure was dead.

I was numb. I felt like a man who'd intended to light a campfire and had started a forest fire instead. I didn't know what to do and wound up hovering around the scene of my crime, just as real-world arsonists are sometimes said to do. Maybe I wanted to appear innocent -- pretend I was just discovering the bodies. Maybe I just wanted to be caught. What I'd done seemed so spectacularly wrong that it must carry some consequences.

Nothing happened. Passersby who'd been outside the area at the time of the fire were moving in slowly from the residential area to the southwest. They stared unmoved at the corpses, as if they'd walked in on a performance-art piece and didn't quite grasp the scene before them. None of them seemed to connect me with the event.

And there was no sign of police.

Paradise does have a significant police force. On Monday, I'd come to see it as an ally when its officers killed the bank robbers and exchanged fire with people shooting at me.

If those officers had seen my handiwork on Tuesday, they probably would have shot me on sight.

But they didn't see me. Either there weren't any police in the area, or they'd been swept up in the fire. Perhaps it was just as well. In this murderous frame of mind, I might have seen police less as a binary blue line protecting computer-game society and more as another potential bull's-eye, and taken them on as well.

In any case, I had gotten away with murder.

What's the second act to a multiple homicide? I'm ashamed to say so, but my first impulse was to find a larger gas can and a larger parade. The very grotesqueness of the attack was its appeal. I'd created a dark spectacle that rivaled anything I can recall seeing in a game.

In fact, for just a second, I had the sense that I'd broken the game and that something had spilled out of its cracked black heart that "Postal 2" would show to no one else.

At the same time, I was disgusted with myself -- disgusted I had sacrificed my convictions, disgusted with the gruesome method I had chosen, disgusted that part of me wanted to continue in this vein. I had torn a hole in the game and fallen into it, and now I wanted it to be over.

But it wasn't over.

When I looked north from the marching band's starting position, I saw a woman standing alone near the base of a long flight of stairs. She was wearing white pants and a bright blue top with gold trim.

She was a member of the band. The woman appeared unhurt, but seemed to have lost her saxophone. How had she escaped the fire? And what was I going to do about it?

I was out of gasoline by then, but I still had the shovel.

The woman screamed when she saw me holding the shovel and screamed more, looking over her right shoulder, when I chased her up the stairs and along the path beside the coin laundry.

After I hit her three times, she stopped screaming. The shovel gave a ringing clang, and her body went one way, limbs all out of kilter, and her head another. There was a strange silence, as though my own head had been thrust underwater, and an awful lot of blood.

Why would I do such a thing? Even in a game, why would I do such a thing? In real life, I'm a peaceful fellow. I've started exactly one fight in my life, and it wasn't even much of a fight. (That was 35 years ago, when I was in junior high school, and I was provoked.) I wasn't angry -- at least not in my conscious mind -- or trying to work out in the game world something that had happened in the real one. The band members didn't have anything I wanted. They hadn't hurt me. I didn't mind the music they played, the looks on the marchers' faces, or the uniforms they wore. And the whole notion of a band marching through a three-dimensional game was a novel and appealing one.

At the time, I was too close to the event to sort this out. I recognize now that the shovel attack was the action of someone who has already gone so far that it no longer matters how far he goes. After a serial killer has murdered a dozen people, is he likely to fret over the 13th?

And the destruction of the band? I didn't see innocent characters marching in peaceful formation. I saw an opportunity to sow chaos.

I've had that impulse in games before. Usually, it is born of boredom or desperation. In flight simulations, eager to make something happen, I used to steer planes into buildings. In racing games, toward the back of the pack, I sometimes bump other cars in the hope of causing a spectacular crash. When the tide turned against me in the old strategy game "Balance of Power" and a recent one, "Rise of Nations," I deliberately propelled the world toward nuclear Armageddon. I didn't care that I was ending the game. That was the whole idea: Push the game into the abyss and see what's down there.

In "Postal 2," it almost seemed that I was supposed to mess with the band -- that a lamb had been deliberately released into a lion's den. Was this procession inserted into a shoot-'em-up simply so it could march by unobstructed?

Of course, I didn't have to take the bait. I could have kept watching the band. But in a virtual world, where every player action is anticipated and every game reaction is preordained, chaos gave me at least the illusion of control. It was chaos, but it was my chaos.

Or half mine. Even the chaos was choreographed -- albeit with a broad brush. The creators of "Postal 2" creators had anticipated my evil thought. They imbued the gas and band members with certain properties. (They burn like rocket fuel.) They placed the shovel in the shed, the gas can in the bathtub, and the band in my path.

I'm not blaming the designers. They only set the stage. I picked up the gas can. I poured the gas. I lit the match. On discovering I hadn't killed off the whole band, I picked up the spare.

In retrospect, firing a gun in the air or even just brandishing a weapon within view of the marchers would have worked as well. But I didn't have a gun at the time. As mentioned earlier, I had deliberately avoided picking up obvious weapons. What I didn't have, I wouldn't be tempted to use.

Instead, I set the band on fire. I embraced this paradox. I pushed my conscience off a cliff, and then waited for it to hit the pointy rocks at the bottom. And when I was done, I walked down the stairs to get a better look at the detached head.

The killing ended as suddenly as it had begun. I'd allowed Tuesday morning's events to play out a third time. This was not an attack of niceness but academic curiosity: What would happen to the band if I didn't intercede?

It turned out to be doomed. As the procession turned a corner at the far end of the business district, a man with a turban and a beard ran from a tunnel at its rear, raced to the head of the parade, and blew himself up. (Paradise is home to a vast terrorist cell.) The explosion killed several band members outright and set others on fire. The survivors screamed and scattered.

I had preempted a terrorist attack. In fact, casualty for casualty, I had performed the terrorist's job more effectively than the terrorist himself.

This grim thought made me play through the day once more. This time, I found a shotgun, positioned myself at the final turn in the band's route and killed the terrorist before he could blow himself up. When I fired, the marchers screamed and scattered. I'd wrecked the procession (which was about to be wrecked in any case), but I hadn't killed anyone who wasn't himself planning to kill.

I didn't get away with murder this time. Two police officers witnessed the shooting. I dropped the gun, stood still as one of them handcuffed me and took me into custody, and wound up in a third-floor cell in the police station with only my matches.

This seemed a sly comment on my earlier transgression, and I waited here for quite some time, pacing between bars and cot, before I realized that I'd reached a dead end and would have to escape.

I can't say any of this repaired my prior bad acts. I had still done what I had done. I can still see that burned figure crawling along the road and the headless body at the top of the stairs. Saving the band didn't save me.

Could anything have rescued me from myself? Not in "Postal 2." I was damned the moment I threw that match.

But, lately, I've been imagining a different game. In this game, I do not burn down the band. In this game, I have other fish to fry.

Given the potential freedom that games afford, it's astonishing how few meaningful decisions are left to players. For every "Grand Theft Auto III" that allows you to roam far and wide, there are dozens of games that force the player into a gantlet. You may follow a slightly different route and perform tasks in a different order while wearing a different type of armor than the next fellow, but, in essentials, everyone's experience is roughly the same.

And the fact is that, while I hated what I did in "Postal 2," I liked having the freedom to do it. The game didn't force a single approach on me. I could run from combat and spare every life that could be spared. I could defend myself when attacked. Or I could be the Angel of Death --using weapons that ranged from my booted foot to a toxin stored in a severed bull's head.

However, I do wish my options had extended beyond killing or not killing, and that the forces of order had a better shot at coming out on top.

Identifying bad guys in "Postal 2" is cut and dried. They're the ones shooting at me. Making them dead or avoiding them is basic to my survival.

The innocent characters don't shoot at me. That's the sum total of their innocence. But they also don't actively entice me to behave well. In essence, the band didn't give me a reason not to set it on fire.

I'm being only a little facetious here. In the real world, people don't have to advertise their innocence. For most of us, it's the normal way of being. But in Paradise -- where a significant percentage of the population is packing heat, institutions are routinely under attack, and certain businesses engage in savage enterprises -- I need some extra inducement to be gentle.

For instance, suppose that, instead of a gasoline can, "Postal 2's" creators had placed a saxophone in that neighbor's bathtub, and that I could play the sax by pressing the keys on the computer keyboard. I could have taken lessons. I could have auditioned for the band. I could have marched with it.

Perhaps I would have played badly, gotten fired again, and this time people all over town would have laughed at me. Or perhaps I'd have played well, and earned a spot as featured soloist in a theoretical Paradise Symphony Orchestra.

Maybe I could have even moved out of that trailer.

Either way, I'd have an inducement to keep the band members alive. Either way, I'd have achieved something nonlethal -- even if that just meant making an ass of myself in public. And I doubt I'd have cut off someone's head. In the game I envision, each of those 13 dead bodies would represent a lost opportunity.

It's a nice fantasy, anyway. And it helps me forget that, in the actual game, I did cut off someone's head.

But it's kicking that head that bothers me most of all. The other events are distant enough now that I can blow off the fire as a would-be hotfoot that got wildly out of hand, and sometimes even rationalize the decapitation as simply finishing what I had started.

But the kick seems a barbaric act any way I look at it, and it still haunts me. It creeps up out of my memory late at night, just before I fall asleep, pricks me with a pin, and taunts me: "You are not who you think you are."

When, in a made-up world, you do something meaningless that seems meaningful in the real world, what does it mean? Does it even mean anything? I don't know, and I don't really want to know. It's enough that it made me doubt myself. I can't recall another game that did that.

I suppose this was why I kept playing "Postal 2" -- to try and reconnect with my old, peaceful self.

It seemed to work. For the next two days, I did as little harm as possible to the people of Paradise. When I escaped the police lockup, the police shot me a dozen or more times, but I did not return fire. (However, I did take the doughnuts and cash off the chief's desk. My conscience was still oblivious to virtual theft.) Later on, when the cops showed up at the mall to arrest the virtual Gary Coleman, and Coleman suddenly produced an automatic weapon, I quickly made for the exit.

I did get into a running gun battle with anti-book protesters while escaping the burning library and had to mow down a small army of terrorists when leaving the church. They were bad guys, and I'm used to shooting bad guys.

But later in the week, I went to the parade grounds south of town. Elephants were on display. An evil thought slipped unbidden into my head. This time I had a gun, and I opened fire.

The elephants charged and killed almost everybody.

Peter Olafson


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