Games don't kill, people do -- and guns. Readers respond to David Kushner's "Grand Death Auto."

By Salon Staff

Published February 24, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

[Read the story.]

I am an avid lover of video games. I've been playing them since I was 8 (I'm 24 now) and I think that, at their most masterfully executed, video games are an art form. The "Grand Theft Auto" series, from "Grand Theft Auto III" to the most recent "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," is a radiant demonstration of the art.

But I believe these murderous kids. I can say in all honesty that, after a long session of "Grand Theft Auto," I have driven past cars, even cop cars, and thought to myself, "Yo, let's jack that shit." No joke. The thought has crossed my mind, involuntarily, and seriously. I am smart enough and old enough to brush it off, but had that thought combined with adolescent irrationality, access to weapons, and the right set of emotional circumstances ... I don't know.

It's hard to say if you can blame video games for falling on the minds of emotionally disturbed adolescents who live in boring towns and have access to guns. These things are labeled "M" for "Mature" for a reason, but no serious video game producer believes that the 18+ crowd is its only audience. It comes down to whether or not you can blame parents for the actions and thought patterns of their children, and how you feel about the sources of violence in American culture. I'm not convinced that violence has become worse since the advent of Atari, but I'm not convinced it hasn't, either.

-- Dan Kaplan

Whenever I read one of these stories about violence and video games it hits really close to home, especially the first time. I grew up in a very nice neighborhood and went to a school that was not unlike Columbine. I was not one of the popular kids. I wore a lot of black, listened to industrial music and played a lot of video games. I ditched a lot of classes and did a lot of drugs. I remember the day that the shooting happened as well as the day the planes hit the towers. I was in a blood bank making a donation when the news broke. As days went by and people tried to figure out what had caused this horrible slaughter, everything from the video games to Marilyn Manson took the blame. As I sat there and heard pundits and parents hypothesize and rationalize, all I could think about was how much I looked and dressed like those kids and how much I understood what they were going through. If it is the superficial things about us that shape our minds and guide our actions then I guess there's something wrong with me because I never shot anyone.

Today I make video games for a living. Some of them are violent. Ever since human beings became civilized they have enjoyed danger, violence and death. From gladiatorial combat to public hangings to "Fear Factor," people have always loved to see bad things happen to other people. Freud referred to this primal aggressive desire as Thanatos. This desire is manifested in football games and NASCAR races, in addition to overt violence. In American culture, it is far more prevalent and accepted than Freud's other instinctive desire, Eros. These days if you broadcast too much Eros, you can expect a visit from Michael Powell. Video games don't make people violent, people make games violent because that is what they desire. We should be grateful that this escapist medium exists, because it is one of the few ways we have to express our primal feelings without hurting anyone.

-- David Mershon

So, two kids who have had pretty rough times get together, and go decide to shoot real guns at real trucks, killing real people. And then, they say that "GTA" made them do it?

Can we please just bury this theory once and for all? It's so monumentally ridiculous on its face that it seems almost ludicrous that anyone gives it any credibility at all.

"GTA" is a violent game. There's no question about it. Its violence is particularly effective because the world that the creators have managed to make bears a striking resemblance to reality, and the freedom afforded to the player allows them to be as sadistic as they please.

For a while, I resisted "GTA III," because it wasn't the kind of game I was interested in. Having listened to the controversy, I had no desire to shoot hookers, or kill random bystanders for fun.

But I love video games, and "GTA" is, at this point, a landmark in the medium that can't be ignored. So I played it. And I played it as nonviolently as the story line would allow, which was still pretty violent. But it's undoubtedly a compelling interactive experience, and the kind of experience that's unique to video games, due to the interactivity.

There are certainly some things that we see that affect us, and make us wish we could do things we shouldn't. After a couple hours of "Crazy Taxi," I want to drive like a maniac. After seeing Ong-Bak, my fiancie wants to run around and elbow people. But these things are not real.

These kids made a decision to steal their parents' guns, go to a particular location, load the guns, and shoot at people. Whether they really enjoyed shooting cars in "GTA III" is immaterial. There's a difference between reality and fantasy, and if they can't make that distinction, and understand the consequences of their decisions, they have no business being free to make those decisions.

-- Seppo Helava

The proximate cause of the killings on I-40 in Tennessee was not that the boys were playing a video game. It was that they had access to guns. If their father and stepfather had not bought the guns, shown them how to use them, and kept them in the house, the shootings would not have happened, no matter what ideas ran through the boys' minds. Americans are fools if they think they can lock a few doors and prevent their unhappy children from expressing their frustrations with firearms.

-- Jane Smiley

I wanted to thank Salon for publishing David Kushner's article concerning juvenile murderers and the "Grand Theft Auto" video game. I am a big cheerleader of Salon.com and I appreciate it when an intellectually lazy and melodramatic article like Mr. Kushner's puts Salon back into perspective for me.

I am absolutely sick and tired of the blame game that goes on when a child does something ridiculously stupid and hurts and/or kills someone. It's video game X/music singer Y/movie Z!!! It couldn't possibly be the fact that the parents, the adults in the situation, aren't doing their job! I know, I know, personal responsibility is so 20th century and I realize that I am living in a dream world where I actually expect parents to be more involved in the lives of their kids other then yelling "Be back before dark" while not looking up from "American Idol."

I actually had hope for Mr. Kushner's article. Granted, his first page and a half paints a dark and brooding portrait of the crimes, but he brought me back by laying out the background of the children and the complete absence of necessary adult oversight and guidance. Of course, he purposely underplays this data by neglecting to draw conclusions from it within his article. Of course, Mr. Kushner does manage to suggest and conclude that the video game is to blame several times. He even goes so far as to include the excuse the mother provides in the end that the video game must be the culprit.

I know that an article on stupid and neglectful parents won't sell many articles for Mr. Kushner. But Salon publishing this kind of journalistic garbage does nothing to increase productive dialogue. We ought to be talking about how parents should spend more time with their children, ought to participate in their lives and upbringing, and actually make rules and take the time to enforce them. Instead, we're left with another article that ignores the elephant in the room and blames the game/singer/movie. How lazy and dishonest. Thanks for giving me perspective.

-- Michael Jaffre

I'm sick of all these clueless parents saying they didn't know what was in the video game they allow their children to play. But since they were playing a particular game and they committed some horrible act, the two must be connected.

Millions of children play games without any adverse effects. Books have been written to help businesses exploit the "gamer generation." The military uses (and sells to the public) video games to assist in training. Through video games I've been a firefighter, a Navy SEAL, a pro skateboarder, a crooked cop, a murderer. I have a job. I pay my bills. I've never been in trouble with the law. And I've certainly never killed anyone.

If you think your child doesn't understand the difference between reality and a video game, then it's your job to know what the video game contains. Educate yourself.

The National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) both release video game report cards. They also issue violent video game warnings.

Video games also contain an ESRB Content Rating. This rating can be located on the back of the box and in advertising. No need to play it to check the rating. Would you let your 11-year-old see an R-rated movie? Then why are you letting them play Mature games? It's as simple as turning the box over.

There are also hundreds of resources available online. Many gaming magazines publish online game reviews, which will enable you to read up on exactly what's in the game.

Ignorance is not an excuse. And video games are not the root cause of violence. Some people do bad things. But I haven't murdered anyone. So why am I to be deprived of a game!?

-- Jason Ryan

After reading the story of the Buckner boys, I am again drawn to ponder violence in our society. Why do people think that images on television, heavy metal or rap music, or video games create violent behavior?

Did Adolph Hitler have access to these devices? Did Napoleon or slave masters?

No. Violence is as human as nonviolence. We are all products of our environment and biology.

Maybe some children need to be curbed from violence more than others. Maybe teenage boredom and the lack of creative outlets for the young is a main contributor to violence. Maybe if these kids had something to do in Newport other than count the holes in the ceiling, then the motorists killed on I-40 would still be alive.

The real failure here is not necessarily the parents, but our society. A society that gives its teenagers nothing but empty idols and false hopes for the faculties we fail to give them.

-- Nathan Durbin

In your story about the teenagers in Tennessee who shot two people on I-40 from a position on the side of the highway, you suggest that these kids hit their victims by accident. Specifically, you say that the kids had fired about 20 shots at passing trucks and then, just because they happened to have a few shots left, let the remaining shots go and, oops!, heard the tires squeal on the highway.


These kids shot two people (one in the head; one in the hip) in vehicles moving somewhere between 50 and 80 mph. People are relatively small. Cars are relatively fast. You don't get that lucky twice in a few minutes. Those shots were aimed and intentional.

When I was 10, my older brothers and I were caught throwing rocks at cars from a 40-foot cliff over the highway that was a mile from our house -- we hit three cars in 10 minutes (luckily, causing no accidents). After a driver with a dented hood collected a town cop and then us, we told our parents that we were simply pushing rocks off the edge to clear a space to sit. My mother wanted to believe us. My father, who had been around the block, looked at her and then us for about two seconds each, and then proceeded to beat us blue.

You people were obviously never delinquent teenagers.

-- Sean Corey

The best that can be said of William and Josh Buckner, assuming they are telling the truth, is that they never intended to shoot the people they shot, and that their act of multiple homicide was in fact a monumental case of reckless stupidity -- apparently born from the mistaken belief that .22 rifles cannot penetrate car and truck chassis.

That said, I do not accept that that "GTA 3" is to blame for what they did. Would they have done exactly what they did in the way they did it had they not played "GTA 3"? Probably not. Does that mean "GTA 3" is to blame?

I don't believe so. Fundamentally, those two aimless, rudderless and utterly lonely teenagers sought release through violence. They might have watched "Backdraft," and set buildings on fire. They might have watched "Stand by Me," and played chicken with trains. They might have watched "The Simpsons" and thrown a cherry bomb down a toilet. Or they might have read the Bible, and nailed someone to a cross.

Any form of reckless behavior done without empathy or concern for others carries the capacity to get someone killed. And I would go so far as to say that most kids have done such a thing at one time or another, even the ones with good parents. "Let's see what we can get away with" is practically an anthem of childhood.

The difference between most kids and these two is that most kids have parents who love their children, and by example give them the mental tools necessary to know when they are going too far. Also, most kids have parents who ensure that, when they are not in school, they have some kind of supervision or something to look forward to that doesn't involve massive risk of injuring others. In short, most parents make sure that their kids have a life.

Absent that, the Buckners sought release through violence -- the natural default. "Grand Theft Auto 3" was simply the template these kids chose to fulfill that aimless, nihilistic urge. If not for "GTA 3," they would have looked to "Doom" for ideas on how to cause havoc. If not for "Doom," if there were no violent games in the world, they would have used movies. If not for movies, they would have looked to books. If not books ...

-- Michael English

Salon Staff

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