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Doom, Quake and mass murder
Gamers search their souls after discovering
the Littleton killers were part of their clan.

Luddite testimonials

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By Janelle Brown

April 23, 1999 | As the press corps pries into the personalities and pastimes of Littleton killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, we've learned all kinds of curious details -- like that the two were gamers, fans of Doom and Quake.

Harris was an avid player, according to media reports that emphasized he spent hours battling animated opponents. He reportedly created "add-on levels" for the games, posted instructional files on his Web site, was a member of a competitive Quake clan and read books filled with game tips and tricks -- all of which were hauled away as evidence.

This, in itself, shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has hung out with many teenage boys: Millions of gamers have put hours into these two bloody shoot'em-ups, happily blowing pixelated enemies to bits. And, of course, the vast majority of them have never killed anything but a fictitious opponent.

Still, violent video games were quickly blamed as a possible motivator in Tuesday's mayhem. Like Goth clothing, bisexuality, the Internet and German industrial music -- all of which have been called into question in association with the Littleton killers -- the subculture of violent computer gamers is an easy target for pundits eager to provide an explanation for teenage homicide.

The attention, however, has encouraged the gaming community to defend its pastime and also do a bit of soul-searching.

The media's focus on gaming was quick and sometimes sensationalistic when reporters discovered that Harris' Web site was filled with Doom and Quake files. The New York Times examined Harris' add-on levels and described Doom and Quake as "popular computer games in which players stalk their opponents through dungeonlike environments and try to kill them with high-powered weapons." And the Washington Post described the online gaming world as a "dark, dangerous place" where the two boys hung out, and went on to quote Harris's gaming instructions for users of his add-on worlds: "The platoon guarding the teleporter out is VERY large, so beware. Good luck marine, and don't forget, KILL 'EM AAAAALLLL!!!!!"

This might be unexceptional language for any action gamer, but that seemed to elude the mainstream press. CNN said that the boys "reportedly played computer games often, spending hours trying to kill each other with digital guns and explosive devices." It then quoted a Columbine High School senior who said, "I don't believe violent video games lead to violence, but this was different. They'd play these games for hours and hours and hours."

When the gaming community heard that the killers played Doom and Quake, it prepared for the predictable onslaught. GameSpot put up a quick story telling of the calls it had been getting from journalists hungry for a "video violence begets real violence" story.

Stephen Heaslip, editor of the Blue's News gaming news site, groaned, "I've been waiting for the phone calls to start." Instead of editorializing, though, Heaslip opened up Blue's News for gamers to post their reactions. Some feared a possible ban on violent video games; others pointed out that they play games and don't shoot their classmates; still others advocated gun control.

Over on Usenet at alt.games.quake2, gamers scoffed at the inaccuracies of the media reports and joked sarcastically that their gaming habits could turn them, too, into sociopaths. One poster complained about TV reports that "said they learned how to use pipe bombs and grenades from Doom ... Doom doesn't even use pipe bombs or grenades."

"Everyone is always quick to point out murderers that play violent video games, but no one ever thinks of the millions of people that play video games and aren't murderers," said a gamer who goes by the log-in name Theoddone 33. "However, there is a line that should not be crossed. Graphically depicting violent crimes such as rape in video games is a practice I will not defend, and parents should be careful about younger children playing games like Doom and Quake, as younger children are more impressionable and have a harder time distinguishing fact from fiction than post-adolescents."

Over at Quakefinger, a Web site that gathers game designers' personal notes and commentary, there were several contemplative and remorseful essays from the creators of the games themselves.

"We'd have to really be either extremely stubborn, in deep denial, or lying to say that the violence in our games doesn't affect people," mused Mike Gummelt, a programmer at Raven Software. "But I don't think it's Doom that's the problem, it's the free proliferation and general acceptance of violence in our society. In movies, on TV and (to a lesser degree due to limits of realism) in games. That kind of widespread violence and cruelty in media definitely takes the shock out of violence and gore."

Or, as Murphy Michaels, an animator at Ritual Entertainment, wrote, "If you are a parent it's your responsibility to censor your home ... If you are close to your children and pay attention to what's going on in their lives -- then you will know if they have homicidal tendencies."

At least one gamer is trying to encourage a united front. David W. Odom, who runs a Mortal Kombat fan site, quickly launched the Anti-Violence Gaming Community (AVGC) -- a gamers group for people who "know the difference between fiction and real life" and place the blame for teen violence with bad parenting rather than digital gore. Within a few hours of launch, Odom said, the petition had collected 70 signatures.

Will groups like AVGC raise awareness that gaming doesn't uniformly create murderers? Odom hopes so. "I have been playing video games for a very long time. We can't let a couple bad apples spoil the whole crop."
salon.com | April 23, 1999

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About the writer
Janelle Brown is a correspondent for Salon Technology.

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