The recent spate of sniper killings in the northeast has unfortunately produced another line of thought on the subject of violence in computer games. Note that what follows concerns only adults and violent interactive entertainment, not children.
A few days ago I was watching one of the ubiquitous talking-head entertainment programs that passes for journalism these days, and a retired NYPD homicide detective was being asked for his take on the sniper killings. His opinion was that the sniper was different from the ‘normal’ spree or serial killer, primarily because the attacks, like the killings at Columbine, seemed to him to be part of “a game.” Before I had a chance to wonder whether he was using the term metaphorically or not, the detective asserted that the killers at Columbine had been acting out the fantasy of a computer game that they had played.
In a frozen moment I realized that while most people would be relieved when the sniper was caught, I, as a member of the interactive entertainment industry, would still be waiting apprehensively to find out if the killer’s software library included any computer games that featured sniping. Assuming for the sake of argument that I’m not the only person in the business who’s had this thought, why we aren’t getting ahead of the curve this time?
As the detective unintentionally pointed out, Columbine was our warning that the games biz has become the cultural scapegoat of choice for rationalizing irrational acts, but we as an industry don’t seem to have learned anything from that experience. Obviously we can always hide behind the First Amendment, but that will only protect us in a court of law, not in the court of public opinion. If it turns out the sniper was indeed playing any of the following games, do we as content providers really want to leave it to the often-juvenile gaming press to speak for our industry?
Agent Under Fire
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
No One Lives Forever
Serious Sam 2
Assuming we want to try a different approach, there’s probably no better place to start than by looking at the National Rifle Association (NRA). Whether you’re for or against that group, it’s hard to deny the fact that they’ve been very successful lobbying for their own constitutionally-protected products. For example, while we have yet to find out whether this sniper has drawn any twisted inspiration from simulated sniping in a computer game, it’s quite clear that he is using a firearm to commit these crimes. Whatever you think of the “Guns don’t kill people, people do!” argument, it’s a measure of the gun industry’s lobbying success that if the sniper does turn out to be a fan of a game that includes sniping, it’s probably going to be the games biz that takes the public relations hit, not the guns biz.
So, why don’t we have a lobbyist or spokesperson who speaks for our industry on subjects like this? (Is this something the IGDA should look into?) Shouldn’t we be responding with reasoned arguments and relevant information when there’s even the suggestion, as the detective made, that crazed acts are being ’caused’ by computer games with violent content? And why don’t we state preemptively that anyone who uses a computer game as a blueprint for their own homicidal agenda is not a gamer, but a killer? (If your answer is because that’s obvious, how obvious is it going to be to the relatives of the victims if it turns out the killer was playing Hitman fourteen hours a day?) Why do we need to wait until somebody puts us on the defensive?
If it does turn out that part of this killer’s sniping fantasy involved computer games, we should be ready as an industry to cite web sites, fantasy camps, movies, television shows, books, etc., that also feature or promote sniping. And I’m not talking about approaching this issue with defensive, semantic ‘spin’, either. I’m talking about providing a point person who can knowledgeably and calmly answer questions when a deranged individual latches onto or patterns their carnage after works in our medium.
Sure, maybe we’ll get lucky and the sniper will blame his rampage on the Steve Martin movie The Jerk instead of the ‘Sniper Town’ mission in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but I’m not betting on it. This person probably attempted to satisfy their homicidal urges with every available medium before going criminal, and it would be naive to think that computer games won’t turn out to have been part of that process. In my opinion it’s also naive to think that we shouldn’t or won’t have to justify the validity of our medium to people who have concerns about violence in our society.
— Mark Barrett
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