Columbine

On a cold Tuesday morning in April 1999, two students stormed through Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, setting off homemade bombs and shooting students, teachers, and finally themselves. When the smoke cleared, fifteen were dead, and people across the United States were desperately asking how any of it could have been possible. For developers and players of games with violent content—id’s games, most certainly, but even Richard’s swords-and-sorcery-themed titles—the event would provoke the most significant collision to date between the industry’s fantasy worlds and real life.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s actions sent American society lurching into a period of bitter self-examination, with particular attention focused on the nexus of teenagers, violence, and the entertainment media. Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting of its kind. Harris and Klebold’s rampage capped a string of student shootings that had occurred with alarming frequency over the previous years. This was by far the most extreme, however, and the cable news outlets that broadcast the horrifying events to a rapt nation exacerbated its impact. Images of scared children streaming out of the school and police officers surrounding the area were beamed into America’s living rooms. In one particularly harrowing videotaped sequence, a young student climbed out a second-story window, desperately looking for escape. The vivid pictures of shocked suburbanites and traumatized Columbine students stayed on the nightly news and on the front pages of newspapers for weeks, while investigators, journalists, pundits, legislators, and parents pored over every detail of the two students’ lives, searching for clues to what could have triggered the attacks.

Much of the subsequent soul-searching was valuable, prompting discussion about the complex and often overlooked social, familial, and economic pressures faced by modern teens. Some of it was less rigorous, as people looking for solace turned to simple answers and scapegoats. Harris and Klebold hadn’t been popular kids. They had been on the fringes of a group referred to in the press as the Trenchcoat Mafia, a group of students who had been picked on with some regularity by the school’s athletes. The Trenchcoat Mafia was quickly associated—wrongly, local students later said [1]—with the music of Marilyn Manson and with a Goth subculture filled with people of all ages who dressed in black and were often fascinated with thanatological images. These influences, foreign to many despite their presence in virtually every high school across the country, became an easy target for frightened parents and teachers. In the weeks that followed Columbine, students reported being disciplined or criticized in their own schools for wearing trench coats or other badges of Goth fashion. [2]

As pundits speculated as to the perpetrators’ motives, news leaked that Harris and Klebold had been avid Doom players. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a group that tracked hate groups on the Internet and elsewhere, reported that it had a copy of Harris’ Web site in its archives, and that it contained a modded version of Doom based on the layout of Columbine High School. Harris had set his game in God mode, which meant that player-characters couldn’t be harmed while they traveled through bloody levels that came with operating instructions such as “KILL ’EM AAAAALLLL!!!!!” The revelation that the gunmen had rehearsed their rampage using a computer game provided the apparently easy answers people had hoped for: If violent, interactive computer games caused Harris and Klebold to commit this atrocity, then parents had an easy way to protect their children from future harm.

As that narrative took hold in certain segments of the media, a cacophony of voices began targeting young people who may have fallen outside the mainstream’s idea of a typical student. Kids who immersed themselves in games of Dungeons & Dragons, who found solace in Goth music, and who played computer games were lumped together as potential enemies of public safety.

Relatively few figures emerged to defend these young kids, who now more than ever found themselves pushed to the margins of society. In response, journalist Jon Katz opened up his column on the Slashdot Web site to students who felt alienated and harassed by school administrators, many of whom were cracking down on student conduct by implementing dress codes and, in some cases, restricting Internet access at school. “Suddenly,” Katz wrote in an essay titled “Voices from the Hellmouth,” “in this tyranny of the normal, to be different wasn’t just to feel unhappy, it was to be dangerous.”

Teenagers from around the country wrote in, expressing their anger and confusion at the hatred being directed at them. “Brandy,” identified as a New York City student, summed up much of the feeling within the game community: I’m a Quake freak, I play it day and night. I’m really into it. I play Doom a lot too, though not so much anymore. I’m up till 3 a.m. every night. I really love it. But, after Colorado, things got horrible. People were actually talking to me like I could come in and kill them. It wasn’t like they were really afraid of me—they just seemed to think it was okay to hate me even more. [3]

On a broad level, the adult fear echoed earlier panics over youth violence and subcultures that had swept periodically through the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century. Like their greaser and gangbanger predecessors, Goths and gamers seemed to develop a subculture, in the heart of ordinary society, in which kids created their own rules uncontrolled by any adult authority. For gamers, this world was virtual, giving players like Harris the ability to explicitly mold their experiences to fit and reinforce disturbing fantasies. Worse, critics said, game designers, movie producers, and record labels were providing the raw materials for these fantasies, essentially subverting parental influence. Some large retailers, including Walmart, took note and stopped carrying Doom and Quake.

Id Software wasn’t entirely taken by surprise. The company’s games had been associated, fairly or not, with youth violence before. After fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire at a school in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, killing three students, parents of the victims sued id and several other publishers for releasing violent video games. Although those legal claims would eventually be tossed aside by the court—just as claims that rock music encouraged teenagers to kill themselves had been dismissed over the years—the stigma had stuck.

While few voices blamed Columbine directly on computer games, gaming culture at large was nevertheless subjected to a wave of criticism and hostile attention. Critics glossed over the differences between complex massively multiplayer worlds like Richard Garriott’s Ultima Online, fast-paced action games, and even the vastly more popular sports games. It rapidly became clear that legislators and pundits had little understanding of the variety of play or variety of players that had evolved over the previous decades. In ordinary times that ignorance would have made little difference. In the wake of such a tragedy, this broader societal attention carried the potential to change or even destroy game communities through legislation, market pressure, or other more subtle means of censorship.

The shootings sparked some soul-searching inside the industry, too. Developers interviewed at the time often conceded they wouldn’t let their young children play their own company’s games, and said it was the parents’ job to take responsibility for their own children’s use of media. Gamers blasted Harris and Klebold on Internet bulletin boards and in private conversations, but most agreed that the games themselves bore no responsibility. Games were cartoons, graphic representations existing in a digital world that was only as real as the strength of players’ imaginations. Cyberspace wasn’t an actual place. It was just a construct, and if people like Harris and Klebold couldn’t tell the difference between blasting digital opponents and turning guns on real-life classmates, they were clearly deeply disturbed by something beyond the games. Blaming games and condemning the entire culture was unfair.

“That argument was never taken seriously inside the community,” said Dennis “Thresh” Fong later. “I’ve been to so many LANs, so many tournaments, and I’ve never seen a fight. How could I believe it? I’ve spent time with the hardest of the hard-core gamers there are, and I’ve never seen any sign of violence.”

Yet nuanced answers to complex problems take time to understand, and neither the politicians nor the pundits stumping against video and computer games had the desire to find those answers. Instead of examining root causes of violence, such as poverty, education levels, or parental involvement, many looked for quick explanations and easy solutions. Muddying the waters further, a host of intermediaries stepped into the public spotlight, seeking to explain the game medium and the culture that had grown around it. The airwaves soon filled with media critics, public interest groups, and pundits from the right and left. Game developers and game players fired back, dismissing the cultural critics’ dearth of real familiarity with the sprawling virtual game worlds that made up the industry. A whole spectrum of interpretations arose, often resulting in straw-man arguments, half-truths, and platitudes. Some of the loudest voices believed that games were in fact dangerous, and called for outright censorship of violent and explicit games. Dogmatic voices on the other side declined to give any credence whatever to the idea that violent games might have an effect on some of their players.

Lost in the din of anger and blame were the more thoughtful voices of those who argued that the effects of the games on players were complicated and not easily reducible to sound bites. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Comparative Media Studies co-director Henry Jenkins, drawn reluctantly into the public forum, argued in Congress and on TV that kids used the imagery in games as modern building blocks of age-old stories, reminding the world that even the bloodiest shoot-’em-up games were little different from the longtime backyard fantasies of adolescent boys. A thoughtful counterpoint was psychologist David Walsh, head of the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family, who contended that violent media contributed to a subtle—but real and potentially dangerous—coarsening of the culture.

Despite their disagreements, both Jenkins and Walsh argued that the actual impact of games and interactive media on violence hadn’t been measured adequately yet. While they differed in their interpretation of what the relatively small body of existing studies actually revealed, they agreed that it was important to understand the subtleties of this new interactive medium before condemning it.

This wasn’t the first time that game players and communities had been in the spotlight, but it was the first time that so much had been at stake. Young people had died in a very public manner, and the popular image of gamers had been badly tarnished. For developers and players, this was an unwelcome sign that their communities were maturing. They’d found their way into the popular consciousness for all the wrong reasons, and now developers and players would face the same public scrutiny to which other art forms and underground entertainments had been subjected for years.


  1. Mike Anton and Lisa Ryckman, "In Hindsight, Signs to Killing Obvious," Denver Rocky Mountain News, May 2, 1999, http://denver.rockymountainnews.com/shooting/0502why10.shtml.
  2. Jon Katz, "Voices from the Hellmouth," Slashdot, April 26, 1999, http://news.slashdot.org/story/99/04/25/1438249/voices-from-the-hellmouth.
  3. Jon Katz, "Voices from the Hellmouth," Slashdot, April 26, 1999, http://news.slashdot.org/story/99/04/25/1438249/voices-from-the-hellmouth.

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