We’ve come a long way since Columbine

Doom When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot up Columbine High School eight years ago, nearly every story hyped up their alleged love of Doom and The Basketball Diaries. (Never mind that, in 1999, Doom was already six years old and Quake II would have been the id game of choice for savvy gamers.) The shootings sparked a bipartisan rush to moralize about pop culture rot, the effects of which we’re still seeing in the obviously unconstitutional game laws that continue to get passed.

So it was surprising and refreshing to read the coverage of last week’s Virginia Tech shootings and not have to stop and snort every couple of paragraphs at a lazy attempt to link Seung-Hui Cho’s rampage to some pop culture influence. Many of the first stories did make cursory, if unconscious attempts to explain the shootings by including weirdly irrelevant details: Cho_2 Cho was described as sitting silent in the back of a class “wearing a hat,” and his parents’ Virginia townhouse was ominously described as “off-white.” (Because everyone knows Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents lived in an off-white house, and Charles Whitman wore a hat every day.) But aside from an early mention in an online Washington Post story of Cho having played Counter-Strike — a detail that was removed from subsequent versions of the story online and was not included in any print stories — these attempts didn’t include connecting Cho’s pop culture habits with his murderous insanity.

Yes, lawyer and anti-game crusader Jack Thompson took his usual routine to Fox News. But if a virus wiped out the world’s mushroom crop, Thompson would go on Fox News blaming Goomba_2 Super Mario Bros. for training a generation to hate the fungus by getting them to stomp on Little Goombas. Video game defenders quickly lamented the “knee-jerk immediacy of the assumption that videogames must have been involved,” as Smartbomb author Heather Chaplin wrote in a Kotaku column. But as far as I can tell, only Thompson was making this claim. And by midweek, even Chris Matthews was exposing Thompson’s empty argument on Hardball.

The other example Chaplin and others have used to claim a video game backlash is Dr. Phil, who said this on Larry King Live after the Tech shootings:

And the problem is we are programming these people as a society. You cannot tell me — common sense tells you that if these kids are playing video games, where they’re on a mass killing spree in a video game, it’s glamorized on the big screen, it’s become part of the fiber of our society. You take that and mix it with a psychopath, a sociopath or someone suffering from mental illness and add in a dose of rage, the suggestibility is too high.
And we’re going to have to start dealing with that. We’re going to have to start addressing those issues and recognizing that the mass murders of tomorrow are the children of today that are being programmed with this massive violence overdose.

Dr. Phil is an insufferable blowhard, but he’s making a crucial distinction in this comment. He’s not blaming video games and movies for teaching kids to kill. He’s blaming violent media for influencing crazy people. Just as watching TV at a very young age is okay for most children but could lead to autism in a small number of people, watching and playing violent movies and games is okay for most children but could be a factor in a very small number of people’s violent actions later in life. I don’t think this supposition is cause for alarm and is certainly no reason to censor art or tar an entire medium, but it’s a reasonable point to make. And despite the complete lack of scientific evidence that violent media make ordinary people behave violently, a continuing, honest discussion about violence is healthy in this Hostel-and-Tarantino age.

Far from being an example of video game blowback, Dr. Phil’s comment is a sign of how far we’ve come since Columbine. The unspoken question underpinning those Doom and Marilyn Manson references was, “What caused two suburban kids to snap?” The assumption underpinning the Virginia Tech stories has largely been, “This is a crazy guy who snapped.” The most heartening thing I’ve read about the shootings was a single sentence in a Washington Post story about the package Seung-Hui Cho sent to NBC: “The communications sought to explain his actions but served mostly to display his anger and illness.” If you take Cho’s insanity and mental illness as a given, then everything else — the teasing in middle and high school (but everybody’s teased), his perceived grievances against rich kids (but how cliched and lame is that?), his “depraved” college screenplays (which are notable less for the violence and more for their childishness and ninth-grade voice), whatever games he played or movies he saw — is ultimately irrelevant. They might give us an understanding of what set Cho off, or how he constructed his sick worldview in his own mind, but the fact is he was crazy and crazy people will do their thing no matter what happened to them as a child or what they watch.

Even more than the current political atmosphere, this explains why the Tech shootings haven’t led to an immediate national referendum on gun control the way Columbine did. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was interesting in parts, but the movie failed as a whole because he simply exchanged one set of lazy claims about the school shootings (violent media was the culprit) for another (Lockheed Martin being Littleton’s largest employer and banks that double as gun shops were the culprit). We seem to have gone beyond the Moore view and taken a more nuanced, serious approach to insane rampages.

You know there’s been a change when Rush Limbaugh recognizes the Jack Thompson and Michael Moore views for what they are. On his radio show last week, Limbaugh cautioned a caller against blaming video games or any one thing for the Tech shootings:

We can find all kinds of societal problems and ills, but the fact of the matter is that whatever you would look at as a bad influence — video games as you mentioned — it may desensitize people, but it doesn’t turn everybody into mass murderers. … If you start blaming the video games, you may as well demand video game control because it’s the same thing when you start trying to blame guns for this. You have here a sick individual, an evil individual who committed a random act.

Limbaugh’s logic isn’t airtight; there’s a big difference between banning a weapon and banning entertainment (i.e. only one can be used to kill someone), and millions of not-crazy people use guns for violent acts short of mass murder. But it’s nice to hear a pundit, right or left, dispense with the scaremongering and treat media violence realistically.

Accepting that there are no singular causes for a mass shooting can be hard. We want the small comfort a Doom anecdote provides us; otherwise we’re left confronting the cold void of a violently ill mind. But let’s give ourselves some credit. We’re not to blame, and neither is any piece of art we’ve created. We should take comfort in knowing society has matured to the point where we can accept that with open eyes and clear consciences.

— April 24, 2007

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