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The Designer's Notebook: Reflections on the Colorado School Massacre

August 20, 1999
 

At about 11:20 am on Tuesday the 20th of April, two boys named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado heavily armed with guns and home-made bombs. In the next few minutes, they murdered 13 people, wounded at least 24 others, then turned their weapons on themselves. After it was all over, it was discovered that among other dubious enthusiasms they were fond of violent video games.

In the weeks that followed, whole volumes were written about the massacre, and it may be presumptuous – or redundant – for me to add to them. But the real movers and shakers in the game industry, the ones with the power to say what does and does not get onto the store shelves, have been conspicuous by their silence. This tragedy has serious implications for us. It seems appropriate that someone on the inside should point them out.

What follows is not an essay or an argument after the fashion of most of my columns, but a series of disconnected reflections inspired by the Littleton massacre.

***

During the Middle Ages, childhood wasn't legally considered a separate stage of life. The law only recognized one punishment for a given crime, and children were flogged, hanged, and burned just as adults were. Nor were children much regarded socially; they almost never appear in medieval paintings or drawings. The historian Barbara Tuchman theorized in her book, A Distant Mirror, that the worship of Mary as the perfect mother and the infant Jesus as the perfect child may have made all realistic representation of mothers and children unnecessary or even impossible.

Later, in the Victorian era, childhood began to be celebrated in books for and about children such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Childhood was seen as a joyous time filled with innocent pleasures. (This was among the rich, of course. Among the poor, children were put to work in the mills or the mines as soon as they could work a 16-hour day.) But it wasn't until the 20th century that teenagers finally got recognition as a separate class of people. More than children, less than adults, adolescents demanded new forms of entertainment all their own. Sometime after the First World War, a "youth culture" began to emerge. There were books and movies for teenagers, and later, television and video games as well. And what made this possible was the buying power of these new markets. For the first time, kids had money. Lots of money.

Youth culture has now expanded into a multibillion-dollar business, and it has grown so much that it threatens to overwhelm adult culture in the mainstream media. Most new movies and television shows are aimed at young people, and the Hollywood system expects them to be created by young people as well. Screenwriters frequently delete old TV shows from their resumes to prevent studio bosses from figuring out how old they are. Last year there was a big scandal when a much-sought-after 19-year-old Hollywood writer named Riley Weston turned out to actually be a 32-year-old actress named Kimberlee Elizabeth Kramer. The youth market is treated as the only one that counts.

Teenagers chafe under adult supervision, of course, and one of the characteristics of youth culture is that it belittles and satirizes adults. It plays on teens' growing desire for independence and rejection of their parents' clothing and values. It tells them exactly what they want to hear: that adults are uncool, incompetent, irrelevant. Parents, being unwelcome in this world, tend to avoid it. The ordinary, manageable schism between teens and grownups is enlarged and reinforced by a powerful media machine hell-bent on selling more acne cream and basketball shoes. Teen interaction with adults slows to a standstill as each side retreats into their own activities and entertainments, and with that loss of interaction comes a loss of communication and the understanding that goes with it. Then something like the Littleton massacre occurs, and parents suddenly wake up to realize they have no idea what their children are doing or thinking.

We in the game business are part of that divisive, alienating youth culture. Every time we make a game that a teenager would want to play but a mature adult would not, we're contributing to the problem. As a game designer, I'm determined not to do that.

***

A young man and an old woman are walking down a road in Kosovo. They're ethnic Albanians, trying to flee to Macedonia. They're stopped by Serb paramilitaries who demand to know who they are and where they're going. The young man explains that they're trying to leave, but they have to go slowly because his grandmother is very weak. The gunmen pull the old woman aside and kill her. "Well," they tell the man, "that ought to speed up your journey."

One of the Colorado murderers pauses before a cowering girl named Cassie Bernall in the Columbine High School library. "Do you believe in God?" he asks her. "Yes," she says, knowing that the answer will cost her her life. The boy smiles. "Why?" he asks, and shoots her in the head.

James Bond shoots an opponent in the chest with a speargun. "I think he got the point," he says. In another movie, he knocks a lamp into a pool, electrocuting one of the occupants. "Shocking! Positively shocking!" he quips.

Killing people isn't a big deal any more. It's an occasion for a witticism, mild levity. Ha ha.

***

Blaming the Internet for the easy availability of bomb-making instructions makes about as much sense as blaming the Post Office for the easy availability of pornography or white-power pamphlets. The distribution medium is not the source of the problem.

***

It's difficult to ascribe causes to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's actions, because they killed themselves before anyone could ask them why. Obviously, they utterly hated various groups and individuals, but what caused that hatred and how it could have been alleviated are open questions, and what caused them to act on that hatred and how their acts could have been prevented are largely open questions as well. Some people doubtlessly think that video games were a contributing factor. Since both boys are dead, there won't be any definitive conclusions.

But there was one necessary condition for the massacre to take place: they were both heavily armed. Preventing the boys from playing violent video games may or may not have prevented the massacre – personally, I suspect not. But preventing them from being armed undoubtedly would.

Why do we allow children to carry guns?

Think about it. We don't allow children to drive cars, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or gamble. Yet in many states children are allowed to own and carry lethal weapons.

The National Rifle Association's argument, of course, is that there are thousands of people who own guns responsibly, and it would be unfair to punish them for the transgressions of a few. But there are thousands of 14-year-olds who could drive responsibly, and thousands of 20-year-olds who could drink responsibly, too. Still, we don't let them do it. As a matter of social policy, the risk to the public is simply considered too great to allow 14-year-olds to drive, regardless of how many responsible 14-year-olds there might be. Why, then, do we allow children to carry guns?

The NRA also argues that in a well-armed society, public massacres wouldn't happen because the minute someone started shooting, fifteen or twenty other people would shoot back, and the incident would be over seconds later. But I doubt if even Charlton Heston at his most rabid would argue that a high school full of armed teenagers is a good idea. The number of outright massacres might conceivably decrease, but the carnage from duels, vendettas, gang violence, and simple accidents would be unimaginable. Even if, God forbid, the NRA is right about the public at large, their argument doesn't apply to children. Why do we allow children to carry guns?

Don't give me that crap about hunting. The number of people in America who must hunt or go hungry is now vanishingly small. Hunting is not a necessity; it's a luxury, an entertainment like gambling. Since it involves wounding an animal and then chasing it through the woods, essentially for fun, it might even be considered a vice. There is no public-policy reason why children must be allowed to hunt. So why do we allow children to have guns?

Children aren't allowed in well-ordered militias. The Second Amendment doesn't apply to them, any more than the right to vote does. Why do we allow children to carry guns?

Some will say that the law failed to stop to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold from committing murder, so it certainly wouldn't have stopped them from gaining access to guns if they wanted them. But that's no reason not to have laws against giving guns to children. A lot of children get access to alcohol when they shouldn't, but nobody cites that as a reason to lower the drinking age. The law does make it more difficult to get hold of alcohol. There are children who are discouraged from drinking because the law prevents them from buying it. If we had a nationwide law that children must never, never be allowed to touch guns or ammunition, future underage homicidal maniacs may have a harder time getting hold of weapons than Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did.

Guns didn't make them kill those people. But lack of guns would have prevented them from doing it.

***

There's a question that parents ask of adolescent children when the children are demanding to be allowed to do something – usually something dangerous or unwise – because "all their friends are doing it." That question is, "And if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?"

Usually this question results in a sullen "no." But in fact, the true answer is "yes." Yes, if all their friends jumped off a bridge, they would do it too. Teen peer pressure is one of the most powerful social forces in the world, a force stronger than the desire for life itself. To many adolescents, it is literally more important to be accepted and respected by their peers, to be part of the "in" crowd, to be cool, than it is to live.

My own belief, for what it's worth, is that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold finally found a way to gain the respect they so desperately wanted. They killed a lot of people and tried to blow up their whole school.

They did it because it was cool.

We're in the business of creating video games that are cool. And coincidentally, a lot of the time it involves killing people and blowing things up.

Or is it a coincidence? Who taught Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that killing people and blowing things up was cool, anyway?

***

It may never be possible to prove that violent video games cause violent behavior. But if the evidence continues to suggest that it does, if it can be demonstrated inductively even if it cannot be proven deductively, then for the game industry to split hairs about "proof" and "causation" would put us exactly where the tobacco industry is now. For years, the tobacco industry bobbed and weaved and dodged rather than face its problem, and now it's backed into a corner. For years, the tobacco industry claimed that no one had "proven" that smoking "causes" lung cancer and emphysema. But everyone knows damn good and well that smoking causes lung cancer and emphysema, and the Surgeon General's warning now says so explicitly. When the day comes that everyone knows damn good and well that violent video games cause violent behavior – and it may – we'd better be ready. Let's hope we're smart enough to learn from the tobacco industry's mistakes.


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