Image: ‘Counter-Strike’
Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney and opponent of violent video games, said Va. Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui played ‘Counter-Strike,’ Valve Software’s popular multiplayer game.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/20/2007 10:05:13 PM ET 2007-04-21T02:05:13
COMMENTARY

The shooting on the Virginia Tech campus was only hours old, police hadn't even identified the gunman, and yet already the perpetrator had been fingered and was in the midst of being skewered in the media.

Video games. They were to blame for the dozens dead and wounded. They were behind the bloodiest massacre in U.S. history.

Or so Jack Thompson told Fox News and, in the days that followed, would continue to tell anyone who'd listen.

"These are real lives. These are real people that are in the ground now because of this game. I have no doubt about it," said Thompson, a Florida attorney and fervent critic the of video game industry.

The game he's talking about is "Counter-Strike," a massively popular team-based tactical shooting game that puts players in the heavily armed boots of either a counter-terrorist or terrorist.

But whether Seung-Hui Cho, the student who opened fire Monday, was an avid player of video games and whether he was a fan of "Counter-Strike" in particular remains, even now, uncertain at best.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the school shootings and the finger-pointing that followed, game players and industry advocates say they're outraged that the brutal acts of a deeply disturbed and depressed loner with a history of mental illness would be blamed so quickly on video and computer games. They say this is perhaps the most flagrant case of anti-game crusaders using a tragedy to promote their own personal causes.

"It's so sad. These massacre chasers — they're worse than ambulance chasers — they're waiting for these things to happen so they can jump on their soapbox," said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.

"It disgusts me," said Isaiah Triforce Johnson, a longtime gamer and founder of a New York-based gaming advocacy group that, in response to the accusations, is now planning what is the first ever gamer-driven peace rally. 

‘Mental masturbation’
When Jack Thompson gets worked up, he refers to gamers as "knuckleheads." He calls video games "mental masturbation."

When he's talking about himself and his crusade against violent games, he calls himself an "educator." He likes to use the word "pioneer."

Certainly Thompson has made a name for himself. After all, he knows a thing or two about publicity. He's spent no small bit of time in front of a camera.

On those rare occasions when a student opens fire on a school campus, Thompson is frequently the first and the loudest to declare games responsible. In recent years he's blamed games such as "Counter-Strike," "Doom" and "Grand Theft Auto III" for school shootings in Littleton, Colo., Red Lake, Minn. and Paducah, Ky.

He's blamed them for shootings beyond school grounds as well. In an attempt to hold game developers and publishers responsible for these spasms of violence, Thompson has launched several unsuccessful lawsuits.

But in the hours after the Virginia Tech massacre, Thompson wasn't the only one rushing to make a connection between the shootings and video games. Police were still struggling to piece together the nightmare that had unfolded on campus that morning when Dr. Phil McGraw appeared on Larry King Live and took aim at the usual suspect.

"The problem is we are programming these people as a society," he said. "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."

Meanwhile, by Tuesday, The Washington Post had posted a story on its Web site stating that several youths who knew Cho said that in high school he'd been a fan of violent video games, especially "Counter-Strike."

But a short time later, the newspaper removed that paragraph from the story without explanation. Meanwhile, authorities released a search warrant listing the items found in Cho's dorm room. Not a single video game, console or gaming gadget was on the list, though a computer was confiscated. And in an interview with Chris Matthews of "Hardball," Cho's university suite-mate said he had never seen Cho play video games.

None of this seems to matter to Thompson.

"This is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he's a video gamer," he told MSNBC.com.

And in a letter sent to Bill Gates Wednesday, he wrote: "Mr. Gates, your company is potentially legally liable (for) the harm done at Virginia Tech. Your game, a killing simulator, according to the news that used to be in the Post, trained him to enjoy killing and how to kill."

(Microsoft did not create "Counter Strike" but did publish a version of it for the Xbox. The company's representatives declined to comment on Thompson's letter. MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)

While Thompson concedes that there are many elements that must have driven Cho to commit such a brutal act, he insists that without video games Cho wouldn't have had the skills to do what he did.

"He might have killed somebody but he wouldn't have killed 32 if he hadn't rehearsed it and trained himself like a warrior on virtual reality. It can't be done. It just doesn't happen."

Kids these days
Dr. Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern Calfornia and author of the book " Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today's Youth," disagrees. She believes that it didn't require much skill for Cho to shoot as many people as he did. After all, eye witness accounts indicate many of the victims were shot at point-blank range.

And for all of Thompson's claims that violent video games are the cause of school shootings, Sternheimer points out that before this week's Virginia Tech massacre, the most deadly school shooting in history took place at the University of Texas in Austin… in 1966. Not even "Pong" had been invented at that time.

"One thing that people often don't realize is that in the years since video game sales have really exploded, not only have youth violence rates decreased but violence rates in the U.S. have declined precipitously," she added.

Meanwhile, Sternheimer says the rush to blame video games in these situations is disingenuous for yet another reason. Although it remains unclear whether Cho played games, it seems nobody will be surprised if it turns out he did. After all, what 23-year-old man living in America hasn't played video games?

"Especially if you're talking about young males, the odds are pretty good that any young male in any context will have played video games at some point," Sternheimer says.

"I think in our search to find some kind of answer as to why this happened, the video game explanation seems easy," she says. "It seems like there's an easy answer to preventing this from happening again and that feels good on some level."

The blame game
Jason Della Rocca agrees. "Everyone wants a simple solution for a massively complex problem. We want to get on with our lives."

As the leader of an organization that represents video game creators from all over the world, Della Rocca knows the routine all too well.

Someone opens fire on a school campus. Someone blames video games. His phone starts ringing. People start asking him questions like, "So how bad are these games anyway?"

Of course, he also knows that this is far from the first time in history that a young form of pop culture has been blamed for any number of society's ills. Rock and roll was the bad guy in the 1950s. Jazz was the bad guy in the 1930s. Movies, paintings, comic books, works of literature…they've all been there.

Still, Della Rocca believes that people like Thompson are "essentially feeding off the fears of those who don't understand games."

For those who didn't grow up playing video games, the appeal of a game like "Counter-Strike" can be hard to comprehend. It can be difficult to understand that the game promotes communication and team work. It can be hard fathom how players who love to run around gunning down their virtual enemies do not have even the slightest desire to shoot a person in real life.

"It's the thing they don't understand," Della Rocca says. "It's a thing that's scary."

Fed up with the scapegoating and lack of understanding, gamer groups have begun to get increasingly organized in their attempts to change public perception of their favorite hobby.

Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, says there's more than 30 million gamers in the U.S. alone. He says the ECA, a nonprofit membership organization, was created last year specifically to represent the needs and interests of those who play computer and video games.

Meanwhile, the members of Empire Arcadia — a grassroots group dedicated to supporting the gaming community and culture — have been so incensed by the recent attempts to blame video games for the Virginia Tech shootings that they've begun planning a rally in New York City with the assistance of the ECA.

"There we will protest, mourn and show how real gamers play video games peacefully and responsibly," organizer Johnson wrote on the group's Web site. "This demonstration is to show that gamers will not take the blame of this tragic matter but we will do what we can to help put an end to terrible events like this."

Johnson says that, ultimately, he hopes the rally — scheduled for May 5 — will help people better understand video game enthusiasts like him.

"We are normal people," he says. "We just play games."

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