On the morning of December 1, 1997, in Paducah, Kentucky, fourteenyear- old Michael Carneal opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School with a .22 pistol he had stolen, killing three students and injuring five others. According to Dave Grossman, a military psychiatrist and retired U.S. Army Ranger, Carneal fired only eight shots, hitting four students in the head, one in the neck, and three others in the upper torso. “Nowhere in the annals of military or law enforcement history,” claims Grossman, “can we find an equivalent achievement.” He maintains that “one state police study in an assessment of the accuracy of their officers across several years found that the average officer, in the average engagement, at the average distance of twenty-three feet, hit with 13 percent of the rounds fired.” Carneal was not an experienced marksman. Reportedly, other than firing a few practice shots with the stolen pistol, he had never fired a real handgun in his life. However, Grossman contends that the high school freshman played violent video games that trained him how to shoot with fatal precision:
Michael Carneal . . . had fired thousands of bullets in the video game “murder simulators.” His superhuman accuracy, combined with the fact that he “stood still,” firing twohanded, not wavering far to the left or far to the right in his shooting “field,” and firing only one shot at each target, are all behaviors that are completely unnatural to either trained or “native” shooters, behaviors that could only have been learned in a video game. . . . These kind[s] of video games provide the “motor reflexes” responsible for over 75% of the firing on the modern battlefield.
The “video game ‘murder simulators’” Grossman is referring to is the subgenre of video games called first-person shooters (FPS), where players view the world through the eyes of the video game character that they control. In a typical FPS, players wander through a series of halls and passageways and kill monsters, enemy characters, or opponents controlled by other players whom they encounter along the way. Because of advances in computer technology, the animated violence and gore of FPSs have become palpably convincing, immersing players in a virtual world of intense action and graphic violence. The first FPS game, Wolfstein 3-D, was released in 1992 by the entertainment software company idSoftware. In Wolfstein 3-D, players navigate through the dark corridors of a German castle during World War II and ward off surprise attacks by Nazi soldiers and guard dogs. The game’s unique first-person perspective gave a new dimension to the video game playing experience, making it popular among gaming enthusiasts.
A year after the appearance of Wolfstein 3-D, idSoftware released its next FPS, Doom, which took the video game industry by storm. Doom plunges players into a futuristic maze, where they have a first-person’s view of blasting aliens with an arsenal of weapons. According to video game enthusiast Darren L. Tabor, Doom was immediately successful because it was technically and aesthetically more sophisticated than Wolfstein 3-D and had “entered the scene just as modem speeds and awareness of the Internet were increasing.” These developments allowed players to connect online and play against one another with ease. The success of Doom gave rise to a slew of technically and graphically superior FPSs based on the first-person perspective concept, such as its sequel, Doom II, and others such as Duke Nukem, Redneck Rampage, and Quake.
Although violent video games were criticized after the Paducah school shooting, the question of whether or not they contribute to youth violence became a more urgent matter in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado. On April 20, 1999, high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High wielding firearms, killing twelve students, a teacher, and wounding twenty-three others before authorities found the two boys dead from selfinflicted gunshot wounds. Allegedly, Harris and Klebold were dedicated players of violent FPSs like Doom and Duke Nukem. A year before the shooting, Harris alluded to these games when he wrote in his journal about their plans: “It’ll be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke [Nukem] and Doom all mixed together. . . . I want to leave a lasting impression on the world.” In addition, a home video shows Harris brandishing his sawed-off shotgun “Arlene,” which was named after a character in Doom.
Some commentators believe that the Paducah and Littleton tragedies are examples of how video game violence has lead to outbreaks of real world violence. Education professor Eugene F. Provenzo Jr. contends that violent video games contribute to youth violence because when “violence is stylized, romanticized, and choreographed, it encourages children and adolescents to assume a rhetorical stance that equates violence with style and personal empowerment.” Physicians Jeannie Rosenberg and Joanna Santa Barbara argue that “the worst video games teach children to associate violence and killing with pleasure, entertainment and feelings of achievement. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, players are rewarded with more and more realistic depictions of victims going down in blood and flames as they are hit.” In addition, Rosenberg and Santa Barbara insist that “children who spend hours improving their skill at these games are not only learning targeting skills, but are undergoing the same desensitization to killing other humans that the military uses to train soldiers to kill.”
Others contend that studies have shown that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior. According to David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family:
In one study of college students, students played either a violent or non-violent game. After playing this game, they were given a competitive reaction time task in which they played against another student. If they beat the other student, they got to deliver a loud ‘noise blast,’ and were able to control how loud and how long the noise blast would be. Students who had previously played the violent video game delivered longer noise blasts to their opponents.
Some critics are skeptical of such studies that claim that violent video games heighten aggressive behavior, however. Referring to the noise-blast study mentioned by David Walsh, for example, Howard Fienberg, a research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, states that “researchers found that those that had played the violent game blasted their opponent longer and louder than those that had played the non-violent game. But the difference was actually minimal. The blasts delivered by subjects who had played violent games were longer, by all of 2 percent, and the average blasts for all the students was about half a second, far too short for reasonable analysis.”
Other commentators dispute the claims that violent video games are a cause of youth violence, arguing that the vast majority of violent video game enthusiasts do not commit real acts of violence and instead use video games to express their frustration and anger. Video game designer Steve Gibson says that video game playing is “how geeks get out their competitive spirit because they’re not athletic enough to play on the basketball team.” In addition, Henry Jenkins, director of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserts that the Columbine killers’ predilection for violent video games merely reflected their complex and unhealthy obsession with violence and destruction:
Far from being victims of video games, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had a complex relationship to many forms of popular culture. They consumed music, films, comics, video games, television programs. All of us move nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together a personal mythology of symbols and stories taken from many different places. We invest those appropriated materials with various personal and subcultural meanings. Harris and Klebold were drawn toward dark and brutal images which they invested with their personal demons, their antisocial impulses, their maladjustment, their desires to hurt those who hurt them.
Because of the senseless school shootings in Paducah and Littleton, video game violence has become a pressing matter for the entertainment software industry. In addition to the debates about how the entertainment software industry should address concerns about the violent content of video games, other controversies surrounding video games, such as whether they can improve children’s thinking skills or have artistic integrity, are addressed in At Issue: Video Games.