Video game critics commonly hold that violent video games, including Doom, contributed to the 1999 Columbine massacre. But an Oregon psychiatrist theorizes that not being able to play Doom may have been a far more significant factor in the murderous rampage carried out by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Psychiatrist - and GamePolitics reader - Jerald Block MD (left) discusses his theory in a lengthy interview with Destructoid. Block's recent research paper, Lessons From Columbine: Virtual and Real Rage was recently published in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry.
Dr. Block - a gamer himself - has a professional fascination with the effects of technology on individuals. He told Destructoid:
I knew that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold played many computer games. I had even played some of the same games. So I was curious and began reading the data… It was consuming, compelling, and disturbing reading.
Of the criticism often leveled at games, Block doesn't see it as unfair:
Game developers know when they are pushing the envelope... I'd argue that several successful companies, like Take 2, have used such marketing strategies. And they expect the criticism, maybe even like it for the free PR, though sometimes they get burned... The problem is that the entire gaming industry then gets predictably (i.e. not unfairly) attacked.
Regarding the Columbine killers, Block speculates that being deprived of their PC's - and thus, their games - by way of parental punishment left a void in their lives which they filled up in part with the plot to attack their high school:
When Klebold and Harris are kicked off their computers, few, if any, would recognize just how important their virtual lives were to them. Most people wouldn't even know they were in trouble. That would make the punishment much more severe...
For heavy computer users, cutting them off can free up 30 or more hours a week. That is a lot of time to fill, especially for an enraged teen with limited social skills. Unwise. The second issue is to recognize that computer users have a relationship with their computers... As silly as it may sound, being cut off from the system might feel something like being cut off from your best friend...
Harris had just been banned from the computer and the game. In its absence, he was keeping the game alive, refusing to give up his virtual life and the degree of power he felt there. By merging it with the real, he did not need to give it up.
I believe the primary issue is not the violent content. The problem is how seductively immersive technology can be. It becomes our best friend, our container for aggression, and the place we spend time. For many of those immersed, they go into crisis when they lose access to it. Clearly, we need more research exploring and confirming my analysis. In the interim, I'd suggest moderation, both in computer use and when putting limits on gaming.
If Block's theory has merit, how about this nightmare scenario:
One minute you might be enormously powerful online. The next minute, the plug is pulled and your entire virtual existence is deleted away. We should expect such events to make people question what they have been doing with their lives for the past year(s). Imagine the day when that happens to WoW. It might seem unlikely but… suppose Blizzard gets sued and needs to shut its servers down… will we have 9 million infuriated people across the globe?
Block also offers an interesting critique of the work of video game critics Craig Anderson of Iowa State University and Brad Bushman of Michigan State.