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Video games shouldn't be blamed for school shootings.

Inside the Murder Simulator

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Growing up in the Golden Fifties, my friends and I used to pretend to shoot each other in school. We called it "cowboys and Indians." Today's kids pretend to shoot pretend monsters in pretend settings, like the computer game "Unreal," and we call it a "murder simulator."

Are you unfamiliar with "Unreal?" This is where I have an edge over the average over-50 type. I've kept up with video games, especially combat flight simulators. I have a double-Voodoo home system for my World War I, World War II, and contemporary jet fighter sims. I fly on the Internet against virtual pilots from around the world. I hang around on the comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.flight-sim newsgroup. But I also have a long-term familiarity with the other, ground-bound "first person shooters," (FPS) from "Wolfenstein" to today's "Unreal."

Following the standard format for FPS, you start "Unreal" in a dungeon overlooking the barrel of a weapon. As you maneuver through fantastic corridors and gothic galleries, you're on the lookout for various bad guys, for better weapons and ammo, for first-aid kits, food, keys, maps, secret passages — all in an effort to "capture the flag," find the McGuffin, escape, whatever. It's great fun, although I really haven't got the patience for mazes.

Solving the maze is a huge part of most FPS, but my guess is you've never heard about that, only the terrible pretend slaughter of innocent pretend monsters in a computer pretend world. Nor do you hear that all this computer pretend might in truth be less a "murder simulator" than pretending to shoot your real friends in the real world as I did playing "cowboys and Indians."

Regardless, having simulated mass killing, the theory goes, our kids imprint this behavior in their brain synapses, preparing for the day when they will invade their school. One "expert" noted that in the FPS, you score highest by skillfully placing one bullet into one victim; quickly and calculatedly moving on to the next. The "normal" killer, we are informed, empties his entire gun into his victim. Our "murder simulators" are breeding a generation of "abnormal" killers.

Since the video game industry rivaled Hollywood last year in revenues, one wonders that any of us remain alive. One wonders how the world's duck populations have survived decades of such training at penny arcades and county fairs across the land as "duck killing simulators" taught Little Joe to quickly and calculatedly move from one duck to the next, plink, plink, plink, if he wanted that Kewpie doll. One wonders if our experts have heard of "target shooting."

Not everyone appreciates the recreation to be had from skillfully manipulating a device over here to hit something way over there, but many enjoy it. Certainly, developing the skills to be an Olympic-quality target shooter is as valid a lifestyle choice as any. And if, like me, you hate guns, rejoice that target shooting can be computer simulated with a fidelity approaching Deep Blue's mastery of chess.

Real-world or virtual, boys especially just love the hand-eye coordination involved in leading a target, calculating for deflection and gravity, perfecting the timing. Put both gun and target on moving aircraft and the challenge is amplified. Even at 54, all my atrophied reflexes come alive when I sweep my virtual Spad XIII in over some virtual Red Baron-type and quickly and calculatedly deflate his machine with a pair of Vickers machine guns. (Not least among my sensations is one of gratitude that I did not ever have to fly combat for real.)

Now, it is quite true that an expert target shooter makes an expert people-shooter. Look what the Marines did for Lee Harvey Oswald. But whether you learn your skills from the Marines or Nintendo, neither should be held accountable for your going nuts. And going nuts is the problem.

If I were psychotic, I might rent a Cessna and go hunting for shoppers. But I would have to be psychotic to demand that the video game industry write games for lunatics, that Hollywood make movies guaranteed "safe for the insane," that Hemingway be expurgated so that little crazy boys will not attempt bull fighting. Yet many seem eager to have all our art, sports and entertainment scaled to the capacities of disturbed minds.

A sufficiently disturbed mind can use Snow White as a "murder simulator."

The witch catchers tend to scuttle out of the woodwork after tragedies like Littleton, Colo. They have the solution. Something we can all participate in. Granted, there is nothing we can do about somebody else's little crazy boy. But we can take our own little boy's toys away and feel we've done something virtuous, meaningful, moral.

There is nothing immoral about pretend target shooting, which, again, makes a good deal less noise, mess, expense and danger than real target shooting. The fact that it's dressed up as modern day "cowboys and Indians," or even the black-humor take of "lunatic driver and hapless pedestrian," does not mean your child will want to shoot Indians or run people over. Unless he's crazy.

We would all do better making sure our little boys aren't crazy.



Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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