After the tragedy of the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999, news spread that the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were avid video gamers. Their reported favorite game, Doom (1993), was incredibly violent and was played by millions of others.
This discovery birthed the modern concept of blaming video games for mass murders and acts of violence. The game Doom was used as a scapegoat for the horrifying actions that resulted in the deaths of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School.
Since then, video games have been blamed for the Sandy Hook, Parkland and Virginia Tech massacres. Other non-school mass murders, such as the 2012 Aurora cinema shooting and the 2011 Norway attacks, had video games linked to the perpetrators. Even games like Dance-Dance Revolution could not escape the scrutiny that followed.
Having something tangible — like a video game — to blame a terrifying and saddening event on can be easier for the public to conceptualize and deal with. When approached with the reality of extreme violence, fear and uncertainty can become blinders to the more intense realities.
No, Doom did not directly end the lives of the 12 students and the teacher at Columbine High School. It also never had the ability to prevent what happened.
What was buried in the news after the Columbine High School massacre was the slew of journals listing racist, misogynistic and far-right ideologies held by the perpetrators, Harris and Klebold. The date of the murders, April 20, correlated with Hitler’s birthday; Harris cited this as a primary inspiration to kill on that day in journals that were found by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
Did these ideologies receive the same backlash as video games did for their actions? No, they did not.
However, as video games become more popular and widely accepted as we move further into the 21st century, one can see the reasoning for this blame.
Video games do not cause violence, but they enable aggression and a form of entitlement in young white, heterosexual and cisgender males.
This aggression and entitlement are then highlighted by white supremacist groups that list Call of Duty, Fortnite, Minecraft and other multiplayer platforms as primary recruitment avenues. Ex-neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini, speaks on these recruitment techniques and how they have developed alongside video games.
“We sought marginalized youth and promised them ‘paradise.’ Today they are using nefarious tactics like going to depression and mental health forums, and in multiplayer gaming, to recruit those same people,” he stated in an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit.
“We would drop benign hints [of our racism], and then ramp up when they got hooked,” Picciolini elaborated.
Video games can exist as ideological constructions which push a set of values onto the user. Like any other form of media, video games typically reflect the set of opinions held by the public and evident in a nation’s culture.
In the Bush years, many American games endorsed aggressive foreign policy; since Brexit, British games have advocated for isolationism, and the prominence of anti-Islamic games in the 2000s is no surprise.
Video games are unique from other forms of media because they require the user to act on an instinctual level, making the gamer feel impulsive agreement with the ideologies represented. Playing Resident Evil is not equivalent to watching the movie, because the controller-wielding gamer experiences the desires of the game as their own desires.
Whether intentional or not, video games naturalize white supremacist and extremist ideologies in a way in which other media cannot by offering the user the chance to experience it firsthand.
The existence of this ability to experience these ideologies on a personal, desirable level attracts far-right players and prepares apolitical gamers for the later embrace of those same values. Thus, a new community is formed and gains influence over the media form.
Far-right extremism led to violence, and if these same values are found to heavily dilute certain video games, then these games cannot completely escape the blame for this violence.