May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Usually it takes a threat like the zombie attackers in Resident Evil 2 to put gamers on the defensive. This time it’s something far harder to ignore: real lives lost. The ripple effect of the Littleton, Colo., tragedy has convinced many that, yes, videogames can make you violent. To which twitchy-fingered fans respond, as if in unison, ”It’s only a game!” But that reply seems woefully inadequate when the families of slain children in Paducah, Ky., are comparing game creators to tobacco manufacturers, and researchers are presenting new evidence that simulated violence begets real aggression. What better proof than Littleton shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? Both were fans of Doom, the original ”first-person” shoot-’em-up hit, and Harris’ website reportedly even vows that ”Doom will become a reality!”

The argument is so convincing that even the most devoted players have hit the pause button to consider. But the moral watchdogs overlook one thing: Most of these games are deeply satisfying in any number of ways. On the most basic level, they’re visceral adrenaline releases that combine the elements of action and horror flicks. The buttons they push aren’t new, either. Violence has always been a crucial part of popular culture, from fairy tales to opera to Scream 2. Like it or not, these games are a response to a need for which we seem to be hardwired.

What’s more surprising is that they can foster real communities in the bargain. I’ve spent countless Friday nights at the office playing Doom and Quake with coworkers. While others worked off their job-related stress on the baseball diamond, in the bowling alley, or at the bar, we’d be happily ”railgunning” each other in a DeathMatch at the Toxic Waste Dump. And I can unequivocally say we were less likely to engage in real physical fighting after a game of Quake than were many of the folks stumbling out of their local drinking hole at closing time. We were much too tired.

The game community isn’t limited to a physical workplace, either. Thousands of people across the country play Warcraft, Civilization, even the irredeemably violent Postal over the Internet nightly at such game networks as MPlayer.com, Battle.net, and Heat. net. Quake players organize competitive ”clans” and engage opposing teams in armed bouts of capture the flag while chatting away in side windows or conference calls. Looking for a group of your own on the Internet? You’ll find all-female Quake clans, South Park clans, Irish and Australian clans, and so on.

Just like a real community, each clan reflects the good and bad members bring to it. In my office, we created special ”skins” to make our Quake grunts look like Ronald McDonald, Barney, or a Teletubby. One of my former coworkers even built a Doom level based on our office layout. Now, walking past your own cubicle with a shotgun, even in a computer-generated world, is plenty freaky. But it’s also, patently, not real. The vast majority of gamers understand that. Unfortunately, a tiny fraction of a fraction don’t.

So, yes, the young boys in Paducah, Littleton, and Jonesboro, Ark., shouldn’t have been playing violent videogames — at least by themselves. Adolescence is lonely enough without turning it into a digital isolation tank. One possible solution is for parents to sit down and actually play the games with their kids — find out their thoughts and turn the latest hit title from a taboo into just another bunch of pop-culture noise. After all, how cool can a videogame be when your parents know the score?

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