In the wake of the Columbine High massacre, Ty Burr visits the E3 convention and asks, Are game-makers morally responsible for their creations?

By Ty Burr
Updated May 19, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

A look into the future of violent videogames

If a Demonspawn From the Pits of Hell explodes in an empty forest, does he make a noise?

That’s kind of the feeling I had last week as I trod the aisles of the 1999 Electronic Entertainment Expo — a.k.a., E3 — at the Los Angeles Convention Center. E3, now in its fifth year as the premiere showcase for the offerings of the computer- and videogame industries, has always had a festively aggro air of self-congratulation: all those twitchy-fingered game-geeks meeting wraithlike game creators while distributors clinch deals, developers show off their bloodiest new titles, and hyper-siliconized booth bunnies wander about cradling fake Uzis. By night, everyone parties to big-name rock acts (Beck played at the SONY bash); by day, everyone collects press materials, stands slack-jawed in front of banks of ”Daikatana” displays, and watches in amazement as the Germans and the Japanese videotape the new games straight off the monitors.

This year, though, was different. It wasn’t quite as bollixed as that NRA convention in Denver last month, but the fact that E3 1999 played out in the shadow of the Columbine massacre put everyone on the defensive. There were few overt displays of nervousness — Activision restricted access to its new ”Soldier of Fortune” game, and an ”Online Ethics” panel was canceled after two speakers supposedly dropped out — but you could sense adrenaline coursing through the hall, and it wasn’t because you’d just been fragged while playing ”Quake III.” Publicists sniffed around journalists more carefully than ever, trying to smoke out whether the writer was doing a ”vidgame violence” story; whereas the last day of the convention has traditionally been open to the public, the entire event was industry-only this year.

Was any of this hypocrisy? And, if so, whose? As I stood there playing the new Sega Dreamcast version of ”House of the Dead 2,” I shuddered over the game’s flesh-shredding carnage — and kept on playing, exhilarated by its relentless pace. The mainstream media that was poking around the convention professed to be horrified at the callousness of the industry, yet that callousness is no different from in previous years, and no different from, say, the hard-nosed market sense of the automobile industry — it’s just that Colorado has given the media an angle, an ”in.”

On the other hand, the videogame doesn’t do itself much good by ducking and covering. The failure of the ”Ethics” panel to go off was particularly frustrating, because there is, in fact, a discussion that needs to be held within the gaming industry (as within the movie and record industries). There is a fundamental question that needs to be addressed and it’s this: If you’re going to profit off violent videogames, to what degree do you have to take social, ethical, cultural, even personal responsibility? Any? Some? None? The response, at E3 anyway, was summed up by John Romero, the cocreator of ”Doom” who’s being sued by the parents of a victim in one of the recent schoolyard massacres: ”No comment.”