Columbine Parking Lot

(Photo by Rob Favero) April 20th, five years past, the unthinkable struck a mid-Western high school where children murdered other children. Some mark this day by calling it an "anniversary," but that is the wrong word to use in remembrance of this crime. A better word choice is milepost.

On April 20, 1999, in Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, two teenagers armed with two sawed-off shotguns, a semi-automatic handgun, a rifle, and over thirty explosive devices inflicted injury on twenty-three and murdered thirteen before turning their weapons upon themselves.

We live five years without an incident of this magnitude in our American public school system since that fateful April day, 1999. That is a milepost when one considers what did not change after the horrendous events which came to a head within the walls of Columbine.

There were some changes in schools across the nation. Increased security measures like weapon detectors and lock-down procedures were put in place. Principles and educators met to discuss how to sniff out potential threats and how to encourage students to report suspicious or disturbing rhetoric from fellow students. However, all this higher sensitivity will, and is, waning.

What did not change however, is the nation's heart when it comes to the portrayal of, and even interaction with, violence.


Violence and the Media

A common theme picked up by the media and politicians at the time pointed the finger of blame at the movie industry. Movies like, "The Matrix," with its trench coat clad heroes blowing up and blowing away the bad guys were blamed for influencing the impressionable minds of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.


Indeed, violent movies may have played a role in influencing these two boys turned killers, but the movies are not the sole influence. In fact it takes many circumstances and pressures to make a monster out of a human being.


Video Games Sell Violence

Movies haven't changed all that much since the events in Littleton. A medium that holds even more sway over the young developing minds of the nation's youth has undergone incredible changes: video games are that medium. Today, more people are spending hours upon hours immersed in unreal worlds with some of the most violent and graphically intense games ever created.

The video game industry is big, so big that even the makers of games are now influencing the makers of movies and not the other way around. In his article, "Video games see 2003 slump," Chris Morris of CNNMoney reported that the industry last year, despite slower sales, drew in 11.2 billion dollars.

Dylan and Eric played video games. For them, the popular game of death and mayhem at the time was "Doom", a game filled with shotguns and gore. Eric was enthralled enough with the game to create extra levels which he uploaded to the Internet.

The National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) issued their annual report at the end of last year: 2003 Mediawise Video Game Report Card. The NIMF noted in their report on the video game industry that 87% of students played video games. The average age of the students they surveyed was 13.5-years-old.

One of the most popular games of 2003, features hookers and police officers who players are encouraged to beat up for points. Players also earn points via the selling of drugs. That game is "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City", (GTA3) by Rockstar Games.

"GTA3" also drew a great deal of controversy when it was discovered that players were encouraged to specifically target Haitians for murder for extra points. The Associated Press reported that Rockstar Games removed that "instruction" from the current and future productions of the game but it still shows up in the previous eleven-million copies that were sold.

NIMF reports that 70% of teenage boys played "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" during 2003. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the gaming industry's self-imposed ratings system, rates GTA3 suitable for mature ("M") players.

The ESRB currently uses one of six ratings for placement on video & computer game titles. They are:

ESRB Labels

"RP" = Rating Pending.

"EC" = Early Childhood, for ages 3 and up. "E" = Everyone, for ages 6 and up. "T" = Teen, for ages 13 and up. "M" = Mature, ages 17 and up. "AO" = Adults Only, for ages 18 and up.Since Dylan and Eric's time, video game makers pushed the boundaries of violence with faster and better graphics which display blood and gore more realistically. Despite this, parents continue to allow these games to be bought and played in their homes.

One of the more recent titles by Midway is "The Suffering," ESRB rated "M." showcases some of the graphic violence that one can expect in this game. One scene features the main character splattered in blood while firing a shotgun at an unseen menace off screen.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman in his book, "On Killing", wrote that the power of video games is in their ability to condition.

Today, the military uses video games to train and condition their soldiers for combat in the real world. They recognize the inherent power of the realistic displays and repetition that video games give soldiers in preparing them for battle when a conditioned reaction means the difference between life and death.

Grossman notes however, that one of the main differences between what the military does and what is being done with the youth of America is authority.

Grossman writes (pg. 302-303):

Operant conditioning firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers in modern armies, are found in the interactive video games that our children play today. But whereas the adolescent Vietnam vet had stimulus discriminators built in to ensure that he only fired under authority, the adolescents who play these video games have no such safeguard built into their conditioning.

Soldiers are taught to obey the orders of their superiors. They are taught that life is not to be wasted and that they are not to kill until told to kill. For soldiers there is a check and balance to what they must do to defend the life of their comrades and their country.

The violent video games that are sold and purchased in ever increasing amounts from the retail stores in America don't offer the accountability and reliance upon authority that is inherent in the military.

Perhaps worse, video games today, while desensitizing and conditioning, glamorize violence and murder.

Not to be out done by themselves in the production of violent video games, Rockstar Games, produced arguably the most troubling and violent game to date of any mainstream video game company. The game is called "Manhunt," and the idea is a twisted take on "Reality TV." In the game the player plays a character dropped in the middle of a town filled with criminals. The main job of players is to survive and this is done by obeying the voice in the headset they wear. That voice tells the player when and whom to kill.

Play is scored, based on how gruesome a kill the player commits. Weapons of choice include, but are not limited to, plastic bags for suffocation, wire for garroting, and machetes for hacking to death. It is an interactive snuff film where players are even given the ability to replay their kills.

"Manhunt" is societal conditioning at its worst and is currently banned from New Zealand.

If you believe that video games don't influence the thinking of those that play them, then it might help you to know that the industry itself believes otherwise.

While watching television with my family this past Sunday, an EA Sports commercial ran featuring a scene on a subway train. A young woman is seen being accosted by a bully while others watch, afraid to intervene. One subway rider, a young male in his prime, watches the man bully the woman and viewers are led to believe, through cut scenes, that he is fantasizing about beating up the man in the boxing ring of the video game Fight Night 2004. The commercial ends with the announcer saying, and I paraphrase You know you think about it.

The milepost says five years since the horrible act of April 20th, 1999, but the question remains: How far off is the next earth shattering event and will it be enough to change the hearts and minds of a nation designing and empowering its own horrors?

Harold M. Paxton, III (, All Rights Reserved.