In December 1992, Wayne Lo, an 18-year-old student at Simon’s Rock College in Massachusetts, opened fire on students and faculty on the school’s campus. He smuggled a Chinese-made SKS semiautomatic assault rifle on campus in a guitar case and had the ammunition sent to his dorm room, and he used them to kill two people and wound more.
As Lo had made plans to shoot up his campus, the video game Doom by id Software was under development. The game was not released until 1993, so it couldn’t have inspired Lo, but it nonetheless came under intense scrutiny after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado because the shooters played it frequently. Those looking for a simple explanation for the unthinkable were quick to note that Doom was one of the first games ever to depict graphic gun violence, sparking a genre of titles called first-person shooters, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
So began a trend. Unthinkable acts of violence like mass shootings demand explanations that prove uneasily fleeting. Working through rationalizations — and even pointing fingers — seem to be part of the healing process for the American public.
Video games have repeatedly been at the center of this blame game. After the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, the video game industry is under scrutiny again for making games that depict high levels of violence. Lawmakers, Vice President Joe Biden and the National Rifle Association have either implied or outright pointed a finger at the industry for making products that push people to toward committing acts of gun violence.
Yet Wayne Lo’s should serve as a cautionary tale as we delve jerk-kneed into the personal lives of the assailants, looking for some tidbit that doesn’t fit the societal cookie cutter, then using syllogistic reason form a thin thesis on the root of gun violence. These tidbits are found all too often in the perpetrator’s social status and activities and entertainment choices.
On that day in December 1992, Lo wore a shirt with the name of the heavy metal band “Sick Of It All.” Thus he was described in the subsequent news reports as a loner who listened heavy metal music. But in 2000, Lo told The New Yorks Times from prison that he preferred classical music and the shirt he wore that day was merely a coincidence.
Therefore all who listen to classical music will show tendencies toward violence, correct? The reasoning falls flat when substituting a media society views as benign.
If all those who own a gun and play video games will shoot someone, the video game industry would either have to be very small, or the world has many more murderers than we can possibly imagine.
Perhaps the reality is simultaneously darker and more comforting. From chess to Roman gladiators, humans have always sought outlets for their competitive spirit and violent nature. Video games are simply the newest incarnation of age-old needs. Furthermore, they’re generally upfront about what they are trying to accomplish: They don’t seek to inspire violence, but they do try to entertain males aged 18 to 35.
In actuality, mass shooters kill because they are evil. And humans have not yet, nor will they, come up with an antidote for true evil.
While it’s right to reflect after a tragedy, the blame game has its risks. Those who want too specific an answer risk stigmatizing innocent entertainment-seekers, companies and products. The need to understand all too often turns into the need to control, an instinct that threatens personal liberty. While solving little, that instinct creates more victims in the end. If that’s not senseless, nothing is.
Taylor Collins is a writer based in New York. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.