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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 12:31 GMT
Are video games breeding killers?
Are video games really breeding killers, wonders Daniel Etherington of BBCi Collective in his weekly games column.

Elephant
Elephant leaves an unsettling feeling
"Most importantly, have fun," says one of the characters in Gus Van Sant's film, Elephant, released this week.

It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is a stately, artful response to the Columbine high-school massacre.

The line in question is spoken by the boy who masterminds, then co-perpetrates the film's climactic murder spree.

A terrible sense of the fate awaiting the kids is present pretty much from the get-go, and the killers are revealed fairly early on.

Van Sant does this both with his looping narrative. They are shown playing Beethoven on the piano, not an activity the media associates with violent crime.

But they are also shown playing a first-person shooter video game - very much an activity the media has targeted - while buying guns online.

'Dangerous tastes'?

Now, as a gamer and someone who thinks it unlikely that he will ever pick up a gun and kill, an immediate reaction to Van Sant making this association is nominal outrage.

Interestingly, Van Sant, unlike many commentators, did actually play some games to get a sense of their culture. They did not simply inform him about the violence debate, though

Van Sant makes a point of providing a checklist of negative social factors that could be accused of affecting kids: Nazi activity on TV, guns available on the internet for anyone with a credit card, and violent video games.

It is so blunt that it is possible that, within Van Sant's graceful film, there is a strong irony.

What he is asking is can kids really be turned into killers merely by being exposed to unmediated violent elements in culture, and/or bullied?

This is exactly what the media said about the Columbine killers who were notoriously outsiders with "dangerous" tastes, like Marilyn Manson, and Doom.

Interestingly, Van Sant, unlike many commentators, did actually play some games to get a sense of their culture. They did not simply inform him about the violence debate, though.

"The way information is dealt with in Tomb Raider influenced the way I started thinking about motion pictures," he says.

Indeed, the film's many gliding shots are reminiscent of movement within game environments, and even the shooting ratio (1:33, not the wider 1:85) is comparable with a monitor or TV screen.

Doom mimics

Other nods to gaming are less subtle.

The first-person shooter the killers play is a rudimentary-looking affair made specifically for the film.

Consisting of figures walking in a desert-like space, it is arguably more referential to Van Sant's previous film, Gerry, than to a genuine video game.

Later, the game's format of gun at the base of the screen, Doom-style, is emulated in a first-person shot in a school corridor.

Screenshot of Doom
Can playing a killer make you a killer?
Van Sant says, however, that his experience of playing Doom "didn't influence the way I was thinking about cinema".

He acknowledges it's, "very vicious ... A very addictive game," but does not seem keen to explicitly concur with the simplistic connection the knee-jerk media are intent on.

But, can games involving extreme, ostensibly realistic violence genuinely influence people's actions?

Can cultural items affect people's mental functions? Can they cause the morals and ethics society relies on to be by-passed?

And can playing a killer make you a killer?

You will have to wait until next week, when I will look at these questions in more detail.


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