Bang Bang, Game Over

New play explores whether violent videogames create killers

Whenever a school shooting occurs in the U.S., which it does with alarming frequency, the videogame industry often becomes a target for outrage and blame. News headlines surrounding the Virginia Tech shootings made much of gunman Cho Seung-Hui's passion for Counter-Strike, a popular multiplayer game by Valve Software. The media drew a similar link between Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and their combined predilection for playing Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Harris even created new levels for Doom (known as "Harris Levels") that can still be found on the Internet. Fears about videogames' ability to transform impressionable teens into armed psychopaths have become so deeply ingrained in our culture that even the latest edition of Dr. Spock's childrearing manual is moved to caution would-be parents on the evils of the Xbox: "The best that can be said of [computer games] is that they may help promote eye-hand coordination in children. The worst that can be said is that they sanction, and even promote, aggression and violent responses to conflict."

Playwright Aaron Loeb's First Person Shooter initially appears as if it is going to be a cautionary tale about videogame violence. Loeb's drama depicts the aftermath of a massacre at an Illinois high school in which the young assailants were avid gamers. The two teenage killers post a message on the Web site for JetPack Games thanking the company for creating "Megaton," a videogame that they say helped them to "practice" for their real-life shooting spree. The play follows what JetPack's executive committee does after discovering the message from the murderous videogamers.

Loeb doesn't do the obvious and moralize about the evil of violent videogames. Given that he spends his days working at a videogame company — Loeb is chief operating officer at the San Francisco-based developer Planet Moon Studios — it's no surprise that his new play written in response to the Columbine shootings of 1999 attempts to explode now-standard beliefs about the relationship between videogames and violence in schools.

First Person Shooter explores the fallout of a school massacre from multiple perspectives.
Zabrina Tipton
First Person Shooter explores the fallout of a school massacre from multiple perspectives.

Details

By Aaron Loeb. Directed by Jon Tracy. Starring Craig Marker. Through June 9; Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.
SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St. (between Powell and Mason), S.F.

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But Loeb goes further than simply defending the computer game industry. What's most interesting about First Person Shooter, which is currently receiving its world premiere in a production by SF Playhouse and PlayGround, is its ability to examine a horrific event from a multi-dimensional perspective. The play takes its title from the "first-person shooter" genre of videogames — that is, gaming environments that simulate the in-game character's point of view, allowing the player to see the world through his eyes. But instead of offering a unified viewpoint by pinning the blame on a single party, be it the videogame company, the killers, or whatever else seems convenient, the play explores the impact of the massacre from as many angles as possible. Despite the playwright/videogame industry exec's broadminded intentions, the multiplicity doesn't completely work.

Over the course of two hours, the playwright describes the fallout of the shootings from the perspective of JetPack's employees, the parents of the victims, the gunmen, the public relations consultants and lawyers hired to take sides, and the media. Even the governor of Illinois gets his say. The fact that several different cast members play the ski-mask-wearing teenage gunman Billy Cahill during the drama economically underscores the idea of multiple viewpoints, while the fast-moving jumps from location to location orchestrated by director Jon Tracy on Melpomene Katakalos' versatile videogame console-inspired set highlight the play's resistance to the traditional dramatic unities of time, action, and place. Loeb's characters are similarly multi-faceted. As personified by the boyish Craig Marker, JetPack CEO Kerry Davis is at once a geeky fan of action figures and rap music and a traumatized widower still recovering from the rape and murder of his wife. Meanwhile, Adrian Roberts' sensitive portrayal of Daniel Jamison, the father of a boy killed in the high school shooting, mixes anguish for his son's murder with clear-eyed skepticism about the motives of lawyers.

Loeb's 360-degree perspective is relatively uncommon for a work of art developed in such close proximity to current events. Artworks created in the wake of news headlines often end up being shelved completely or ignored because of fears that they might deepen a wounded public's already smarting sores. This was the case, for example, for many films about terrorism that went into production around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. There was simply a widespread belief that movie audiences needed a little distance from the pain before being able to experience films about the events. Similarly, the initial release in 1947 of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's subsequently best-selling account of his time in a Nazi prison camp, Survival in Auschwitz, sold only about 1,500 copies. "At that time, no one wanted to hear about the camps," New Yorkerwriter Joan Acocella wrote in a profile of the author in 2002.

Even when artists manage to receive attention for their responses to catastrophic incidents, they're usually only able to do so because of a rampantly unified viewpoint that somehow manages to galvanize popular beliefs about the events in question. For example, Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine captured the public imagination when it came out in 2002 because of the strong argument it made about the "culture of fear" at work in the U.S. today. Lacking the clarity and thought offered by distance, a strong, single-minded approach helps people to make sense of events when emotions are running high.

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