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The Computer Game Moral Panic

by Sue Morris

Presented at the From Space War! to Ivory Tower seminar at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 26th May, 2003.


The Columbine school shootings in April 1999 provided the impetus to ignite a moral panic regarding many areas of contemporary youth culture, and lead to a selective persecution of high school students based on their cultural consumption and affiliations. While many youth cultural pastimes were held to blame, including popular music, film, the Internet and the Goth subculture, the most enduring target of this moral panic was computer games, particularly those of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre.

This paper examines the claims of the current computer game moral panic regarding FPS games, the history of moral panics regarding computer games since the early 1980s, and draws on the work of Cohen and others on the qualities and mechanisms of moral panics to demonstrate how the moral panic regarding computer games is indicative of deeply held concerns about the rapid rate of technological change in Western society, and the threats that these changes pose to existing structures of power and social order. It also investigates and challenges the public misconceptions held regarding FPS games and gaming cultures.

Columbine, Youth Culture and Computer Games
- "The Digital Underworld"
- "Incontrovertible Evidence"
Moral Panic
- History of the Computer Game Moral Panic
- The Conditions of Moral Panic
- Qualities of Moral Panics
The Moral Panic Construction of Games and Gamers

Columbine, Youth Culture and Computer Games

On April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in the desirable middle-class suburb of Littleton, Colorado, two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered history by carrying out the worst school massacre in the United States to date [1]. Dressed in black overcoats under which they concealed their arsenal of two sawn-off shotguns, a semiautomatic pistol, a 9mm semi-automatic rifle and some 30 homemade explosives, Klebold and Harris shot and killed twelve fellow students and one teacher and wounded 23 others, before turning their weapons on themselves in a pre-arranged suicide pact (Gottsman 98, Cullen N.P.). Although the full details of the shootings were not to emerge until over a year later (see report ref) [2], the media was instantly filled with reports connecting the killings to the teenagers’ supposed affiliations with particular subcultural groups and their consumption of particular media. Blame was quickly attributed to their being, variously, Nazis, Goths and "members of a violence-obsessed white supremacist club called the Trenchcoat Mafia" (The Washington Post 22 Apr 1999, A9), and on a wide variety of cultural influences including the music of Marilyn Manson and the German industrial band KMFDM, role-playing games, trenchcoats, the Internet, the recently released film The Matrix and computer games [3].

Tuesday's rampage at Columbine High School has focused attention on a close-knit group of students who dress in black and call themselves the Trench Coat Mafia. Fellow students describe the shooting suspects as part of a clique of generally quiet, brooding outcasts with penchants for dark trench coats, shaved heads and militant arm bands. By several accounts, the group also is interested in the occult, mutilation, shock-rocker Marilyn Manson and Adolf Hitler, whose birthday was Tuesday. (Greene and Briggs A17)

As the Columbine investigation continued, it soon became known that Klebold and Harris had been keen players of computer games and they played them on the Internet. In the New York Times of April 22nd, Eric Harris was described as "an avid player of Doom and Quake, two popular computer games in which players stalk their opponents through dungeonlike environments and try to kill them with high-powered weapons." (Johnson and Brooke) CNN stated that the boys "reportedly played computer games often, spending hours trying to kill each other with digital guns and explosive devices." ("Eric Harris Profile")

A criminologist interviewed on MSNBC declared:

The key to this case is the Internet ... They were in chat rooms; they had Webpages. And on the Internet, the possibility for recruiting is just unknown (quoted in Poniewozik).
In a Gallop poll held in the week of the killings, 82% of Americans polled said the Internet was at least partly to blame for the killings[4] (Katz, Saad).

A common thread to much of the reporting was that it focused on the elements of youth culture that were markedly outside of mainstream, adult culture. The Gothic subculture was demonised in the press for the signifiers of their outsider status:

Some even wear white pancake makeup and dark eyeliner, one student said. ''It was that devilish, half-dead, half-alive look,'' said Bret, a 16-year-old sophomore who spoke on the condition only his first name be used. (Brooke N.P.)
Gothic was given more subversive and sinister connotations by being depicted (erroneously) as evolving out of the object of a previous moral panic, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons:
Inspired by fantasy games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Gothic has become a fascination of many American high schoolers, some of whom simply dress and paint their fingernails black, while others immerse themselves in a pseudo-medieval world of dark images. (Fisher, Marc. A14)
Just as Americans distanced themselves from the killers by concentrating on constructions of their Otherness, the international press were quick to contextualise the shooting as a distinctly American problem, stressing the difference between American culture and their own, particularly focusing on the ready availability of guns. A Japanese newspaper declared "America, the gun society, is sick" and Australian and English reports emphasised the recent tightening of gun ownership laws that had followed single instances of multiple shootings in their countries (Reid A12).

Part of this Othering process applied to the Columbine killers was structured upon their real and supposed subcultural affiliations. This was then extended to those subcultures themselves as, in a move familiar from previous moral panics, post-Littleton media commentators looked for clearly defined outsider groups on which to lay blame. A recognised feature of moral panics is that concern develops about the behaviour of a recognisable category of people, and there is increased hostility towards the group regarded as a threat (Thompson 9).

Throughout the US, a selective persecution of school students based on their media consumption, subcultural identifications and their sporting of previously innocuous sartorial signifiers began (Goldberg, Katz).

In the days after the Littleton, Colorado massacre, the country went on a panicked hunt [for] the oddballs in High School, a profoundly ignorant and unthinking response to a tragedy that left geeks, nerds, non-conformists and the alienated in an even worse situation than before. Stories all over the country embarked on witchunts that amounted to little more than Geek Profiling. (Katz)
Children were searched, counselled or sent home from school for wearing overcoats, and the wearing of trench coats to school was banned in Denver and two other school districts (Kenworthy A24). Goths and other black-wearing subcultures became the targets of public and institutionalised fear and loathing. Children were invited to partake in counselling sessions or writing exercises to express their feelings about the Columbine murders; some who declared understanding for the killers’ motives were suspended from school and sent for counselling. Computer gamers found themselves the objects of suspicion and derision (Katz, Jenkins, Goldberg) [5]. Slashdot [6] columnist Jon Katz received hundreds of emails from school students who were being singled out in what he termed "geek-profiling":
"This is not a rational world. Can anybody help?" asked Jamie, head of an intense Dungeons and Dragons club in Minnesota, whose private school guidance counselor gave him a choice: give up the game or face counseling, possibly suspension. Suzanne Angelica (her online handle) was told to go home and leave her black, ankle-length raincoat there. (Katz "Voices from the Hellmouth")

"It was horrible, definitely," e-mailed Bandy from New York City. "I'm a Quake freak, I play it day and night. I'm really into it. I play Doom a lot too, though not so much anymore. I'm up till 3 a.m. every night. I really love it. But after Colorado, things got horrible. People were actually talking to me like I could come in and kill them. It wasn't like they were really afraid of me - they just seemed to think it was okay to hate me even more? People asked me if I had guns at home. This is a whole new level of exclusion, another excuse for the preppies of the universe to put down and isolate people like me." (Katz "Voices from the Hellmouth")
This post from ‘Anika78’ in suburban Chicago:
"I was stopped at the door of my high school because I was wearing a trenchcoat. I don't game, but I'm a geekchick, and I'm on the Web a lot. (I love geek guys, and there aren't many of us.) I was given a choice - go home and ditch the coat, or go to the principal. I refused to go home. I have never been a member of any group or trenchcoat mob or any hate thing, online or any other, so why should they tell me what coat to wear? Two security guards took me into an office, called the school nurse, who was a female, and they ordered me to take my coat off. The nurse asked me to undress (privately) while the guards outside the door went through every inch of my coat. I wouldn't undress, and she didn't make me (I think she felt creepy about the whole thing). Then I was called into the principal's office and he asked me if I was a member of any hate group, or any online group, or if I had ever played Doom or Quake. He mentioned some other games, but I don't remember them. I'm not a gamer, though my boyfriends have been. I lost it then. I thought I was going to be brave and defiant, but I just fell apart. I cried and cried. I think I hated that worse than anything." (Slashdot posting

Fears of youth and youth culture were expressed in other countries, including Australia, which has no similar history of school shootings. In the following weeks, students were suspended from seven schools across NSW (with one student even becoming the recipient of an apprehended violence order) when prank "hit lists" were found in letters and on websites, with media reports making much of these students’ cultural preferences:
"At Campbelltown Performing Arts High School, four students suspended on Tuesday for compiling their own ‘massacre list’ were revealed to be members of a Marilyn Manson gothic-rock inspired band [...] one of the suspended pupils wore hi-top Doc Martens to school, a Metallica t-shirt under his school shirt and a silver five-pointed star of the devil around his neck." (Temple 4)

"The Digital Underworld"

Many elements of youth culture were demonised early post-Littleton media reports, and gradually eliminated from blame when it was found that Klebold and Harris had not actually been their affiliates or fans. They had not been Marilyn Manson fans (although Manson still cancelled a Colorado concert scheduled for the week following the shooting (Harden Denver Post Online 23 Apr 1999).[7] They were not part of the group referred to as the "Trenchcoat Mafia", whose members had actually graduated two years earlier and who, as it turned out, had had little in the way of common social agenda apart from their outsider status and predilection for dark clothing and overcoats.[8] They had not been Goths - echoing the opinions of many in the Goth community, a Goth musician interviewed on CNN said, the suspects "sounded about as Goth as Johnny Cash" (quoted in Poniewozik).

As the early media hysteria abated, there was one media culprit that was not so readily relieved of blame - computer games - which had also been "implicated" in a previous school shooting.

The two boys apparently responsible for the massacre in Littleton, Colo., last week were, among many other things, accomplished players of the ultraviolent video game Doom. And Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in a Paducah, Ky., school foyer in 1997, was also known to be a video-game expert. (Denise Caruso "All those who deny any linkage between violence in entertainment and violence in real life, think again" New York Times, Apr 26, 1999; Late Edition (East Coast); C4)

The question then arises, of course, what is the source of the sickness? Obviously, for these boys, the digital underworld was both extremely seductive and extremely poisonous. [...] In the gruesome massacre, Eric and Dylan made their computer game come to life, by bringing death to many and to themselves. But in this case there is no "extra life." (Hinlicky)
Time magazine’s May 10 cover read: "Growing Up Online: Today’s kids dwell in a world of computers and video games. Here’s how parents can help them make the right choices" and portrayed a direct connection between computer games and the killings:
When Harris and Klebold went into Columbine on April 20, says an Internet investigator associated with the Wiesenthal Center, "they were playing out their game in God mode." (Pooley Eric Time May 10, 1999).[9]
Many press reports portrayed the boys’ gaming practices as being aberrant and somehow sinister, making much of the fact that the boys not only played single-player FPS games on their computers, but also played multiplayer games on a home LAN [10] and over the Internet, and that Harris had tested his skills at level design. (These practices are actually very common among FPS players). The Washington Post described Klebold and Harris as having a "friendship so tight that the two boys linked their home computers into a mini-network" and reported: "A fan of the original shoot-em-up game Doom, Harris was not merely a player. Using special software, he created new levels filled with monsters for players to blast their way through. He distributed his new Doom worlds on the Internet using an AOL Web site that has since been turned off." (Duggen et al A11) One article quoted a Columbine High School student stating "I don't believe violent video games lead to violence, but this was different. They'd play these games for hours and hours and hours." (Laidman N.P.)

"Incontrovertible Evidence"

Littleton was not the first US high school shooting, nor was it the first in which forms of contemporary youth culture were held to blame, but it prompted a huge amount of media attention and speculation, and provided the necessary fuel to ignite a moral panic about the place of the Internet and computer games in contemporary culture. A connection between computer games, media violence and school shootings was already in the news - one week before the Columbine killings, the families of three students killed by Michael Carneal in Paducah, Kentucky in December 1997, had filed a $130 million class-action lawsuit against a number of entertainment companies alleging that those companies influenced the boy’s murderous behaviour. The companies named included two Internet sites, the film company Dreamworks and seventeen video game companies.[11] [12]

In a move that was to have significant subsequent implications for the image of computer games in the public imagination, the prosecution in the Paducah case had brought in as a professional witness Lt Col Dave Grossman (USA, Ret), ex-military man and ex-West Point academy psychologist, to give testimony on the ability of violent media to directly cause real-life violent behaviour. Over the previous few years, Grossman had been making a name for himself as expert in his own self-proclaimed field of "Killology" [13] following the publication of his first book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1996) which claimed that violent movies, TV, and interactive video games are dangerously similar to military training programs used to dehumanise the enemy and make soldiers’ killing automatic. Following the Littleton tragedy, when it became known that the two teenage killers had been keen players of the computer games DOOM and Quake, Grossman emerged as the media’s most quotable expert on the threats posed to children and society by computer games. As luck would have it, the Littleton aftermath coincided with the pre-publication publicity campaign for his second (co-authored) book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence - which claims that computer games function as "murder simulators", by supposedly teaching children sitting at a PC greater killing skills than can be taught to soldiers in combat training situations. The book’s cover declares:

Authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano offer incontrovertible evidence, much of it based on recent major scientific studies and empirical research, that movies, TV, and video games are not just conditioning children to be violent--and unaware of the consequences of that violence--but are teaching the very mechanics of killing.
This thesis, despite its flimsiness and lack of support from the academic sector [14], gained Grossman much press and air time, as the post-Littleton media panic sought scapegoats for the killings. Grossman’s views were reproduced in articles with titles such as: "Video Games Figure in School Shootings" and "Do Video Games Teach Killing?" (Laidman N.P., Gittrich N.P.). Even the New York Times lent him credibility in an article headlined "All those who deny any linkage between violence in entertainment and violence in real life, think again" (Caruso C4) and the April 25th edition of 60 Minutes featured an interview with Grossman, in which he stated that computer games "are a mechanism which equips the child to take his fantasies and turn them into reality" and provide "the motor skills that make you capable of extraordinary acts of accuracy with the [real-life] weapon." (60 Minutes)

The influence of Grossman’s ideas could be seen in the statements made by certain public figures at the time. In a national radio address on April 24th 1999, US President Bill Clinton took a break from orchestrating the bombing of Kosovo to make public his concerns about fictional violence:

As Hillary pointed out in her book, the more children see of violence, the more numb they are to the deadly consequences of violence. Now, video games like "Mortal Kombat," "Killer Instinct," and "Doom" -- the very game played obsessively by the two young men who ended so many lives in Littleton -- make our children more active participants in simulated violence.[15]
In the address, Clinton denounced computer games not only for their violent imagery, but also echoed Grossman’s claim that computer games can actually teach the mechanisms of killing:
A former Lieutenant Colonel and psychologist, Professor David Grossman, has said that these games teach young people to kill with all the precision of a military training program, but none of the character training that goes along with it. For children who get the right training at home and who have the ability to distinguish between real and unreal consequences, they're still games. But for children who are especially vulnerable to the lure of violence, they can be far more. (Clinton N.P.)
Clinton quickly ordered a summit with Hollywood on violence in entertainment (Boal, Mark "The Shooters and the Shrinks") and in June 1999 requested the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to undertake a study of whether the movie, music recording, and computer and video game industries market and advertise products with violent content to young people.[16]

Hillary Clinton, campaigning for the senate in upstate New York, also spoke out against violence in computer games, as reported by the Washington Post:

She was particularly tough on video games that "you win based on how many people you kill," describing them as military training for impressionable minds (Grunwald, Michael. "First Lady Denounces Culture of Violence" The Washington Post 23 Apr 1999 A23.)
Consumer advocate (and presidential candidate) Ralph Nader spoke out dramatically against computer game developers in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
These electronic child molesters have little sense of restraint or boundaries. Their odious fare is becoming more coarse, more violent, and more interactive to seduce these youngsters into an addiction of direct video game involvement in the mayhem. The euphemism is "interactive." It has gotten so bad that Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano have authored a new book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill -- a call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence.
Even author Stephen King, in comparatively reasoned examination of the social issues raised by the Columbine killings, expressed this idea of games as military training, referring to Klebold and Harris as "the bogeyboys, who shot so well because they had trained on their home computers, and on the video games down at the mall" (King)

Moral Panic

While much of the response to the Littleton shootings by the media and sectors of government and the public, particularly regarding new media and technology, may seem irrational and extreme, it fits perfectly well within the recognised structure of a moral panic. The term ‘moral panic’ was first used by British sociologist Jock Young in 1971 in an analysis of the pattern of events that followed public concern over marijuana smoking by middle-class youth in the Notting Hill area in London. Media-fuelled public pressure prompted police to set up drug squads, which, logically, led to an increase in the number of people arrested for marijuana smoking, and the initial concern was seen to be both validated and apparently resolved (Young 50-51).

The media, then - in a sense - can create social problems, they can present them dramatically and overwhelmingly, and, most important, the can do it suddenly. The media can very quickly and effectively fan public indignation and engineer what one might call a 'moral panic’ about a certain type of deviancy (Young 37).
Young’s colleague Stanley Cohen expanded upon the workings of the phenomenon in his 1972 study of youth ‘gang’ disturbances Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers:
Societies appear the be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometime the subject of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even the way society conceives itself (Cohen 1972, 9).
The key stages of a moral panic according to Cohen’s definitions are:
  1. Something or someone is defined as a threat to values or interests
  2. This threat is depicted in an easily recognisable form by the media
  3. There is a rapid build-up of public concern
  4. There is a response from authorities or opinion-makers
  5. The panic recedes or results in social changes. (Thompson 8)
It is called a ‘moral’ panic because the threat is perceived to be to the very order of society itself (or an idealised part of it). The threat and/or its perpetrators are perceived as "folk devils’; there is a level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group of people, which generates an increased level of hostility towards the group considered responsible for the threat. Importantly, events are more likely to produce moral panics if a society of part thereof is in some sort of crisis or experiencing changes that may lead to stress (Thompson 8-9). The moral panic may often divert attention from more pertinent issues behind the problem, and may even be used to deflect attention from other issues of greater, often political importance (Davis).

The key stages of a moral panic can be identified clearly in the panic over computer games post-Littleton.

1. Something or someone is defined as a threat to values or interests

School shootings/children who play computer games/computer games/new media in general are a threat to society.

2. This threat is depicted in an easily recognisable form by the media

Computer games were portrayed as being capable of directly causing real-life violence (Issues over gun access and ownership, parenting and the American school culture were also raised, however video games were the most easily identifiable and ‘newest’ element, and the easiest to ‘do something about’.)

3. There is a rapid build-up of public concern

All forms of mass media were quick to report computer games and other media as influences in the killings. Parental and moral groups put pressure on public administrators.

4. There is a response from authorities or opinion-makers

Politicians and moral reformers such as Grossman were quick to have their opinions heard. Some schools indulged in knee-jerk reactions in an attempt to control any new threats by attempting to eliminate any signifiers or pastimes considered dangerous (eg trenchcoats, role-playing games). The President and Congress launch investigations into violent media.

5. The panic recedes or results in social changes

Following all the press and pressure generated over the issue, the US government launched various summits and discussions on the topic of violence in games, which were eventually watered down into a study of whether the movie, music recording, and computer and video game industries market and advertise products with violent content to children. The study found that these products were indeed marketed to children, and made the following recommendations: that all these industries improve their labelling of violent content, that they self-regulate their marketing practices by not marketing and advertising to groups outside of the product’s ratings, but that no intervention by government should be made to regulate or influence the content of these media at a creative level (Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children).

There was very little mention of video games in the press coverage of the four school shootings in the US in March 2001 [17], and it appeared that the media panic generated post-Littleton had temporarily subsided. However, the anxieties behind it had not dispersed. In March 2001, US Attorney General John Ashcroft demonstrated the continuing influence of the ideas of Dave Grossman in statements made on ABC’s "Good Morning America":

The entertainment industry, with its video games and the like, which sometimes literally teach shooting and all, we've got to ask ourselves how do we as a culture respond to be more responsible? (quoted in Gullo)
In April 2001, the day before the expiry of the statute of limitations on the Littleton shootings, a lawsuit was filed by relatives of Columbine victims against 25 film and video game companies, alleging that the companies created the conditions that made the massacre possible. It states: "Absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys’ incredibly deep involvement, use of and addiction to these games and the boys’ basic personalities, these murders and this massacre would not have occurred." (qtd in Ward) The lawsuit called for greater regulation of the game industry, stating that without greater control "it is guaranteed that more monsters will be created and more school killings will occur" (qtd in Simpson).

History of the Computer Game Moral Panic

Public concern regarding computer games began to appear in the early 1980s in newspaper headlines such as "Videogames—Fun or Serious Threat", "Should Video Games Be Restricted by Law?" and "Video Games: A Diversion or a Danger?" Games at this stage were graphically primitive (eg Space Invaders, Pacman) but became a cause for concern because of their ‘addictive’ qualities. In 1982, the then US Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, announced that video games were producing "aberrations in childhood behavior", that children were becoming addicted to games "body and soul". When later asked to substantiate his comments, Koop admitted he had no evidence to support his point of view (Provenzo 50, Selnow). In the Philippines, there was concern that video games were socially destructive, and in 1981 then-President Marcos declared a national ban on arcade machines, giving their owners two weeks to destroy them (Time, Provenzo 50).

The concern about violence in computer games moved to the fore with the release of the Midway arcade fighting game Mortal Kombat (1992), which had a level of graphic violence much higher than any preceding game. Mortal Kombat became infamous for its ‘finishing moves’ - in which a winning player could, by hitting a secret combination of controls, inflict a gruesome ‘fatality’ on their on-screen opponent (eg tearing out their spine, turning them to ice and shattering them). 1993 saw a proliferation of media coverage on video game violence, with Time magazine running a cover story entitled "Attack of the Video Games." (get date!) and in 1994, US congressional hearings on computer game violence led to the development of an industry-regulated rating system for games (Violence in America Vol 3, 375). The earliest first-person shooters Wolfenstein (1992) and Doom (1993) were also on the gaming scene at this time, but did not attract the same degree of concern at this point. Unlike Mortal Kombat, which could be seen in arcades and on home console systems and was likely to come to the attention of concerned parents and educators, Doom and Wolfenstein were only available on the PC and were particularly popular on office PC networks (Violence in America Vol 3, 375; Herz).

The next exacerbation of the moral panic over computer games did not develop until a new, and very real, threat to society appeared in the form of multiple shootings in American suburban schools. Just as the concerns over comic books and rock and roll in the 1950s were voiced at a time when there was a new perceived threat to the social order in the form of aberrant youth behaviour that came to be called "juvenile delinquency", it was not until the social order had been significantly threatened by the actions of young people that computer games were named as a serious problem. Although gun-related school violence had long been a recognised problem in poor, inner city, racially mixed areas, it was only when white, middle-class, suburban children began shooting their schoolmates that it was found necessary to look for external causes to blame.

The Conditions of Moral Panic

School shootings are just one form of social disturbance behind the witch-hunt on games; other deeply rooted anxieties also exist about the rapid rate of contemporary technological and social change occurring due to rapid advances in computer technology. As Sherry Turkle wrote in 1984, "protest against video games carries a message about how people feel about computers in general" (65). This moral panic over computer games has occurred at a significant cultural nexus, combining elements from previous moral panics over both popular culture and youth culture with current societal fears of the growing role and influence of computer technology. Moral panics about popular culture, particularly the media artefacts of youth culture, are nothing new - one of the most recurrent types of moral panic since World War II has been associated with the emergence of various forms of youth culture (Cohen 1972, 9). In the twentieth century there have been great concerns expressed at one time or other over jazz, pinball, movies, comic books, rock ‘n’ roll, ‘snuff’ movies and role-playing games (Boethius). Popular entertainment has long been attacked for its supposed detrimental effect on society, particularly youth. New forms of popular culture tend to emerge when cultures are experiencing change; new technologies emerge allowing for the development of new creative forms, or allow for the widespread distribution and consumption of media that were previously only available to an elite few. With these changes come shifts in power, the strength of cultural hegemonies is lessened, and those whose power is diminishing perceive threats to the status quo.

The rapidity of social change and growing social pluralism create increasing potential for value conflicts and lifestyle clashes between diverse social groups, which turn to moral enterprise to defend or assert their values against those of other groups (Thompson 11)
The rapid advances in computing over the last decade, with the proliferation of home PCs and electronic communication throughout work and education settings, has been accompanied by growing fears and misunderstandings of this new technology, particularly since the advent of the World Wide Web in 1995. The results of a 2000 survey published in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that some 60 % of participants stated that the greatest stress they faced in the workplace was email ("Email Work’s Biggest Stress Says Survey").

An important factor in this is the often exaggerated, but nevertheless real, increased proficiency in new technologies demonstrated by children in comparison with their parents. While children in previous eras may have developed advanced skills in technical interests such as home electronics or ‘ham’ radio, they were not generally able to surpass their parents in areas related to parents’ work and livelihood.

Parents have a twofold relationship with this. On the one hand, most are keen for their offspring to have access to, and skills in, computer technologies, in order to ensure a well-paying place in future workplace - their future membership in the ‘virtual class’ (Kroker and Weinstein 163). At the same time, parents may be facing major changes in their workplace as a result of these technologies, and may be fearful of their own lack of knowledge in the area, or even find their own livelihoods threatened. (Turkle 1984, 66, Marshall) Teachers who may not necessarily be technically minded are finding themselves needing to develop computer skills in order to retain employment, and may have their authority threatened by children knowing more than they do. These situations imply a significant shift in power relationships between generations.

Young people’s knowledge of computers has also been seen as a threat to existing power structures, rarely but powerfully, through ‘hacker attacks’ on business and government information networks. While the majority of invasive or destructive hackers are not teenagers but older, more experienced programmers, the image of the prodigious teen hacker has been mythologised in popular fiction, in films such as Hackers and War Games. As P. David Marshall has written: "the anarchic quality of hacker culture, the threatening obsessive game culture and the construction of subcultures of cognoscenti are all forms of threat to social order and social control" (Marshall 71)

Computer games and the Internet are also sites of anxiety through their perceived abilities to redefine the boundaries between public and private space. As one Net-alarmist has said "The Net brings the world into your living room" and that "one mouse click" actually puts children "in" dangerous places (Friedman qtd in Rosenberg N.P.). This perceived shift goes some way towards explaining why information that can be found on the shelves of a public library is suddenly considered more dangerous on the Internet (eg explosives recipes) or why pornography on the net is considered worse than that in shops, or why online casinos can be justified by the current Australian government to be a much greater threat than real-life ones. Home is generally considered to be a safe haven from these external threats, so as a facilitating technology the Internet itself becomes a threat to family order. Computer games are also responsible for shifts in terms of spatial situation between the public space and the home. The games arcade has inherited the social situativeness of the pool hall - a boys-only space with implications of danger and decadence that has been traditionally been situated in opposition to the stable, safe, feminised space of the family home (Marshall). In the shift from arcade to home-based computer games, this masculinised space has begun to assert itself, first (with the PC) in the bedroom or study space of young people and now, with the latest generation of game consoles, in the living room.

The moral panic over computer games has demonstrated that, while there may be valid concerns regarding violent content in computer-based entertainment, the panic itself has been generated not only in regard to computer games as such, but is also indicative of much greater, deeply held concerns about the rapid rate of technological change in Western society, and the threats that these changes pose to existing structures of power and social order.

Qualities of Moral Panics

Certain qualities of moral panics have been recognised, such as volatility (moral panics can erupt suddenly and subside, and then lie dormant and then reappear) and disproportionality (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 36, Thompson 9). When viewed today, the objects of past panics often appear innocuous - it is now difficult to see any innate dangers to society in jazz, comic books and pinball machines. While moral panics may at times appear to be harmless media diversions, the expressions of anger against the subject of the panic may have very real consequences. In the panic over, and subsequent banning of, pinball machines in New York in 1941, thousands of machines were smashed or dumped into the sea (Willens, Thomas). The attack on comic books led by Fredric Wertham in the 1950s caused fearful publishers to form their own censorship body, the Comics Code Authority, and several comic publishers left the business entirely, including EC Comics, the only publisher doing adult-level material, and comic fans have held Wertham responsible for the unsophisticated content of comics since ("Censorship in Comics"; Decker; Nyberg). The disproportionality that can now be recognised in Wertham’s 1954 anti-comic polemic Seduction of the Innocent has made it, like the 1936 anti-drug film Reefer Madness, an quaintly entertaining collectors’ item in its own right.

One consistent aspect of moral panics that they display very little understanding of the cultures they describe. Perhaps the closest example to the panic over computer game culture is the way in which the panic over role-playing games (RPGs) in the late 1970s and 80s constructed an image of RPGs that was unrecognisable to those familiar with the games.[18] The first attack on role-playing games occurred in 1979, when a student, Dallas Egbert III, disappeared from Michigan State University campus. Private detective William Dear was hired by Egbert’s family to find him and, confusing a variety of information, decided that Egbert had become lost in the steam tunnels under the MSU campus where he had gone to play the ‘strange’ game of Dungeons and Dragons with his fake broadsword (see Dear 31-32). Despite the fact that hot, dirty steam tunnels would be an impossible, or at least highly inconvenient, location in which to play such a game, and that D&D has nothing to do medieval re-enactments, Dear was able to promote this theory at numerous press conferences and in his subsequent sensationalist book on the story, The Dungeon Master (1985). Although Egbert was later found alive and well in Louisiana, and that there was no evidence that he had actually ever even played the game on the MSU campus, the demonisation of D&D in the American press and public imagination was seeded (Cardwell N.P.).

The game was later blamed for another boy’s suicide when his mother claimed that his death was the result of a curse placed on him during a game. This sort of confusion between the player and their game character was partially responsible for the game’s erroneous construction as a form of occult practice. Later D&D came to be associated with devil worship and Satanism and was even blamed for teens plotting to kill their parents. (Cardwell) The press continued to repeat sensationalist, erroneous claims about the game for over a decade with headlines such as "Fantasy game linked to murder, suicide" and "Shocked Community Stymied by Dungeons and Dragons Style Murders" (Picton 1983, Mullins 1992) and to this day the game is still associated with images of the occult and devil worship.[19]

The Moral Panic Construction of Games and Gamers

Like the moral panic over role-playing games, the moral panic over computer games has also been responsible for disseminating a large amount of false information about the object of the panic. Some of the most vocal critics of ‘dangerous’ computer games demonstrate a very limited familiarity with the objects of their criticism. For example, US Senator Brownback gave this error-laden description of Quake on the Senate floor:

The video game `Quake’ put out by Midway Games and ID Software, the same company as the producer of `Doom,' consists of a lone gunman confronting a variety of monsters. For every kill, he gets points. As he advances in the game, the weapons he uses grow more powerful and more gory - he trades in his shotgun for an automatic and later gets to use a chain saw on his enemies. The more skilled the player, the gorier the weapons he gets to use. Bloodshed his reward (Hanson).
In reality, no points are awarded in Quake, for kills or anything else. There is no chainsaw in the game. Weapons are not allocated on skill or points - they are merely found in certain locations in the game.

David Grossman’s book mentions the training abilities of ‘gun’ arcade shooters (in which a plastic gun is held) and he translates his impressions of these directly to PC first-person shooter games (which are played with a keyboard and mouse). He erroneously declares that "Quake is often played with a joystick, which is really more like a pistol grip complete with trigger" (79). He describes Eric Harris’ map-making efforts as indicative of a pathological relationship with the game: "In fact Eric Harris reprogrammed his edition of Doom so that it looked like his neighborhood, complete with the houses of the people he hated" (77) when making a map of a real area from one’s own surroundings is a common practice among game mapmakers. He claims that the military used a modified version of Doom for training, which it did, but claimed that this was "to teach recruits how to kill" and in "developing the will to kill" (77) when the game was actually chosen because its multiplayer capabilities could be used to develop team work - marines already knew how to shoot (Riddell).

The claims made by David Grossman and those echoing his ideas are exemplary evidence of how the moral panic envisions games and gamers. As with previous moral panics, the computer game moral panic draws upon often-inaccurate stereotypes in constructing an images of computer games and their players that are very different from the world of computer gaming that is experienced by the players themselves. Here I have chosen some of the key notions of the computer game moral panic regarding FPS games, mostly as expressed in Grossman’s book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, to demonstrate the disparity between the two.

Violence and killing are the main attraction of games

The moral panic image of FPS gamers is that they are attracted solely by killing and violence.

"The real selling point with these games is that you get to pull the trigger, you inflict the damage rather than just watching someone else do it" (Grossman 67)

"It’s nothing but kill, kill, kill, kill, kill." (Grossman qtd in Fainaru).

"...young brains exposed to a diet of media violence can become conditioned to the actual need for violent entertainment for their ‘fun’" (Grossman 6).

Children do not need video games and, in fact, the earlier they are introduced into a child's life, the more likely it is that the child will crave violent ones within a short time. (Grossman 99)
Research actually done among computer game players paints a rather different picture. In a national survey of game players (part of a four-year study produced by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification), players stated that the most important features they looked for in a game were high resolution graphics, multiplayer capability that allowed games to be played with friends, realistic action and sounds effects and a large number of game levels. Violence per se was rated the least important (Durkin & Aisbett 96).

Shooting games are non-intelligent

Grossman contrasts shooting games with "sports games and other games that provided a mental challenge" (100) and refers to them as "appliances, firearms trainers at best, murder simulators at worst" (111). While claiming that virtual shooting games only teach children to kill, Grossman sees that young people instead should be playing contact sports such as football and Paintball, which teach sportsmanship (Grossman in Goodwin).

Durkin & Aisbett’s survey participants also believed that their enjoyment of computer game play is focused around challenge, competition, skill and scoring more than on aggressive content. The word most frequently used by players to describe their attraction to and experience of computer games was "challenge" followed by "skill". Players consistently reported that they prefer multiplayer games to single-player games because of the level of challenge they provide, and team-based games requiring advanced strategy and in-game communication are the most popular. The currently most popular FPS game by far [20] is Half-Life Counterstrike, a multiplayer, team mission-based game that is more difficult than other FPS games (because of real-world physics[21] and higher accuracy requirements) and relies heavily on effective strategy and teamplay.

Gaming is an antisocial activity

The moral panic constructs gameplay as a socially isolating activity, perpetuating what Claudia Springer has referred to as "the caricature of the solitary social misfit who prefers to commune with his terminal rather than with actual people" (771-18) disavows the social dimensions of gameplay:

"The people who live on these computers are so isolated from reality that they’re able to convince themselves that their fantasy is reality" (Grossman interviewed in Simpson)

As children and youth are playing these games for ten or more hours a week, they are not solving and negotiating conflicts with their peers, and they are missing priceless opportunities to gain needed cooperative learning and social skills (Grossman 69)
This is in marked contrast to the experiences related by gamers. The quotes below are from website email postings and gamers interview in articles. Of particular note is the frequency with which these gamers mention the social aspect of the gaming community.
These games aren’t training tools of violence, but rather places where people can go to escape the outside barriers and use their imaginations, skills and strategies [...] I am an avid online game player. I play several hours per week online against human opponents, who are also mostly friends I have met online through gaming (Mail posting

"People look at girl clans and can't understand why a bunch of women like this violent game," Beal says. "But we also talk about life, about problems we're having at work. If you're on the outside and only looking at what's moving on the monitor, you just don't see.,1002,54%257E27189,00.html

I don't think that the media has any concept of how tight-knit a community online FPS gamers have forged. We all read the same webpages, talk about the same things, and treat each other with a level of respect that no politician, journalist, or US Army crackdaddy would ever think possible.

"The beautiful thing is that everyone puts their differences aside, has one thing in common and gets along," says 23-year-old Pete Yellen, an Aurora systems engineer. "It's a real positive atmosphere, even though we're killing each other.",1002,54%257E27183,00.html
From this limited initial exploration, the disparity between the ideas regarding FPS games and gamers generated by the gaming moral panic, and the attitudes and experiences of the people who play the games and consider themselves part of a gaming community can clearly be seen. Indeed, within the gaming moral panic, the idea of a game culture or of gaming communities does not even exist.

I am not suggesting that only members of a subculture should be the only ones that are able to talk about it, nor am I saying that the gamers’ perspective is necessarily the ‘truth’, but the presence of such factual errors in the claims made by proponents of the moral panic, and the marked difference between their images of the games and players, and the experiences of those in the gaming community, suggests a lack of any genuine research and a wilful ignorance of and refusal to listen to the attitudes and experiences of the people who actually play these games.

The project of my current doctoral research is to explore and document the complex communities and cultural practices that have developed around first-person shooter computer games, in order to gain an understanding of this culture, after which the moral panic regarding it may be further explored. The views of the computer game moral panic have already been heard in mainstream forums; the views and experiences of the gaming community at the centre of the controversy have not. It is my hope that my research will redress the balance and allow alternative voices to partake in this public debate.


[1] There were fifteen deaths at Littleton, including the suicides of Klebold and Harris, and 23 people were injured. Previous major US school shootings had the following casualties: Springfield (May 1998) 2 dead, 22 wounded; Jonesboro (April 1998) 4/11; Paducah (Dec. 1997) 3/5; Pearl (Oct. 1997) 2/7; Bethel (Feb. 1997) 2/2; Moses Lake (Feb 1996) 3/1. The number of weapons and explosives used at Littleton also exceeded those of previous school killings. (Sources: School Associated Violent Deaths: In-House report of the National School Safety Centre, 1999, in Gottsman, ed, Violence in America: An Encyclopedia; BBC News Online "When Children Kill")

[2] The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office report on the Columbine High School Shootings released on CD-ROM 16 May 2000 and reproduced at All 11,000 pages of original documents are available at

[3] For example, see Fisher; Greene and Briggs; Brook; Kenworthy "Police: Attack Planned in Detail". KMFDM lyrics were quoted on Eric Harris’ webpage (Kokman). For analysis of the reporting inaccuracies of the media panic see Poniewozik; Moatmai; Cullen "Inside the Columbine High Investigation" and "New Clues in Columbine Killings"; Prendergast.

[4] Q. How much do you blame each of the following for causing shootings like the one in Littleton, Colorado: the Internet. A. Great deal 34% Moderate amount 30% Not much 18% Not at all 11% No opinion 7% (Saad)

[5] The entire Slashdot "Voices from the Hellmouth" postings may be found at

[6] One of the largest geek/tech webpages - subtitled "News for nerds; stuff that matters"

[7] The connection between the killers and Marilyn Manson seems to have been based on an interview in which one Columbine student reported an occasion of hearing Klebold and Harris repeating the lyrics of a Marilyn Manson song in a school corridor. It would seem that Manson is not yet off the hook. In May 2001 a church-affiliated religious group requested that his Denver show booked for June 2001 be cancelled on the grounds that his music "promotes violence, hate and drugs. " ("Marilyn Manson asked to cancel show")

[8] See Moatmai; Cullen "Inside the Columbine High Investigation" and "New Clues in Columbine Killings"; Prendergast.

[9] "God mode" was a cheat setting in the Doom games that gave a player unlimited ammunition, health and armour.

[10] Local Area Network - a term used to describe a network connection between two or more computers in the one physical location.

[11] Sega of America, Sony Computer Entertainment America, Nintendo of America, Midway, Apogee, id Software, Acclaim, Atari Games, GT Interactive, Interplay, Virgin, Activision, Capcom, Lasersoft, Williams, Eidos and Squaresoft.

[12] This suit was eventually dismissed in 2001, but the plaintiffs are submitting an appeal

[13] See Grossman’s webpage

[14] There is no research cited in Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill supporting the claims that games playing affects real-life skills. It refers only to the greater body of media effects research some on film and television audiences, and cites two media-effects studies of computer games which examine physiological arousal and hostility measures in adults following game play. To date, no known studies of computer-game skill transference have been found. No academic reviews of this book could be found.

[15] It’s worth mentioning here that the three games that Clinton cites as "now" being a problem were all released between 1992 and 1993.

[16] This report was released in 2001 and can be found at

[17] Santee California March 5 2001, Williamsport, Pennsyvania March 7 2001, El Cajon California March 22 2001, Gary Indiana, 30 March 2001. For example, see "Again, a school shooting stuns California community"; "San Diego Shooting"; "1 killed in Gary, Indiana, school shooting, police say"; "Pennsylvania Schoolgirl Shoots Classmate".

[18] At this point it is worth describing the RPG genre. Before computer versions of the games existed, RPGs consisted of improvised adventure stories played around a table with pencil, paper and an assortment of dice which serve as random number generators, as the calculation of probability is central to these games. For example, a player may wish their story character to attempt a certain feat, say crossing a rope bridge. Their probability of doing this successfully will then be calculated. The entire game is an exercise in interactive storytelling - nothing is ever acted out.

[19] As can be seen by its use to add an extra sensationalist touch to descriptions of the Goth subculture in the post-Littleton reportage, see Fisher quote on page 2.

[20] Gamespy real-time stats page 6 Sept 2001: Half Life 13946 servers, 39347 players; Quake 3: Arena 2758 servers, 2876 players; Unreal Tournament 2702 servers, 1906 players

[21] Jumps from a high place will lead to death, smaller falls lead to injuries, one shot usually kills or seriously injures, accuracy is decreased when running.


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