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Bang Bang, Game Over 

New play explores whether violent videogames create killers

Wednesday, May 23 2007
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.

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 Yorker writer 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.

Still, there's something to be said for championing a unified perspective. It often makes for more engaging drama. First Person Shooter seeks validity for so many viewpoints that the dramaturgy suffers. Many of the exchanges seem repetitive (why repeat Kerry's wife's death scene multiple times when once would suffice?) and/or twice as long as they ought to be. Similarly, the prevailing wisecracky videogame industry-speak quickly becomes as frustrating as failing to get beyond Level 1 on a game of Gears of War. It's a shame that Loeb's impulse toward variety doesn't go as far as to embrace atmosphere and tone. The production also falls prey to heavy-handedness. The actors perform every scene as if it's the play's most pivotal point, delivering each sentence like it might be their last. The endless (and loud) rearranging of furniture on stage and the actors' collective little jumps up and down in between scenes look like an attempt to give the action a hint of unity in choreographic form. But the group movements lack precision and seem superimposed on the play.

It seems strange, perhaps even insensitive to say this, but the closeness of the frightening events that took place on that Virginia campus in mid-April have given the playwright and his collaborators a type of gift — a license to be provocative and dangerous, to make us understand our knee-jerk reactions not just to the Virginia shootings, but other mind-numbing, finger-pointing tragedies in a different way. Though undeniably a bold effort, the play doesn't quite hit us between the eyes.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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