The Reiser Story

 Posted by (Visited 7298 times)  Game talk
Jun 302007
 

This article at Wired is an amazing story. However, I am struck by how much attention is paid to violent videogames — by the writer, by the accused, by the courts who presumably discuss the briefs — when it seems pretty clear that everyone in the story is a deeply screwed up person to begin with.

Does “geek discrimination” exist? Sure, and I am sure that in the courts, the issue of whether Reiser played violent games with his 6 year old was a factor. But surely somewhere along the line the drugs, self-mutilation, adultery, and murders by the lover deserve a bit more weight in the deliberations? Yikes.

Society really needs to stop seeing interest in violent videogames as a motive cause, and instead start seeing extreme fascination with violence in general as a warning flag. I read this article the same day I first browsed an issue of Entertainment Weekly with the headline emblazoned on the cover “Top 25 Action Movies Of All Time!!” — Kill Bill, Die Hard, etc etc.

I am sure Reiser saw Kill Bill. It was a geek thing to do. I bet nobody in this case filed court papers with the title of a movie in them.

  19 Responses to “The Reiser Story”

  1. culture to marital problems, computer game violence to a serial killer’s perhaps confession. It’s very well written, offering multiple accounts, and using the accused’s code as a framing device, building up to a haunting ending. Powerful stuff. (via Ralph Koster)

  2. Exactly. Reiser whines that video games are blinding people from the real facts of the case and this Wired reporter focuses on them when there are much crazier things going on that he mentions in brief, but effectively burying them… My personal favorite is that Reiser’s best friend is a convicted serial killer (8 proven murders before “becoming a christian”).

  3. I think it’s also important to mention the influence of other media on the violence in video games. A game in which you play a faerie flying around throwing pixie dust on monsters to make them fall asleep so you can save the princess could theoretically contain the same gameplay as DOOM. Your average male 18-35 gamer wouldn’t be caught dead ever playing that game, however. This may be because of basic human instincts that incline us towards violence, as Reiser espouses, however I think it much more likely that the decades of violent movies, television, books, music, etc. have shaped the concept of what is or is not entertaining in America.

    Video games have a certain requirement to place themselves in that realm in order to succeed as commercial products. Whether or not they should attempt to break out of that kind of stereotype and explore the wide range of other environments and conventions is the same question that any art has to answer. And frankly a large portion, probably the majority, of games do not fit into the violent content area, my point is that in addition to the argument that most video games are not that violent, the violence in those games that are, is not solely the doing of the game developer.

    Also, to Max: I believe the situation is that Reiser’s friend had confessed to 8 murders, although no charges have been filed, nothing has been proven, and no information regarding those confessions is available to the public right now.

  4. Society really needs to stop seeing interest in violent videogames as a motive cause

    It may not be the motive, but it sure helps on desensitizing “soldiers”. The more you get trained on situations which resembles real combat scenarios, the more a real combat scenario will look like a computer game. That removes some fairly useful barriers, (although the army may benefit from it, society does not).

  5. Hmmm… a number of random thoughts occur to me on this topic….

    1. I’ve characterized games like the original Quake or Diablo/Diablo-II as sort of a Jaycees’ Haunted House on my computer. That helped the people around me who looked askance at these “violent” or “satanic” video games to reframe their view of these games inside the context of a familiar cultural reference point. Later games offer an opportunity to debate the relative merits of one-upmanship in the gore department versus innovations in gameplay. And that’s a discussion I initiate with my son from time to time when we contemplate our experience in games like F.E.A.R.

    2. In response to Ola’s comments regarding the relative lack of merit of desensitization to society: I can think of a LARGE number of situations in which computer-game-induced “desensitization” can be beneficial.

    I will digress for a moment to set some context for this point:

    The same son I mentioned above, when he was five years old, became very upset one day while I was playing Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit. When I asked him what was happening, he explained that he was worried that real-world cops might come one day and arrest me. I smiled and explained to him that there is no way that I would EVER drive in real life the way I “drive” in N4S. That reassurance calmed him immensely.

    That said, the game DOES hone a very valuable skill: the ability to not overcorrect in a real-life driving crisis.

    As for desensitization to violence, the “desensitization” I am trying to instill in my own kids is that violence is overrated, along with many other so-called “adult” behaviors. I’ve deliberately introduced controlled exposures to violent content at times of my own choosing as a parent to my son, so that he and I can discuss the implications of it at a time when I consider him to have reached a level of cognitive development to handle the ideas. This approach contrasts strongly with the prohibitive approach employed by his grandparents on his mother’s side, who only succeeded in raising children who rebelled as adults. So far, my son is showing himself to be a remarkably calm, compassionate, insightful, and well-balanced guy. I’m quite proud of him, and am looking forward to watching him grow as a teenager. (His 13th birthday is coming up soon — where the hell did the time go??)

    3. I’ve always been something of a social outsider: thick glasses, rich vocabulary, not particularly athletic — you know, doomed from birth. (I exaggerate, but you know my point.) It’s sad to realize how few people are willing to see more than the glasses and appreciate the warm, insightful, compassionate person behind the specs, but that’s our society.

    I created an analogy for my nephew once: It’s like being seen as Wile E. Coyote in a world that worships the Roadrunner. And yes, there really are people who are that shallow. I’ve observed their reactions over many years, in many contexts. At times, I’ve toyed with contact lenses, but I’ve gotten to the point where I say, “What’s the point?” If people are so shallow as to find my superficial flaws off-putting, why would I consider them worthy of my friendship in the first place? And so I leave them to their tabloids and their Paris Hilton and Brangelina stories, and their Ultimate Fighting Championships, and I go about my business. Still, every once in a while, I find someone with an intellectual pulse and an open mind, and we get to form an interesting friendship.

    I’m just glad I didn’t hook up with “friends” like Reiser’s serial-killer buddy. But I tend to suspect certain forms of “body art” as a possible expression of self-hatred. Especially since it’s something people voluntarily do to themselves, as opposed to being born with weak eyes.

  6. David, I am not saying that you get ADHD from playing violent computer games… I am saying this: some die-hard-gamer US-soldiers calmly describes what they did on mission in IRAQ as a computer game and find their gaming skills to be beneficial to keep focus on their relentless death-machine work.

    If computer games do not make people violent, games may very well make sure that violent people (or soldiers with a license to kill) do not have the barriers to stop and reconsider when they eventually find themselves in a situation where killing is one viable option of many. All the killer has to do is to convince himself that he can pull it off. If he starts down that route I can easily see the increased risk for him to go all the way through with it if he has been over this repeatedly in computer games.

    Reckless driving is a different category though. We don’t have any natural barriers to that. I think movies and motor-sports probably are more influential there because of all the associated “positive” or “heroic” values that the stories and competition brings with it. Apples and oranges?

  7. Ola wrote:

    some die-hard-gamer US-soldiers calmly describes what they did on mission in IRAQ as a computer game and find their gaming skills to be beneficial to keep focus on their relentless death-machine work.

    Where? I’d like to read that article/study.
    Because all the articles/studies I’ve read on exactly the same issue say exactly the opposite — gaming skills are no benefit “in the field” at all.
    But this should be obvious from first principles. “Aiming” a “gun” by moving a mouse around in two dimensions is fundamentally different from pointing at a target through iron sights, controlling your breathing while lying still in a two-way shooting gallery, and squeezing (not pulling! not tapping!) the trigger.
    Games might help with situational awareness — but that’s like saying jogging helps with tennis. Jogging helps with general fitness, which might well be applied to a tennis game, but the jogging itself doesn’t help with your serve, your backhand, or even your cross-court hustle.
    Similarly, there is just no evidence that exposure to fictional violence has any correlation whatsoever with real violence.
    Note that “correlation” here is being used to mean “at a level above normal statistical noise”.
    Meaning your anecdote about that one kid in Buttfrack, OK who apparently played some GTA in between getting beaten by his stepdad, and then went out and shot someone, is not relevant, even if he did it while wearing a green hoody and chanting “Headshot! Headshot!”

  8. Shan, a documentary sent on norwegian TV…

    You are focusing on the wrong level, it is not the technical skill or violence per se, but the mental relentlessness and disassociation with the situation.

    I’ve been in the army, I know exactly how much damage an automatic rifle can do at a great distance. Aiming a gun to kill is easy, pulling the trigger when it is aimed at another human being is hard if you’re totally unprepared for it.

  9. Just another quick comment: IIRC the soldiers explained how combat resembled playing a computer game, laying down strategies to pick out targets, then take them out one by one. Or to paraphrase: it was just like playing a computer game.

    Imagining that what you are about to do is just like playing a computer game is a very nice psychological shield, I am sure. A potentially lethal one. The more you “dehumanize” your targets the easier it becomes to pull the trigger. The history-books are full of examples that leaves us all ashamed of our own kind.

    And forget about statistics, it tends to distort complex relations. Too many people play games and reliable data about the population is not accessible. The point isn’t that a significant number of our population go crazy with arms, but that the consequences are disastrous when they do.

    I’d welcome more abstract violence a la Galaxy and Invaders.

  10. David wrote:

    3. I’ve always been something of a social outsider: thick glasses, rich vocabulary, not particularly athletic — you know, doomed from birth. (I exaggerate, but you know my point.) It’s sad to realize how few people are willing to see more than the glasses and appreciate the warm, insightful, compassionate person behind the specs, but that’s our society.

    Wow, that just described me.

    As for the topic. If interest in violent videogames really caused people to commit murder, then the homicide rate would be much higher as millions of people play them.

    When I grew up the horrifying activities that kids were doing was playing D&D as that led to Satanism. Then, I believe, it was heavy metal music’s turn at being the cause of all evil.

  11. If interest in violent videogames really caused people to commit murder, then the homicide rate would be much higher as millions of people play them.

    You could say the same thing about alcohol or car driving.

  12. Ola wrote:

    You could say the same thing about alcohol or car driving.

    Yes, I indeed can. The simple truth is that no single factor is responsible. You can drink, like millions of others, and not commit murder. You can drive, like millions of others, and never kill anyone. But when you combine the two, your chances go up (even if by accident), but that still doesn’t guarantee that you will kill anyone.

    1) Genetics, which can determine how a brain functions (autism, schizophrenia, etc) can be the first variable.

    2) Enviroment, what a person learns as he or she grows up is the second variable.

    3) Drugs (both legal and illegal), are a very valid variable (alliteration for-the-win!) as they change the way your brain functions.

    4) Media (movies, books, games, news programs), are yet another variable.

    It’s certain combinations of these variables that can lead to such tragic circumstances. Not all are required, but no single variable will be enough to trigger the event. And there might even be plenty of other variables that I’m not thinking of.

    This is why excuses like bad parents, video games, music, et cetera are a form of strawman arguement. It is the individual that is responsible, as it is the individual that has the specific formula of variables that lead to his or her actions.

  13. But the individual is only a product of his environment… 😉

  14. Kent wrote:

    …When I grew up the horrifying activities that kids were doing was playing D&D as that led to Satanism. Then, I believe, it was heavy metal music’s turn at being the cause of all evil.

    Heh… every generation has it’s Jeremiahs prophesying doom over some ‘satanic’ cultural influence. In the late 1800s and the early 1900’s, it was the brassiere and make-up: the so-called “tools of vanity.” In the 1920s it was the Jitterbug and bathtub gin. In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler managed to convince his countrymen that it was the Jews, the Gypsies, the Slavic people, what-have-you. In the Fifties, it was Elvis the Pelvis. In the Sixties, it was the Beatles. In the Seventies, it was rock music, with a frisson of backwards masking and a handful of guys with black-and-white pancake make-up, and violent movies, and degenerate TV shows. In the Eighties, it was Boy George and all the bands with bad hair and synthesizers and safety pins used as earrings. The Nineties brought us Death Metal, and Rap, and an assortment of other noises I don’t particularly care to pay attention to. And now, everyone’s going retro, rediscovering Disco and elephant-bell jeans (egad, I thought that one would NEVER come back into favor).

    There will ALWAYS be Evil Cultural Influences poised on the sidelines of our lives. And yet, millions of people navigate their way through the morass, seemingly without permanent warpage into psychopathy.

  15. However, I am struck by how much attention is paid to violent videogames …

    Videogames are mentioned once on the first of seven pages. Half of the fourth page deals with parental responsibilities in relation to videogames. And on the fifth page, videogames are really only mentioned in passing with brief quips about the innocence of playing videogames. Most of the story deals with Reiser’s eccentricities and involvement with linux. I think your proximity to games probably heightens your awareness of the topic whenever discussed in such a context. I think the actual degree of attention paid to the subject of videogames is very little.

  16. A bit of anecdata to throw into the mix:

    A couple of years ago, my (then) three year old son wandered into the computer room while I was playing Morrowind. I popped him up into my lap and continued with my dungeon crawl, virtual fists raised to pummel the assorted evil critters that inhabit that game. My son was thrilled, and as we went along, he got into the spirit of things and started to punch my forearms. I decided we needed to do something other than play fighting games for a while.

    Does the punching episode prove that Doom caused Columbine? Hardly. Three-year-olds are very imitative (moreso than when they are older), and in any given situation — Columbine, Reiser, even that kid who killed himself while playing EverQuest — you can point to far more compelling contributing factors.

    Still, what I take from the punching episode is that there is a nonzero correlation between violent media and real-world violence. Is the linkage a strong one or a weak one? How does that change with age (if such a study can be conducted ethically)? If the violence is more graphic (Manhunt 2) or more abstract (Risk) does that make a difference? Is there a difference between passively seeing violence onscreen (movies) and exercising your will to make the violence happen (games)? Does it make a difference if the targets of virtual violence are human, humanoid robots, aliens, or orcs?

    Anyone have any useful links on that topic? Data from actual studies would help make this debate more informed.

    —–

    As far as geek discrimination goes — yeah, it’s real. It varies from region to region. Geeks and geek behavior are far more widely accepted in Silicon Valley than in LA, for example. Geeks still exist in LA; it’s just they’re mostly in the closet (so to speak), along with Christians and people who think Paris Hilton is a waste of time.

    The painful irony (to me) is that the “diversity is strength” crowd hasn’t picked up this banner yet. They seem to prefer to pretend that celebrating differences in skin color or sex drive somehow provides some form of hybrid strength, while the true difference in temperment that geeks display — the ability to become obsessed with and creative about things that are too esoteric for others to have patience with — isn’t really worth noticing.

    Instead, we remain socially marginalized and alienated, unless we keep our mouths shut about our hobbies and keep to ourselves. Oh well. At least industry has decided our borderline OCD is worth paying well for, as long as we can get obsessed about profitable tasks.

  17. […] linking to this Wired story through Raph Koster’s blog because I thought the comments by Raph and the commenters to his blog were interesting, and […]

  18. […] those who have been reading the blog for a year and remember The Reiser Story post (which I did after reading a Wired article), the end of the story has finally come, as Reiser […]

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