Columbine: A True Crime Story offers a fresh perspective on the Columbine shooting, digging into the intricate web of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's lives, from video games to team sports, and how they went from cub scouts to killers.
I used to work with Jeff Kass, the author of the book, at the Rocky Mountain News and he was kind enough to send me some of the book's video-game related excerpts to reprint on Kotaku.
The excerpts unveil a more complex take on Harris and Klebold and their love of computers and gaming.
Both, Kass writes, enrolled in the school's computer programming class and Harris handled the web pages for the school's physics and science departments. They seemed drawn to computers and programming because of the total control over an environment it offered them, something highlighted in the famous 1986 manifesto The Conscience of a Hacker, later found Klebold's home.
The two would also, Kass writes, "embed themselves in violent video games." Harris enjoyed Postal, both, more famously, played Doom.
Harris even wrote a paper about Doom for school:
"Picture an Earth that has been obliterated by nuclear war and alien attacks leaving cities and military forces in ruins with only a lone marine as humanity's last fighting force. Picture holographic walls, crushing ceilings, oceans of blood and lava, strange ancient artifacts, and horrible sour lemon and rotten meat stenches in the air. Imagine being trapped on an abandoned cold steel base floating in space for eternity, a leathery skinned monster roaming under a strobe light waiting for a fight, and astonishing weaponry designed to your special needs. All these places and ideas have been created and recreated many times by yours truly.
"To most people it may be just another silly computer game, but to me it is an outlet for my thoughts and dreams," Eric wrote in his class paper. "I have mastered changing anything that is possible to change in that game, such as the speed of weapons, the strength and mass of monsters, the textures and colours used on the floors and walls, and greatest of all, the actual levels that are used. Several times I have dreamed of a place or area one night, then thought about it for days and days. Then, I would recreate it in Doom using everything from places in outer space with burned-out floor lights and dusty computers to the darkest depths of the infernal regions with minotaurs and demons running at me from every dark and threatening corner. I have also created settings such as eras of ancient abandoned military installations deep in monster-infested forests with blood stained trees and unidentifiable mangled bodies covered with dead vines and others that portray to futuristic military bases on Mars overrun with zombies that lurk in every corner. These places may seem a bit on the violent side and, I assure you, some of them are. However, many times I have made levels with absolutely no monsters or guns in them. I have created worlds with beautiful, breath taking scenery that looks like something out of a science fiction movie, a fantasy movie, or even some 'eldritch' from H.P. Lovecraft."
Kass also talks a bit about Harris' mod of the game that used Brooks Brown's neighbourhood as a Doom setting and Brown's house as the target. The mod, which took an estimated 100 hours to create, locked players in an invincible god mode and had dying characters yell out "Lord, why is this happening to me?"
Doom, Harris wrote, was the best way to show his creativity and intelligence.
Kass is clear to point out that while video games may have given the two "paths for their anger", with Postal providing potential inspiration and Doom a philosophy that helped inform Harris and Klebold's mentality, video games certainly weren't the cause.
"The video games did not cause their anger," Kass writes. "That came from elsewhere."
There were plenty of incidents leading up to Columbine that had nothing to do with video games. Among the first cracks in Eric's psyche, Kass writes, was when Harris coated his head and neck in fake blood and lay on the ground next to a bloodied rock to try and shake up an ex-girlfriend.
The deeper issue, it seemed, was that the two failed to fit in, to be accepted as part of "team Columbine."
"Their computer skills were sharp, but could not vault them over the ruthless world of high school social popularity contests," Kass writes. "They didn't have the right good looks, money or athletic prowess. Their social skills were hopeless."
The book is a reminder that the cause of such shootings are rarely as black and white as they initially seem. Columbine and the slew of school shootings that followed it are not the product of a single problem, but something endemic of a far more complex issue. A by-product, perhaps, of a society so rife with cultural taboos and niches that not fitting in can become for some a problem larger than life, literally.
Check out the full, three-page excerpts, first published anywhere, from the book here. And if you find it as enthralling as I do make sure to pick up a copy of the book, published by Ghost Road Press.