When it was reported that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre were big fans of Doom, the original first person shooter in the eyes of many, I dismissed the idea that violent video games could have been responsible for inspiring the event. As a lifelong devotee of video games the idea seemed ridiculous.
That was back in 1999 when I was in my early 20s, which was also the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s impossible to pinpoint precisely when the illness began, but mood disorders often kick in with the onset of puberty. My parents sent me to my first therapist when I was 15 years old, so that sounds about right. It also means that I’d coincidentally been suffering from bipolar disorder for about 15 years before I sought treatment for the first time in 1999.
It was reported that Adam Lanza — the 20-year-old who shot and killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — was a big fan of Call of Duty. OK. But I think someone would have to be mentally ill in order to think a first grade classroom of six- and seven-year olds deserved what Lanza did to them. People speculate that violent games and mental illness mix badly. They theorize that the former exacerbates the latter.
I can’t listen to conversations about mental illness and violent video games — all the speculation that those games could inspire the mentally ill to commit these atrocities — and not think that these people are also talking about me.
Every time I hear one of those conversations at work or in mixed company or even from the mouths of family members when they come to visit and see me playing Halo 4 or Battlefield 3, I quietly listen to the speculation and the concern and don’t say a word even though I want to say, “I’m mentally ill, I’ve gorged on violent video games my entire life, and they’ve never made me feel like doing harm to another human being.”
Bipolar disorder is characterised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the text by which psychiatrists identify specific mental illnesses in patients — as a mood disorder. The DSM uses codes to label the various diagnoses. There are 63 codes for mood disorders alone. I’m not even sure which precise code would be used to diagnose me at this point, but I speak for myself here, not as some token representative of the mentally-ill community.
I have been in treatment for 13 years now. Thanks to the blessings of available health care, a supportive family, and the luck of finding the right doctors and therapists, I’m no longer subject to the whims of my mood swings. I’ve been through four years of psychoanalysis and a full battery of psychological testing to gauge my attention, memory, decision-making capacity and other, more quantifiable brain functions to rule out potential organic causes of my disorder. I am currently on medications and in traditional therapy.
I’m not speaking as someone who is actively in the throes of mental illness, but I remember more than I want to what it feels like to become unglued and let my moods run wild.
This happened once as a result of playing video games. I experienced severe manic episodes and there was no doubt the game I’d been playing was responsible. It had nothing to do with first person shooters, the specific genre of video game that everyone worries about in the wake of a school shooting.
Shooter games have never had much effect on me.
When I was five years old the nearest things I had to violent video games were cartridges like Combat or Canyon Bomber on the Atari 2600. In 1987 when I was 13 years old I got heavily into Operation Wolf. The player held a fake Uzi on a swivel and shot bad guys while the screen slowly panned to the right until the end of each level. That sort of arcade cabinet with fake guns was as close as I came to first person shooters until the first time I saw Doom. I was 19 years old and a junior in college.
I played Dark Forces — the original Star Wars-themed first person shooter — in 1995 when I was 20. I don’t remember getting into another FPS game until Medal of Honor: Frontline for the PlayStation 2 in 2002 when I was 27. These were just more video games to me, albeit with much better graphics and a different kind of skill challenge. I don’t think they had any specific influence on my psyche than any other kind of video game I grew up playing. I understood them all to be electronic entertainment and not simulations of reality, and I’d like to hope the same holds true for kids nowadays who grow up playing age-appropriate games and then graduate to shooters.
What I would mostly come to feel when I played FPS games was camaraderie, because I mostly play them online with my friends. It feels like what playing hide-and-seek or tag felt like when I was little. My favourite game of last year was Borderlands 2, because I could jump into an Xbox Live party chat with my friends and talk about our day while we shot things. The aiming and jumping and reloading sometimes felt autonomic and the least important part of the experience.
When I play competitive online first person shooter games I feel the same spirit of healthy competition I felt when I played baseball for eight years while I was growing up. I also feel frustration when people are exploiting bugs in the program to gain an unfair advantage. It’s annoying when I’m playing a team-based game with strangers and it’s clear that no one is playing to the mission objectives to try and win but are instead trying to get kills and pad their statistics. Regardless of these frustrations, I hardly ever quit out in the middle of a match. When I do it’s never from a place of rage, but more out of only having so much time to play in a given day and not wanting to waste any of it on a losing proposition.
Even when I used to play Medal of Honor: Allied Assault online and was still in the beginning stages of my treatment — and when I was awful at competitive online first person shooter games — I don’t remember flying off in a rage after losing a match. I’ve never exchanged homophobic barbs with complete strangers after a game of Call of Duty or indulged in the rape culture vileness that so many online FPS players sound like they revel in. Sometimes in the light of behaviour like this I wonder if I’m the most stable person in an open Xbox Live game chat while playing a first person shooter online.
When I play single player campaigns in first person shooters I feel the same sort of satisfaction I get from solving puzzles along with the adrenaline rush of being successful in a high-pressure situation. Halo 4 was all about surveying levels, assessing the tools I had available, picking the right guns for the job, and enjoying the kinesthetics of running and jumping and aiming and shooting. I play first person shooters because I love the skill challenge. I was rubbish at playing sports as a kid, but I’m a pretty good FPS player and I feel a healthy sense of satisfaction when I beat a Halo 4 level at the Legendary (highest) difficulty level.
There are games that have exacerbated my bipolar disorder or drew upon unhealthy aspects of my psychology but they weren’t first-person shooters.
Role playing games have been the chief culprits, specifically Star Wars Galaxies and Fallout 3 because they allowed me to play the role of these characters, and acting is about drawing upon your own experience and emotions to portray someone else.
My manic highs usually manifested themselves as delusions of grandeur. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my mood swings and spent a lot of time hating myself growing up. The flip side of this was covering for the self-hate with an inflated ego and narcissistic tendencies.
When I founded a Player Association in Star Wars Galaxies it was with the intention of making a PA whose members were solely humans in full Stormtrooper armour and thus roleplaying the official presence of the Empire in a game where every other PA ran around in haphazard combinations of races and classes and gear. I roleplayed an Imperial officer and we were going to be better than all the other PAs, more authentic, and it was all about my ego and it predictably fell apart. I was so devastated when it did that I woke up my wife from a dead sleep in the wee hours of the morning and flew into a tear-filled rage then and there.
The only time I’ve ever felt like a video game truly tapped into something dark and disturbing in my psyche was when I played Fallout 3 as a character I named Vault Boy. He was a psychopathic, cruel killer who, to the tune of my boisterous laughter, would slaughter entire towns. I like to imagine that it’s only the preposterousness of the violence in Fallout 3 which made Vault Boy’s antics so amusing — and dark humour is part of the Fallout series’s enduring legacy — but that wasn’t the only reason I found myself laughing. I think indulging in Vault Boy’s behaviour brought a sense of relief.
I spent years choking down my irrational anger at the entire world, trying to keep it together and treat people with respect. When I allowed myself to drop that polite façade and try to connect with people the anger and frustration would seep out, poorly disguised as sardonic humour like expressing a desire to see people I didn’t like forced to relocate to the moon and then laughing at the idea. Some people found my antics amusing. Other people looked at me like I was a live grenade with a loose pin, and there were times I wished I could have thrown politeness and civility out the window and told everyone precisely what I thought about them with all the venom and fury that went along with my manic highs when I got really frustrated with people.
Fallout 3 gave me the opportunity to play a character who shucked all that self-control away and did whatever the hell he wanted with no concern for what anyone would think.
I’ve never taken the ultra-violent, gore-ridden images from Vault Boy’s exploits and used them as fodder for fantasies about the real world because it’s not about that. Vault Boy is a conduit into very old anger from before my illness was treated, and by indulging in his exploits I tap into and vomit up all the accumulated bile. It feels similar to my very early therapy sessions where I was sometimes offered a pillow to punch when I was ranting angrily.
I also have a character named Vault Girl who is a paragon of virtue, and her world is so much better than Vault Boy’s. She has friends to talk to and merchants to purchase goods from because she hasn’t killed them all. She gets to listen to Galaxy News Radio wherever she is on the map because she helped Three Dog the DJ to boost the station’s signal. Vault Boy gets nothing but static most everywhere he goes, because when Three Dog refused to give Vault Boy something he wanted, Vault Boy killed him. The stories of Vault Boy and Vault Girl serve as a lesson for me about why never giving in to my anger in the real world was the right choice. My life would be so much worse if I had.
If I’d had access to firearms in high school before being diagnosed and treated for my bipolar disorder, as upsetting as it feels, to be honest, I might have been a candidate to become a school shooter. Lord knows that as a high school nerd being bullied by the jocks and the popular kids on a regular basis I harboured elaborate revenge fantasies against my tormentors, but there was only one time I ever contemplated violence that I might have been able to carry out and it was some time after that.
I moved back to rural Upstate New York in between my undergraduate and graduate degrees. One night I was invited to a party being thrown in a trailer on the property of some people I’d met through an old high school friend. It was a mock invitation. They had decided that I was too stuck up for my own good and had someone waiting on the roof of the trailer with a bucket full of cheap beer that they’d also pissed in. (I got the story later from one of the people who’d been in the trailer and hadn’t liked what everyone else was doing but didn’t speak up.)
I was lucky that I heard the rumbling on the roof just as I stepped up to the trailer doorway and dodged out of the way, catching only a few, small splashes. And when I went home that night I fantasized about sneaking back there with a can of gasoline and some homemade Molotov cocktails and setting the trailer on fire. I had everything I needed in my parents’ garage to have done so if I’d really wanted to. And for the record, the video games I was playing at the time were almost exclusively 3D space combat simulators, not first person shooters.
I didn’t take my thoughts of revenge past the realm of fantasy for the same reason that even if I had been able to get my hands on guns in high school I doubt I’d have used them. I had a family who loved me, and friends who listened to my suicidal rants and slides into depression and who comforted me.
I had Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges to trade with buddies and huge video game arcades to go to with my friends, and they gave me the lion’s share of what joy I had growing up. I took my Super Nintendo Entertainment System to college and played NHL all night with roommates, and played Marathon on my best friend’s Macintosh. Video games were responsible for my moments of joy I held onto for all the years I bounced between debilitating manic highs and paralysing, depressive lows and showering my friends and family with the emotional shrapnel of my mood swings.
Those moments of joy, so many of which I felt as a result of playing video games, were the things I held onto when I thought about killing myself on almost a daily basis, because as long as I kept having those moments I couldn’t honestly say life was so bad that it was time to give up.
If we want to look at why Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and opened fire on a bunch of children and adults, it’s not video games we need to be looking at. We need to ask who was paying attention to him, and had anyone noticed something was wrong with him emotionally would the mental health care he probably needed have been both accessible and affordable?
We need to ask whether there are common sense rules about firearm ownership that ought to be more strictly mandated by law. Why were the ammunition magazines of the Bushmaster assault rifle Lanza used out in the open versus being locked away in a safe? Why didn’t all of those weapons have trigger-guards on them?
Discussion of violent video games is currently providing the same distraction it always does in the face of school shootings like what took place at Columbine and Sandy Hook. As someone who suffered severely from mental illness, and who is old enough to have played violent video games since the very beginning, I can’t imagine those games having ever been enough to drive me to commit the tragic acts of violence that school shooters like Harris and Klebold and Lanza perpetrated.
What might have made me a school shooter in some other reality would have been whether I was lonely, or whether anyone was paying any attention to the fact that I was in constant pain, or whether I could have easily laid my hands on a lot of guns, and I’m very glad that in my case none of those things were true.