Blame Games

Weekly Review: Politicians and pundits butt heads over violence in the media following the deadly rampage in Erfurt. The hottest battleground: computer games.

To anyone with more than a passing memory of the debate in the US that immediately followed the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, three years ago, much of the media frenzy in Germany right now will seem mighty familiar.

On television, intercut with shots of mourners at ceremonies with their flowers and candles, there are the inevitable talking heads: politicians, psychologists, reporters. Explainers. At times, as always with these over-reported stories, television reveals its worst side. An anchorperson runs down the facts we've all heard a thousand times: 19-year-old Robert Steinhäuser walked into the Gutenberg school in Erfurt on Friday, April 26, shot 16 people and then himself (see Shades of America). Cut to the reporter, live, on location: "Peter," the anchor usually begins, "tell us what the mood is like at the school right now."

"Well, Birgit," Peter replies, "it's sad. Very sad."

These moments are painful to watch for too many reasons to count off, but all the more so because there are far too many of them. You'd think that with all these cameras trained on every nook and cranny of Erfurt, a complete and accurate account of what actually happened would emerge. But of course, there were no cameras in the school that fateful Friday. In Telepolis, Peter V. Brinkemper has painstakingly compiled conflicting report on one plot point -- the "hero of Erfurt," teacher Robert Heise, stops Steinhäuser's rampage -- and has come up with a portrait of that moment that looks as if Braque had attempted to paint Rashomon.

We may never know which Robert ripped off the Ninja mask or most other details of the confrontation, but we do know that papers, online news sources, and of course, television were too quick with their various "definitive" versions. But the public has been ravenous for information and the media has been all too happy to oblige. Same goes for explanations. How could this have happened?

The usual suspects have been rounded up once again. Chancellor Schröder called in the heads of Germany's television networks to talk about going easy on the violent programming. The media has found itself in the odd position of blaming itself. Self-flagellation might not be pretty, but it is an eyeball-catcher. Reports on violence on TV and in the movies, after all, are sure to feature clips of some of the best bits.

With the election a little over four months away, Schröder's challenger, Edmund Stoiber, can't be left out of the fray. His favored scapegoat has turned out to be a real winner: computer games. Steinhäuser, it turns out, was known to have played a few.

An article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday, April 28, set off the hottest debate. The title, "Software for the Massacre" says it all. Taking aim at the "hate industry," the FAZ targeted one game in particular, Counterstrike. As Florian Rötzer reported the very next day, the gaming community rallied to its own defense immediately, setting up a site called "Gamers Against Terror".

By May 1, writes Gerald Jörn, the site was so busy it was all but inaccessible. It's almost as if all 500,000 Counterstrike players in Germany have wanted to say in unison: Our sincere sympathy goes out to the victims of Erfurt and their loved ones. But don't blame the game. We know the difference between gaming and reality. We are not killers.

Manuel Ladas, who's done research into how gamers perceive the worlds they play in, concurs, and so, too, does Karsten Weber, who was part of research group in the mid and late 90s. Weber emphasizes how very nebulous his subject is; just as there are many kinds of violence, there's a wide spectrum of ways to portray it. Cause and effect are difficult to nail down, but: "Without guns, so many people wouldn't have died in Erfurt -- here, there's a pretty clear connection."


Iconoflash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art. May 4 to August 4 at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. (David Hudson)