Published Online: April 22, 2011
Published in Print: April 27, 2011, as 'School Shooter' Web Video Game Raises Concerns
Updated: March 24, 2012

Critics Target 'School Shooter' Video Game

The 'School Shooter' online video game offers players the option of committing suicide at the end of each level of the game.

A new video game in which the player stalks and shoots fellow students and teachers in school settings is drawing fire from school district officials.

“School Shooter: North American Tour 2012” is a first-person game that allows the player to move around a school and collect points by killing defenseless students and teachers.

The game, developed by Checkerboarded Studios, is actually a modification, or mod, of a popular first-person shooter game called Half-Life 2. According to Checkerboarded’s website, checkerboarded.com, the producers’ specialty is Half-Life 2 knockoffs meant to be satirical.

In describing School Shooter, the producer’s site says that “you play as a disgruntled student fed up with something or other (We’re not exactly sure), who after researching multiple school shooting martyrs, decides to become the best school shooter ever.”

Players can arm themselves with the same weapons used by real-life student gunmen, including Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who shot and killed 13 people in April 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado before killing themselves, and Seung-Hui Cho, who fatally shot 32 people at Virginia Tech in April 2007. He also killed himself.

“The possibilities are endless!” the site boasts. “You are free to do whatever you want (So long as it involves shooting people in a school).”

The mod had been posted on the ModDB online repository of game add-ons. It was pulled from ModDB because, founder Scott Reismanis said, it was “getting quite a bit of mainstream press due to the controversial nature of the content.”

What Research Shows

Much of the controversy stems from the combination of the sensitivity surrounding school shootings and a demonstrated link between playing violent video games and an increase in violent behavior, according to Douglas A. Gentile, the director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, in Ames.

A meta-analysis of more than 130 studies in March of last year, led by Mr. Gentile’s Iowa State colleague Craig A. Anderson, found that existing data support the long-assumed theory that regular participation in violent gaming can increase aggressive behavior. And while some researchers dispute that finding, they are in the minority, Mr. Gentile said.

However, whether it’s worse playing a violent game set in a school building, as opposed to another crime scene or a battlefield, for example, appears less clear.

“I think there is not going to be a simple answer, unfortunately,” Mr. Gentile said, though he agreed the message sent by a school setting is troubling.

“Lots of kids have bad experiences at school,” he said. “Kids get bullied at school. Kids have all sorts of things that feel unfair or unkind, and many of them truly are. So we probably don’t want to glamorize the idea that violence is a positive response.”

The game has drawn the attention of Pennsylvania state Rep. Lawrence Curry, a Democrat from the Philadelphia area. Rep. Curry is preparing a resolution designed to alert parents, students, and teachers about the game and remind parents to monitor carefully their children’s use of media.

In a news release, Rep. Curry said he understands there are first-person video shooting games on the market, but because School Shooter mimics real-life tragedies on school and college campuses, it is particularly objectionable.

“The tragedies of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois University [in February 2008] are among the most horrible acts on campus in American history,” he said in the release. “The lack of empathy this game shows for school shooting victims, their families, friends, and other loved ones is upsetting and disrespectful.”

The controversy also comes as a decision is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging a California law, passed in 2005 but never enforced, that put restrictions on the sale of violent video games to minors. Game producers and sellers argue that the law violates the First Amendment, and that regulating minors’ access to such games should be left up to parents. The court heard oral arguments in the case in November, but had yet to rule as of late last week. ("Justices Tackle Tax Credits, Violent Video Games," Nov. 10, 2010.)

While Mr. Gentile of Iowa State does not advocate violent games, he agrees the game makers have First Amendment rights and says parental oversight is a far more powerful tool than any state-imposed restrictions.

“We often jerk the knee in the wrong direction,” Mr. Gentile said. “There is a good knee-jerk reaction, which is, ‘Boy, I’d better pay attention’ ” to what games young people play.

‘Death Is Not a Game’

Parents researching the School Shooter game would likely be taken aback by what they’d find on the website, ssnat.com, developed by game producers Checkerboarded.

The makers of the school shooting game were unavailable for comment.

According to that site, the developers “are a small team of people who are absolutely dedicated to bringing you—the player—the best school shooting experience an angsty little s--- as yourself could ever experience.”

Among the “cool” features the mod will have, according to the site, is the option of committing suicide at the end of each level.

“You’ll be treated to a fine first person animation of you using your selected weapon to take your own life after spouting a hilarious one liner,” the site says.

Since its creation, the game has spawned a legion of critics, particularly in education, even though the Entertainment Software Association reports that the average age of the American video gamer is 34.

In the 4,700-student Cornwall-Lebanon school district that spreads across both those Central Pennsylvania towns, Superintendent Joe Kristobak said he does not like any video games like this.

“I’m not a fan of any of these games,” he said. “Violence is not a game. Death is not a game. If you start promoting it as a game, it becomes less realistic to people. It becomes a fantasy. I’m not in favor of any of these games that promote violence.”

In fact, Mr. Kristobak questioned why the School Shooter game and others like it are even a matter of debate.

“I don’t think there should even be a discussion about such a topic,” he said. “We shouldn’t even be wasting our brainpower on such a ridiculous matter. It tells you what money can do. It really angers me, to be honest with you.”

Lebanon sits about 45 miles northwest of the site of a 2006 school shooting at an Amish one-room schoolhouse that claimed the lives of five girls, ages 6 to 13.

In Pennsylvania’s 1,600-student Annville-Cleona school district, Superintendent Steven Houser said the game is “obviously” a bad idea.

“Anything that would create simulations that would harm innocent people, particularly in a school, is a bad idea,” he said. “But I’m not sure if the people who designed it were thinking if it was a good idea.”

Mr. Houser likened the issue to a Supreme Court ruling that protected free speech even if it is harmful.

“Is speech that’s harmful to other people, should that be protected?” he asked. “Our Constitution says yes, but it doesn’t say much about our society if it’s there.”

Education Week Staff Writer Ian Quillen contributed to this article.

Vol. 30, Issue 29, Pages 1,16-17

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