Wednesday, May 2, 2007

First they came for the level designers...

Student designs computer game level based off of his school, is removed as a "terroristic threat."

Articles here, here, and here. (May 2nd, 2007)

This one hit home and I'm mad. I'm not sure where to start so I'll begin with the easiest to criticize aspect on ANY story in the mass media that involves computer games, that of context.

It's clear that computer gaming is still a relative niche in terms of the general public consciousness. Substitution of the clunky "shoot 'em up game" for the more standard term "First Person Shooter" and confusion about terms of art (such as whether a Counter-Strike map is a "game" a "mod" or a "level") all illustrate the general ignorance of the journalism community and, by extension, the public at large. Sadly, our educational, administrative and investigative personal are generally drawn from this same public, producing a cadre of individuals and organizations that must, by their nature, step up and act in these situations, but are also by their make-up doomed to act in ignorance much of the time. Put more succinctly, school officials, journalists, and law-enforcement personnel have essentially NO idea how to interpret situations in which video games are involved because they lack the context for interpreting them. I shall attempt to provide some context to this particular incident and I would like to see if this somehow mitigates the appearance of danger.

Counter-Strike is, as many of you reading this will know, a first person shooter designed around the scenario of Counter-Terrorists attempting to neutralize a Terrorist plot in progress. This basic scenario plays out on dozens to hundreds of maps hosted on internet servers. Many of these maps were created by professional map designers working for game developers. The lion's share, however, were created by amateur enthusiasts of the game, many of whom are young adults. Map layouts and designs are drawn from every conceivable source; famous buildings, abstract architecture, surreal mazes, even the sit-com Simpson's house. And yes, even schools. Viewed in context, a level designer's choice of using his school is not only less sinister, it grows greatly more natural. School is a young adult's domain, his or her place of work, living, and playing. He knows its geography and architecture intimately and feels a sense of ownership of that space. I have designed my whole house using Google sketch-up and once I was done, I was disappointed to notice that, though it made a great map for furniture layout, it would make an uninspiring CS level. My highschool, on the other hand, would have made a fabulous map. Perhaps that's what scares me; that THIS COULD HAVE BEEN ME. Had I the tools at the time I certainly might have tried to design a map inspired by my school, and I would have done so in the almost naive innocence that because I meant no harm it wouldn't be a problem. Almost. I might not have, for fear of exactly this sort of overreaction, ignorance, and fear. And I apparently would have been right.

Though the articles note that the student was "questioned" it is unclear what questions he was asked. The biggest question (the unspoken elephant in all these articles) is whether he planned on doing ANYTHING that posed a threat to anyone. He was released without charges and a search of his room turned up.....a hammer.
A hammer. This is the best that the police could come up with on a kid they clearly wanted to nail. Not even a rubber-band gun, a Red Rider, or, God forbid, an airsoft. Oh wait! Upon further inspection they found 5 SWORDS. What 17 year old (?) Asian boy wants five swords? No, wait, better question: What 17 year old boy *wouldn't* want five swords. Here, too, I find myself personally. I am a fencer. I have 3 swords under my bed. I have one hanging on my wall. And until last year I lived in a house with upwards of 30 different swords counting wooden, sport, replica, and cut-you-in-half-not-an-imitation samurai swords. What does this tell us about me, about my roomates, and about this Clements High School student? NOTHING. It tells us nothing because the journalists and, more than likely, the school and investigative personal failed to adequately take into account the context of the "evidence."

I haven't mentioned that the student is Chinese because it is largely immaterial to the main point that I had to make, but I would like to note it out as a post-script because it would be improper not to acknowledge that this non-event probably suffered inflation by being viewed in the context of the Virginia Tech shootings so recently ago. Maybe the student's race was a component here; maybe it was not. It certainly will not be acknowledged factor, but if I can think of it so can millions of others. It sickens my soul to think that some people are now adding "Asians" onto the end of some ever-stretching list, perhaps below to "Muslims" or "Middle Eastern People." What comes next? "Level designers?"