Canadian police won one and lost one this week in their effort to stop the promulgation of offensive material on the internet.
They gained a victory when the creator of an online videogame based on the Dawson College shooting in Montreal in 2006 agreed to remove the game from the various game sites on which he’d posted it. And they lost one when footage of a gang rape in Pitt Meadows spread through Facebook and other online sites despite pleas from police for people not to post or distribute the images.
The game, called Dawson College Massacre!, was posted to the newgrounds.com game site by its creator, “Virtuaman”, just a few days before the fourth anniversary of the shooting at the Montreal college, which resulted in the death of one student and wounding of 19 others by Kimveer Gill.
Virtuaman justified the game by saying it raised awareness about what happened at Dawson College. “It was not done to glorify Gill as a shooter. It was done to try and better understand these shooters, more for myself than anyone else,” he wrote on the game site.
Dawson College Massacre! caused an uproar, with Montreal police asking for its removal by the Seattle-based newgrounds.com. The mother of the dead student denounced it, while the college itself declined to comment on the grounds that the less publicity given to the game the better.
The game itself was primitive with amateurish graphics and awkward gameplay. I tried to play it a few times and quickly gave up on it. It had nothing going for it and would have languished on the web, one of thousands of mediocre Flash-based games played by a few people, except for its sensationalized link to the a famous murder.
Dawson College Massacre! is not the first game of its kind. A few years ago, Super Columbine Massacre RPG (for Role Playing Game), still online, came out to a similar storm of controversy. And before that, there was JFK: Reloaded where you played the part of Lee Harvey Oswald trying to shoot U.S. President J.F. Kennedy. I tested the latter game, and found it profoundly disturbing, perhaps because I (barely) remember the Kennedy assassination and its effect on my elders. Younger people, who weren’t alive in 1963, don’t seem to be as affected by the game, but I was shaken up for several hours after holding that virtual rifle in my hands. I still feel queasy when I remember playing it, five years after my 30-second experience with the game.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG and JFK: Reloaded both had legitimate aspirations -- the former game really was trying to get people to think about why high school students would commit such atrocity. Ostensibly, JFK: Reloaded was supposed to let you decide for yourself whether Oswald could have killed Kennedy from the window of the Texas Book Repository. But the game also makes you examine your own feelings about morality and violence.
Videogames can have a powerful immersive effect. You can become a gangster, an elven warrior, a detective, superhero or even a presidential assassin if the game is done well. When it’s not done well, as in Dawson College Massacre!, you’re just manipulating pixels on a screen. This immersive potential of videogames is something that game designers and publishers -- as well as academics, educators and parents -- need to be aware of. But requests by the police to have such games removed from the Web serve no purpose except to give unwarranted legitimacy and notoriety to something that deserves to be ignored.
The Pitt Meadows case was different. Here, real images from video footage of the rape of a young girl were posted to Facebook and quickly spread over the Internet. I can understand the RCMP (and for that matter, society as a whole) wanting the images withdrawn. But whether we like it or not, once such images are on the Web, there is no way to prevent them from being passed around. Unlike a videogame, digital images can easily be disseminated with the push of a button.
Unfortunately, we human beings have an atavistic craving to shock and titillate ourselves. A letter in the Province newspaper on September 19 about the Pitt Meadows images was headlined “Social networking becomes callous through voyeurism.” But it’s not social networking that’s callous; it’s us. Morbid curiosity existed long before Facebook and will probably exist as long as Humanity does.
[Editor's note: what disturbs me about this story is in the face of powerful technologies like Facebook and Twitter, our society seems to be collectively losing moral judgment and our moderating capacity to exercise restraint.]