history repeating?

amok runs, killergames, and modding culture

In the morning of 20 November 2006 the radio told me the sad news of yet another amok run in a German school. Although depressed by the fact, I couldn’t suppress a little Merlin’s smile. The next morning I attended a philosophy lecture about freedom and determinism. The speaker said, among other things, that there could not be freedom nymore, if we knew everything, especially everything that will happen in the future. Well, sometimes you know, hence the Merlin’s smile—because I knew that the usual suspects within the political circus would act accordingly. And so they did. All of them shouted out with one voice: The computergames are to blame. There’s an article on it at Spiegel online: Politiker streiten über Umgang mit PC-Killerspielen [“Politicians quarrel about how to deal with killergames”] plus a very sensible follow-up by Christian Stöcker: Rohrkrepierer gegen Ballerspiele [“Damp squib against shooter games”] In there nearly everything is said, so I won’t go into the computergames-triggering-violence debate (as led by certain poloiticians) now, that indeed is a topic in itself. Only so much: Meanwhile the media coverage of the incident has generated a tremendous amount of content, both in print and electronical media. It is clearly recognizable that the quality of the debate has significantly changed in comparison to how it was led after the 2002 amok run in Erfurt. Back then all the politicians, no matter of what couleur, voiced the same reductionist view: Computergames are to blame wholesale. Today the statements are much more diversified, even on the level of politicians talking on national television. The usual suspects reacted as anticipated, but others clearly voiced that the problem is far more complex, that there is no direct correllation between first-person shooters and youth violence, and much more. That’s enough on that for now, I guess.

The whole of 21 November 2006 I spent with the case, because this time the whole affair reaches significantly deeper. Deeper into my field, because it was said that the amok runner was not only into computergames [into the usual suspects of that flavour, that is: Counter Strike and Doom 3—what else?], but even into computergame modding. Hence I am pressed to express some of my views, deductions, and interpretations, because I deem myself to be in possession of a specialed anthropological expertise concerning the culture of gamemodding. The following is quite cursory, only the result of one day’s work, but I am pondering the idea to write a full-fledged publication on the issue.

I could find no evidence of him being into “the Doom3-scene”, in respect to gamemodding, mapping in particular, he rather was attracted to more classical first-person shooters, to Doom 2, Half-Life (HL), and the original Counter Strike (CS, version 1.6)—only later on he started with Counter Strike Source (CSS). Meanwhile I have read every forum thread [I could find] on gamemodding he started or participated in. I guess it is safe to say that he started mapping for CS during the fourth quarter of 2004, and for Doom 2 and HL during the summer of 2005. Or he tried to do so, because from what I saw, he never penetrated the culture of gamemodding very deeply.

His forum activity is not very conspicuous, it resembles perfectly the, normally transitional, social role of the “n00b”, the newcomer with little or no technical knowledge at all, and not used to the expected conduct in forums like that. Some aspects of his profile as published in the traditional mass media, are reflected in his forum behaviour. Like being ashamed, not wanting to be seen as a newbie or even looser: On a particular day in August 2005 he wrote in a forum, that since yesterday he was mapping for Half-Life. On the very next day he wrote in another forum dealing with modding Doom2 (that is, in the forum of another modding community), that he was mapping for Half-Life and Counter Strike since two years, and hence being only a newbie in respect to Doom modding.

Generally modding communities are very friendly and open towards newcomers. In addition to that this communities are very inclined to share their cultural knowledge not only within the realm of established members, but also with newcomers. Especially the publication of modding-tutorials illustrates that fact. This tutorials are created with considerable effort and are placed online openly. The whole tutorial corpus of a particular community represents the collectively striving for writing a complete manual for modding the game in the community’s focus. Apart form the tutorials there is a second important source for modding-knowledge: The according community forums, where problems are discussed and solved. Although newcomers are greeted friendly, it is expected from them that they are reading the tutorials and are using the search-function of the forum archives, before starting new threads by asking questions which already are answered within the documented, archived, and accessible information created by the community.

From the start on Sebastian B. did not comply with this expected social behavior. He bursted into the forums with questions, was welcomed and hinted towards the according tutorials by direct links. Nevertheless in most of the cases the answers to his questions not only contained links to tutorials, but direct answers in addition. Again, usual practice within modding communities, but over time, especially as his conduct didn’t change significantly enough, the community members somewhat lost patience with him, and he more and more directly was requested to read the tutorials before asking questions. Apparently he did that only as far as necessary for the immediate solving of a mapping problem he had at his hands at a given time. But, despite of n00bish behaviour like accidental doubleposts, to some extent he indeed was socialized into online interaction. For example he used the usual acronyms, understood and responded somewhat good-humouredly to online- and modding-culture jokes made following his posted questions. And after some time he indeed started to use the forum search, which was expected from him. He not only voiced this himself, but there is proof of it, because he posted follow-up questions into threads which were at that time already dead for three years. Alas, this practice called “necroposting” again oftentimes is seen to be a breach of conduct by online communities. To sum it up, in the modding communities he was far more inclined towards asking direct questions, than to read tutorials and find his way around by himself. This observation at first led me to the speculative deduction, that he was more interested in finding communal interaction online, than in gamemodding. But meanwhile I doubt that, as there is more evidence pointing to another conclusion: He was interested in quick information to solve the problems he encountered on the way to his own purposes. His technical questions, and the way he formulated and posted them, display much impatience with the game technology. The technicalities for him were hinderances, not something to occupy oneself with as a means in its own end—as it is the case with “true gamemodders”.

So, he never really joined the modding scene in terms of deeper acquisition of cultural knowledge and social practice. He never got beyond basic mapping, and never joined a modding-team, one of those dynamical segments to be found in every modding community. Additionally, on the level of playing CS, I am not aware that he ever joined a clan.

The other members of the forums in question, and its administrators and moderators in particular, now are very well aware of who their former member was, the issue is discussed at length, very sensible, and in that particular open and democratic style which is a distinguished quality of modding communities.

Meanwhile I’ve collected much more evidence, and there are way more deductions and conlcusions in my mind. But on the one hand my psychological training does by far not suffice to sensibly deal with the psychological profile of an already dead man (although the content Sebastian B. left on the Internet somewhat gives us the opportunity to slip into the shells of ghosts of deceased players, as Henry Lowood in another context has put ist so eloquently). On the other hand I am an anthropologist, and hence not so much interested in individuals, but in collectives, in culture and society. So, why am I writing all this?

Because there is a dire need of public and political discussion, not only on computergames, but on what I call “cyberculture” at large. This discussion has to be informed by sound academical insight, and not by stereotypical reflexes based on a complete lack of knowledge and insight concerning the issues in question. What we are dealing with here, is a huge fabric that serves as a cultural backdrop informing vast parts of our societies, especially those who grew up with ICTs and everything that surrounds them. Anthropology has the means to make parts of this fabric understandable.