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Digital Dungeons
Gory fantasy beckons to kids from websites and video games. It can be playful. But often it's hateful

It's late 1998--long before the phrase Columbine school shooting enters your lexicon--and you're a researcher at a hate-group-monitoring center. Your job is to trawl the Web, surf literally thousands of "anarchy" links and make a note of the really nasty ones. One day you stumble across a high school student's website that contains a lot of hateful teen posturing and some plug-ins for a best-selling violent computer game. Do you bookmark it?

The answer is no--at least, not for researchers at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who came across Eric Harris' home page on America Online some six months ago but didn't include it on their CD-ROM directory of hate sites. "It didn't have explicit threats against any individual or institution," explains the center's associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. "We see very, very ominous websites regularly--by the hundreds."

AOL yanked Harris' site within hours of last week's shooting, preserving its contents for an FBI investigation. But copies were already circulating across cyberspace--along with a few sick hoaxes--and their contents made many folks eager to blame the Internet for this tragedy. Others pointed to violent video games, particularly Doom and Quake, Harris' favorites. In these seminal works, players wander through claustrophobic corridors in a terrifyingly real first-person perspective, blasting the guts out of their enemies with a blistering array of weaponry. "You can actually set the gore level on some of [these games]," notes Jeff Inman, a specialist in youth intervention in Cobb County, Ga. "How much blood do you want to see splattered? It's sickening. It gives kids a lack of respect for life."

Even more ominous is when the games go beyond serving up generic gore and start trafficking in fantasies of bias crimes. There are video games out there that make Doom look like an art-house flick. For example, white supremacists can stage virtual lynchings with a game called Hang Leroy, clandestinely available on Klan sites. Racist versions of Doom also exist, with a plug-in that changes the color of the victims. "Hate is available in many flavors on the Internet," says Raymond Franklin, a Maryland police executive and publisher of the Hate Directory. He says that neo-Nazis could take advantage of what was until recently a largely young white male audience online--a fertile recruiting ground. Rabbi Cooper too is worried about such groups' having "unassailable full-time access to America's young people in the most powerful cultural medium ever created."

And yet there is no way of calculating how much of a role was played by propaganda and video games in Harris and Dylan Klebold's killing spree. Quake and its ilk may have helped desensitize a generation--but you're blasting cyborgs, not classmates, and you're certainly not constructing pipe bombs. Harris' online essay on how to make these devices suggests that he made most of his discoveries through trial and error, not on the Net. The computer age may be giving kids a new outlet for their dark fantasies, but that hardly means it is turning them into killers.