Bloody Counter-Strike blamed for offline violence

The game stands out among others for realistic violence among many violent and realistic games. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world play online every day in head-to-head competition. A few weeks ago in California, nearly a hundred people gathered for a game tournament that ended in a physical brawl, with chairs flying and shots fired.

Most of the action though occurs during the game, where differences are settled old-school: with a bullet to the head or a knife to the belly. However, the question has been asked and will continue to be debated: does simulated violence in games like Counter-Strike inspire real violence?

Counter-Strike is a first-person shooter (FPS), a 3-D, 360-degree world of paramilitary team-play using a variety of weapons like rifles, machine guns and grenades. One team called the “terrorists” attempts to complete an objective such as bombing a site with explosives, preventing the rescue of hostages, or assassination. The “counter-terrorists” try to stop them, usually with a hail of bullets. Killing off the other team is just as good as completing the objective. Blood flies everywhere.

What makes Counter-Strike so immensely popular and unique is the realism: real weapons, real tactics, real movements, real bullets…. Not real, but the experience of game play can be so life-like and consuming, the difference is hard to tell. Some players take Counter-Strike very seriously, obsessive and highly competitive, and apparently, sometimes violent in real life.

The fights reported in California cybercafes over Counter-Strike are a result of turf wars between Asian gangs, not vengeful players out to settle a score in real life. However, news reports about violence involving video games frequently mention Counter-Strike, and inevitably an association is made.

Counter-Strike players sometimes argue heatedly through headsets connected by the Internet, or by in-game chat message. Threats are routinely made, easily brushed off because the Internet is anonymous — or so players believe. Counter-Strike is being singled out to make the argument that the chicken comes before the egg, that violent games cause real-life violence. Question is, where is the line between harmless fun and harmful compulsion? And should the game get the blame when players are involved in real-life violence?

I have personally seen Counter-Strike bring out aggression and heard exchanges between players that would make an NBA ref blush. The arguing and threats are almost always juvenile huffing and puffing, but occasionally a real jackass with a dirty mouth will make threats — and mean it. When someone promises to hunt down another player in real life, the player can either make an invitation or laugh it off.

But in cybercafes the players are seated in the same room. I worked at a cybercafe where Counter-Strike was the favorite game and saw first-hand how players get on each other for bad play, with comments like, “Hey idiot, you just grenaded me!” or, “Get the hell out of my way, moron!” I never saw or heard of anyone getting violent (except of course, in the game). Once in a while threats were made. A bad move can bring down the wrath of other players, especially from the gung-ho types who take the game (too) seriously. It happens.

Player Logo
This is my current Counter-Strike player logo. Click to see my stats.

I tasted that wrath the very first time I played. In 1999, Counter-Strike was still an offshoot of Half-Life, an immensely popular game for home computer. Back then, players had to know everything down to what ammo to buy for each weapon, and the attention to detail attracted enthusiasts tired of blowing away computer-controlled fantasy creatures and longing for head-to-head, online competition. Counter-Strike quickly developed a cult-like online following. For months I watched customers play, but had not jumped in because of the feeling I’d like the game too much.

Then one night, I jumped in.

After closing the cybercafe, I sat down at a computer terminal in the dark, the only light coming from the fluorescent glow of the computer monitor. After setting the game controls and finding a server, I joined a game of Counter-Strike beta 1.3 in progress.

When my character popped into the cyber combat zone I was alone, though gunshots echoed in the distance. I ran around without a clue what to do, and came upon an empty house. Inside I found two guys in white lab coats standing in a corner minding their own business. and thought, great, targets, so I blasted them, then found two more and blasted them too.

Immediately, the scrolling chat at the bottom of the screen lit up with name calling and invective. Nasty stuff. I was supposed to rescue the guys in white coats, not cap them, and my team paid the price for my ignorance. They lost game money that is used to pay for armor and weapons at the beginning of each round.

They were very, very angry at me.

But no one threatened to hunt me down personally — although such threats have been directed my way more times than I can count. I’m willing to bleed pixels. The smack talk is part of the game, like the messy head shots that spray blood everywhere. Cussing. Promises of revenge. And like I said at the start, there are better ways to settle an argument. Let’s meet on the field of battle and see who has skillz.

There are many players who have been fragged by Rocky Whore (my old Counter-Strike screen name) but I do not expect any of them to come looking for me as I sit at a PC at PingTime on State Street in Madison, WI and blast away. In fact, I would be quite surprised if anyone took the game that far. But you never know. The servers that run the game through the Internet track IP addresses and game ID’s (update: now player profiles can include real name and contact info). If an angry player making threats also has access to the server I am playing on, there are ways that he (or she) can conceivably figure out who and where I am. An IP address alone is like a zip code indicating a general location, and CD keys can conceivably be tracked back to the point of sale. Though I do not know for sure if that could be done.

But there are other ways to track players: servers keep logs including in-game chat, and simple software can search for all instances of player names. Those names can be tracked from server to server too. If a player reveals personal information like a full name, school, work site or even home address, that information can be found and compiled. A clever psychopath bent on revenge has more ways than one to break the veil of anonymity.

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There is the line that can not be crossed. Until it is, Counter-Strike and other bloody online games can dodge the accusatory bullets, because no causal connection can be made. There are other games like Grand Theft Auto, Quake and Doom that have been accused of inspiring violence. But they cannot and should not be blamed for their realism.

Until someone crosses the line.

If you are a concerned parent reading this article, don’t worry. Unless junior is a little prick who talks mad smack and flaunts his identity online, no one is coming to burn down your home. But follow the age guidelines and be very careful of allowing impressionable children into such a brutal environment. Children under age six are not able to differentiate between reality and virtual reality, and they experience games is if actually happening. So a five-year old experiencing their head being scattered by a shotgun is not something that should be bouncing around in a little head.

On that note, when I worked at the cybercafe, the people who owned the place would leave their kids for hours in front of the “computer babysitter.” One night the youngest son, 5 years old, played CS with a brutal bunch of players and the shotgun scenario happened. I could tell how much it disturbed the kid — he got up from the computer and walked over to the player who blew his brains all over the screen, tugged at his sleeve and said:

“Please don’t kill me again.”