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By: Expert No. 41697, Psy.D. RNCS
Suicide and Law Enforcement Conference Federal Bureau of Investigation
Quantico, Virginia — September 20-25, 1999

When psychologists evaluate an individual, they use external data, such as school, military and hospital records, personal diaries, and drawings in addition to interviewing the person directly. In fact, there are several tests used that ask a person to draw specific figures, which are evaluated as products of his mind, and as a reflection of his inner world. With the advent of computer technology we have a new data set to be evaluated during the course of an investigation. Computer games are wildly popular, and yet have been overlooked. After all, “…it’s only a game…”

Well, these games represent an important glimpse inside the mind of the suspect. The games can be a direct product of an individual’s thinking, of his state of mind. Just as we would use drawings, diaries or other personal products, we should be using personal computer game information, whenever available, to add to our body of knowledge about a suspect.

The psychological processes at work are called projection and sublimation. First, projection. When an individual is using projection “…affective and ideational components are attributed to another, while that other actual person is controlled.” {This was taken from Reid Meloy’s The Psychopathic Mind.} In the case of the computer game, the person who is heavily into playing the game, called a gamer, puts his ideal personality, as well as his affective or emotional state, into the characters, which by the very nature of game playing, he can now control. He becomes the superhero with the big gun, and tries to annihilate the enemies that represent his tormentors.

Sublimation is the other psychological process at work here, and is the process that makes these games so popular. In sublimation, the emotions experienced by a person are acted out in the context of the game. Every one of us has aggressive and violent feelings that get resolved through the coping strategies we use on a day-to-day basis. For some, the violent computer game may actually serve as a pressure release valve, and prevent someone from acting out their rage. I want to be clear here: Computer games don’t make people act out their violent feelings, they are a socially appropriate place to put those feelings. When anger, violence and hostility overwhelm a person, he may become obsessed with playing these games. They become a sort of an obsession.

When a person begins spending an inordinate amount of time playing computer games, we can be sure that they are struggling to keep these violent feelings under control. When a suspect writes his own versions of the game, what we may call add-on scenarios, we can analyze them to better understand this gamer’s emotional world.

In addition to the main play of the game, the gamer puts in subtle and obvious details that give us information about how he perceives the world… his world. From this information we can make some interpretation about his state of mind. When integrated with other information we have, we may be able to take actions that prevent the acting out of violence.

Eric Harris of Littleton, Colorado was a gamer. In fact he wrote several games. These games were readily available long before the Colombine incident. I’d like to use his games to demonstrate that his potential for violence was evident from the construction of his games.

Harris reportedly wrote eight games. I was able to obtain six of them and have analyzed them. There is a rumor going around the Internet that one of the “lost” games included a layout of the library where the Colombine shootings took place.

The predominant feature about Harris’ games is that there are no enemies in most of them. The games are very simple, and consist of moving around in a kind of interesting environment and collecting many weapons and massive amounts of ammunition. Interestingly, there is lots of health, which prolongs the play of the game, but almost no armor, which might have protected him from during the battle.

This could be interpreted as a paranoid state of mind. Harris was building his munitions, to prepare for the attack that he desperately wanted to win. He seemed to have the idea that there was no armor, no protecting himself from the attack. Much of his game play is in the dark, and there are subtle references to salvation. For example, he placed a series of rockets in the shape of the cross. He may have seen a shootout as his only hope, salvation.

In summary there are several domains to be investigated when a suspect is a gamer. First, what games does this person play? One in particular or several. A person who plays several has a measure of psychological flexibility, and is less likely to be obsessed with a game. Conversely, if a person is obsessed with a game, it is important to know more about the game with which he is involved.

What is the story behind the game, and what is the object? This information gives a clue about the feelings getting acted out. A suspect obsessed with Donkey Kong is less likely to provoke a confrontation with police than a person obsessed with Quake or DOOM.

Has the person written any add-on scenarios? Find out the extension of the game file from the technical support line for that game. (The extension is the three characters to the right of the period, such as DOOM.WAD) When the extension is known, examine the files on the computer’s hard drive, or if communication is established, ask the person directly if they have created any scenarios.

If there are games, play them. What has the suspect added or deleted that is noticeable. Prepare a summary table similar to the handout and consult with psychology or behavioral sciences to make sense of what you find. There will be both subtle and obvious clues, and all are worth considering as you integrate them with your other information.

Expert No. 41697, Psy. D. RNCS is a Forensic Psychologist and Clinical Nurse Specialist. She consults on cases involving psychological injuries (including post-traumatic stress disorder) and malpractice and negligence cases for psychology and nursing. Her experience as a nursing instructor allows her the unique ability to formulate case materials and convey the facts clearly. This particular article highlights her ability to understand the motivations behind human behavior.

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