On April 20, 1999, I watched the horror of Columbine unfold on my television. I couldn’t tell you whether I was working as at Wired magazine while I watched, or if we’d left the office to watch it at one of the San Francisco SoMa bars. Those particulars are forever gone from my memory.
I can tell you that I remember two distinct emotions.
The first was horror for all of the students at that school. The terror that some must have felt as their lives were extinguished, the grief of those who survived, and the sickness that engulfed the student gunmen.
The second was a sensation that burned more slowly, one that crawled into my gut as rumors and details about the lives of the student gunmen were released by the press. That sickness came as I listened to the frightened adults who were searching for answers using terms as if they were explanations: Violent videogames. Goth. Trenchcoat mafia.
I was sick because of the violence and I was sick because of the coming backlash against geek culture that I knew would engulf young people across the country who had nothing to do with Columbine.
The media circus, fueled by politicians on both the Left and the Right, sought to score cheap points by painting as violent and wild anyone who read comics, played games, dressed differently, and played with “socially-isolating” technologies.
There were children dead in Columbine, and we needed something to blame.
Blame is how we make sense of the senseless. Without blame, we can’t return to our lives secure in the knowledge that the senseless won’t happen again.
So I watched the tragedy unfold on the television and I listened to the pundits rage. Inside me, the Dungeons & Dragons playing, comic book reading, video game player felt the sting of the words even though I’d largely been spared the brunt of these verbal attacks when I grew up. I could play baseball, and so I had a hall pass into a more socially acceptable world.
Still, I had some understanding of how kids across the country felt as the politicians and media rushed to blame comics, video games, Dungeons & Dragons, goth music, and any other part of youth culture that felt different. On several occasions that day, I wondered aloud how many students would get beat up because of the backlash.
Had I lived in a time before the Internet, that’s how I would have remember the day. Columbine would exist solely as a tragedy of unimaginable magnitude, and I would have wondered what happened to the lonely, isolated, and mocked kids in cities and towns across the country.
But I didn’t live in that time. I’d been on the Internet since 1984, long before the World Wide Web made it graphically simple to navigate cyberspace. I’d found refuge in digital communities, oftentimes dialing into BBSs or chat rooms dedicated to comics, or games, or sports, or whatever I wanted to talk about.
I wasn’t surprised that what came out of that awful, terrible day was the best example of Internet journalism we’ve ever seen. Jon Katz opened up a thread on Slashdot, a news site where people share links about nerdy things, and asked people to talk about being bullied after Columbine.
What happened was nothing short of amazing. Thousands of kids from across the country shared stories about the fear that gripped them as people in their towns began looking at them as threats. That simple thread, dubbed “Voices from the Hellmouth,” opened a window into a culture of geeks, freaks, gamers, goths, and other social outcasts, and gave them a platform to tell their stories.
The stories resonated so deeply with me that when John and I worked on Dungeons & Dreamers: a story of how computer games created a global culture, we constantly referred to it as our emotional center. Our book needed to represent the “Voices from the Hellmouth”, to explain to a larger audience exactly why those geeks, freaks, gamers, goths, and social outcasts gathered online.
I don’t know if we accomplished that with our book, but that is one reason that the idea of community sits at the center of our narrative. And when we got back the rights to our book, we decided that we’d always make free the part of our book that explores how this country had used geek and youth culture as a scapegoat in times of tragedy.
We couldn’t re-create “Voices from the Hellmouth,” but maybe we could help people understand that geek culture just a little bit better.
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On the anniversary of this terrible day, I invite you to revisit (or visit) “Voices from the Hellmouth.” Then, if you’re looking for more, you can always find “Part IV: A Darkness Falls” from Dungeons & Dreamers, which John and I made free when we published the book because we felt like that facts, data, and stories in that section were too important to lock away.