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'V-Tech Massacre' pits free speech against common decency

CNET's Emily Shurr says creator of video game spoofing the killings is within his rights, but wonders if he understands the implications.

Goths, punks, poets and fatalists of all stripes use bleak humor to deal with horrific tragedy. It's a strategy that can help people gain psychological distance from a loss.

A young Australian man has created V-Tech Massacre, a video game in which players re-create Cho Seung-hui's killing spree at Virginia Tech. When detractors asked that it be removed from its host site, a portal for homemade games, Ryan Lambourn said he'd be happy to comply, but only if he were paid a certain sum of cash. For an extra grand, he'd publicly apologize.

This looks to many like a young man's awkward attempt to garner attention through destructive behavior. He says he did it as a joke. Maybe that's a phase a lot of young people go through. Maybe making fun of death is one way to get busy living. Maybe he's never lost anyone close to him and doesn't understand what other people are going through. But in refusing even to acknowledge the depth of the pain experienced by so many after the Virginia Tech assault, Lambourn is running roughshod over a community's profound suffering. And The Sydney Morning Herald reported last week that he declares sympathy with the shooter. (His blog has been inactivated, so his remarks are not solidly confirmed.)

But what if he could turn his creative effort toward improving whatever he sees as the root causes of the shootings without harming others?

Should the game stay live? The question raises obvious questions about free speech and individual morality. As far as free speech principles are concerned, the host site and the game's maker are within their rights to publish the piece, whether as a grim joke, a genuine call to arms, or a stance for freedom of speech. But as far as individual morality is concerned, let the outcry serve as a plea for this young man to take careful stock of his values and how he wants to change society for the better without knowingly harming others.

We can either see the game and Lambourn's reluctance to apologize to the bereaved as: (a) a tribute to the killer; (b) a cry for revolution; (c) a cry for help; or (d) all of the above. Have we left anything out? Oh, yes: (e) a disturbing attempt to get attention and money.

Perhaps the reward is worth the price to him: people will be watching him very closely now, but not to celebrate his creativity. They'll be determining whether he's simply a cavalier young person blithely making light of tragedy and social ills, or a genuine menace to himself and others.

Some of the most frequently recurring words and phrases used in online discussions about Lambourn's game include: "reprehensible," "poor taste," "poor game," "attention whore," and on the sympathetic side, "we're praying for you."

Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean you should, as Kierkegaard would say.

In a follow-up piece, The Sydney Morning Herald further reported that Lambourn "empathized with the killer and that he, like Cho, had been a victim of abuse and bullying" at the numerous schools he attended in his younger years.

"What (Cho) did was caused by something," he said. (It's unclear whether he spoke with the Herald or these remarks were on his personal Web site.) "From what I do know about him, from his plays, from what he did to prepare for (the killings), he's very human, fragile."

Here's the clincher: as an alleged victim of abuses, maybe Lambourn is seeking retribution, attention or healing. But what if he could turn his creative effort toward improving whatever he sees as the root causes of the shootings without harming others? At a minimum, he could face up to those suffering from the tragedy and say, "I know you suffer a tremendous loss, but I'm leaving my game up in the name of free speech and self-expression." Instead, he thus far has refused to "touch the subject" and will not comment on the situation of the bereaved.

Newgrounds, the game's host site, has a valid point in refusing to take the game down. It claims images in the news coverage of the event were far more harmful than those in the game. But the problem isn't that the game is still live. The problem isn't even that its creator is looking to make a buck off his work. The real problem is Lambourn's refusal to admit that he's profiting--with attention, if not cash--from others' tragedy.