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In search of Germany's virtual scapegoats.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

An October Saturday and Stuttgart is pale with the cold. Outside the State Opera House, the city's grand attraction, a skip sits awkward and incongruous to its surroundings. The sides are spray-painted with graffiti, a hip hop-cum-youth club pastiche probably commissioned to soften the otherwise stark utilitarian appearance of this giant iron dustbin. While the murals may obscure the rust, they do not obscure the function, which remains as it ever was: a receptacle for unwanted rubbish. Except, rather than industrial waste or the assorted debris of home movers, this skip has been put here to collect videogames: "Killerspiele", the name given to violent games by Germany's tabloid press.

Midway through the day, a cameraman from a local television station clambers over the skip's side. He needs a compelling shot for the piece that will run tonight, a story about how swathes of Germany's youths have seen the error of their hobby and brought their perilous playthings to this public burning. Crouching on its floor, he angles the camera upwards, while a young boy in a beanie and a puffer jacket leans over and hurls a copy of Grand Theft Auto in with an echoic clack.

The skip, complete with contents.

The cameraman captures the premeditated moment from this particular angle because any other would reveal the truth of the situation: the skip is otherwise empty. By the end of the day, that sealed copy of San Andreas will be joined by Def Jam: Fight for New York, OpenArena and Small Soldiers, a sorry clutch of ageing titles that represent the full extent of German gamers' ambivalence to this most uncomfortable stunt. For gamers around the world, it's difficult not to feel a sharp sense of schadenfreude. But there's a story behind every story. And the story behind the skip is a tragedy.

At 9:30am on March 12, 2009, a 17-year-old ex-student of Albertville Secondary School in Winnenden walked back through the school doors he left a year earlier. Tim Kretschmer shot nine students and three teachers with a 9mm Beretta semi-automatic pistol, before fleeing the scene, carjacking a vehicle and finally taking his own life during a standoff with police outside of a Volkswagen dealership. Hardy Schober was the father of one of the eight schoolgirls shot dead at point blank range during the rampage. As part of his grieving process he founded the Aktionsbündnis Amoklauf Winnenden, a support group for those affected by the Winnenden shooting.

The skip? Hardy Schober put it there.

The Men Who Stare At Goats

"Videogames are almost reflexively made a scapegoat after every school shooting." Olaf Wolters is the CEO of USK. The German equivalent of the BBFC, this is the organization responsible for choosing the age rating for every videogame released in Germany. If the Winneden killer's rampage was inspired by a videogame, then it was a videogame that Wolters or his staff had already played to completion, and rated accordingly. Wolters knows his scapegoats by name.

Far Cry, the game blamed for Tim Kretschmer's killings.

"The reason for that probably lies in the fact that tragedy demands an answer to the question of how such a thing could have happened," he continues. "But it is not a question that's easily answered. And this leaves a great helplessness behind. Against this backdrop videogames provide an easy answer, a focal point onto which blame and responsibility can be heaped." So while the Stuttgart skip remains almost literally empty, it nevertheless overflows with metaphor, a holding pen for scapegoats, real or imagined, to help Germany make sense of the senselessness.

Except that, in the case of Winnenden, there are more relevant scapegoats than Small Soldiers. Tim Kretschmer was the son of a marksman who kept 15 weapons and 4500 bullets of live ammunition in the family home. The gun that was used in the shootings was held in his parent's bedroom, rather than locked up in a safe. Tim Kretschmer may have played Far Cry, but then, in 2009, would it not be stranger for a 17-year-old boy to not play videogames? In terms of the mix of ingredients that went into informing Kretschmer's deadly decision choice, Killerspiele were at most a light seasoning upon layers of sociopathic alienation and unhappy circumstance.