The Political Game: Dangerous times for gamers

Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:

You can draw a picture of your school.

You can sketch it in charcoal or paint it in bright pastels or subdued watercolors. You can take an artsy black-and-white photograph of your school or a high-pixel color shot with the sunset in the background. Frame it, crop it for a web page or iron it onto the front of a t-shirt. But whatever you do, however you choose to express yourself, do not recreate your school building within a video game.

That's the lesson coming out of Texas, and it's a hard one for 17-year-old Paul Hwang, a senior at Clements High in Fort Bend. By all accounts a decent kid, Hwang was adept enough with Counter-Strike's built-in level design tools to map his school. His handiwork is quite detailed and rather impressive. Joystiq, in fact, posted some screenshots of his level design yesterday.


But Hwang ran afoul of school authorities and, for a time, the law, when he shared the map with school buds for online CS matches. A parent recognized the school being used as a backdrop for the shoot 'em up and sounded the alarm. In short order, Hwang's home was searched by local police and the senior, due to graduate in a few short weeks, found himself transferred to an alternative education facility and barred from attending his own graduation ceremony.

Now it's true that Hwang could have used a bit more discretion in his choice of settings. As it turned out, the young man and his Counter-Strike map inadvertently steered into a perfect storm of school shooting paranoia. We're less than three weeks past the Virginia Tech rampage, after all. School officials and parents are understandably edgy. To ratchet up the anxiety just a bit more, game-hatin' Florida attorney Jack Thompson was given air time to push his agenda on Fox News while the Virginia Tech incident was still going on; he fingered Counter-Strike. Never mind that Hardball host Chris Matthews showed Thompson's nonsense for what it was a few days later. Thompson's negative spin on Counter-Strike was already out there: mass murder simulator.

Yet another sorry element may be at play: Hwang's ethnicity. Like Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung Hui, Hwang is Asian. Was that the tipping point that led school authorities to take such harsh action against an otherwise good student? You'd like to think it wasn't, but the local Chinese community is concerned about the issue and has raised questions. At least one Chinese-American resident said he fears a Virginia Tech backlash against Asian students.

The local police, at least, seemed to get it. Summoned by school authorities, they searched Hwang's bedroom and examined his computer. Satisfied that Paul had committed no crime and was not a threat, they opted not to file charges. Even members of the school board were concerned about Hwang's treatment. A special meeting was called to review the discipline meted out to the boy, but several gutless board members torpedoed the effort by skipping the meeting. Without enough of the school board assembled to raise a quorum, Hwang's punishment will stand. Barring court order, that is. His family has hired a lawyer.

The bottom line here, however, is bigger than Paul Hwang, bigger than his map, bigger than Counter-Strike. It is this: these can be dangerous times to be a gamer. When authority figures use the games one plays as the yardstick to decide who's a threat and who's not, something's broken.

Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (, tracks the political side of video games at and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.