Does violence beget violence?

Like most Americans, Aaron Loeb was horrified by the recent shootings at Virginia Tech. But he wasn’t surprised when, in the wake of the tragedy, certain “experts” started blaming video games. Loeb had heard it before — in fact, he wrote a play about it.

“First Person Shooter,” which makes its world premiere this week at San Francisco Playhouse, draws on the national debate over the links between violent video games and school shootings — a debate that’s been raging for nearly a decade. The play was commissioned by Playground, which is co-producing the premiere. Jon Tracy directs.

Loeb, an Illinois native who moved to San Francisco in 1996, started writing the play after the 1999 Columbine shootings. The shooters there were gamers, and anti-video game activists began calling for a ban. Loeb, a journalist covering games for various publications, started getting calls from the media asking him to refute claims that video games were responsible for the deaths.

“It was a surreal time, an awful time,” says Loeb, who has since gone to work for the San Francisco-based video game developer Planet Moon. “We went from this very insular, geeky setting to being thrust into the national spotlight.”

The argument went all the way to Congress, although the anti-game proponents were unable to establish a credible link. But Loeb was struck by how angry — and how polarized — the parties became. He wrote the play, he says, to try to bring some clarity to the issue to focus, he says, “on people caught in the echo chamber of the debate.”

“First Person Shooter” is set inside JetPack Games, a fictional startup company whose newest game, “Megaton,” is the hottest product on the market. (The title, Loeb says, comes from a genre that first appeared about 15 years ago; played from a first person perspective, the camera is at eye level, and the player is holding a gun.) With news of a shooting at an Illinois school, the company learns that 14 students are dead, and the shooter was a Megaton expert. The principal characters are JetPak’s CEO and a local farmer whose son was killed in the shooting.

“These two men are pitted against each other,” Loeb says. “But I was very interested in finding a way for them to connect when everything in our culture is saying they must destroy each other.”

Loeb, who believes that the debate comes down to a First Amendment issue, notes that every generation has grappled with the causes of violence. “People used to think that Elvis Presley caused teen promiscuity, that ‘Helter Skelter’ caused the Manson murders,” he says. “We’ve abandoned the idea that comic books led to moral degradation. I think we’ll come to the same conclusion about video games.”

But “First Person Shooter” doesn’t offer easy answers. “It would have been easy for me to write a screed defending video games,” Loeb says. “That would have been a very dull play. Instead, I tried to chronicle what I’d seen, heard and experienced — and imagine how a conflict like this would play out.

IF YOU GO

First Person Shooter

Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: Previews May 2-4; opens Saturday; closes June 9
Tickets: $18 previews, $36 general, $60 opening night
Contact: (415) 677-9596 or www.ticketweb.com

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