Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
In Italian amusement halls, entire families are lining up to play a
macabre game called “The Electric Chair Game,” a virtual reality game
that mimics the experience of being put to death in an electric chair.
Circa 1900 photo of electric chair at Auburn State Prison in
Zenit News Agency, the Vatican’s official news service, quotes an Italian paper, L’Osservatore Romano, as saying the “disconcerting and macabre frontier of amusement” makes “players” feel “just like a condemned criminal.”
“[The player] sits on a wooden chair, identical to the one used in capital punishment in [some parts of] the United States and, after inserting a few coins, undergoes the chilling experience of the electric chair,” the paper said.
Though Italian amusement hall owners assure the game is only “virtually real” and harmless, they added that it closely resembles the electric chair experience of a condemned criminal in the U.S.
The game “has all the required elements to elicit strong emotions,” said an analysis written by Michael Brown of
Spirit Daily, an online Catholic newsletter. Complete with “electrodes placed on the wrists, belts, rungs, background music that grows in volume, lights that come on when the ‘convict’ ‘dies.’”
The Italian newspaper said the game conveys an “intense prickly feeling in the hands,” as well as a strong emotional impact when the “body feels unexpected vibrations that rapidly intensify.”
“It is all virtual, of course, except for a human reality that is perplexing and preoccupying. Beyond the obvious disconcert over the macabre pleasure that gives meaning to the idea, the news is distressing for two reasons,” the paper said.
First, and “above all,” said the paper, “the tragic reality of the death penalty becomes a game” and is experienced directly in the first person. “Those who are brave in the sight of their friends have demonstrated ‘courage’ and feel excited by the discharge of adrenaline; but, do the players in this imitation of the electric chair have any idea of the tragedy of those who wait for the executioner to truly end their earthly existence?”
Vatican officials criticized the “video game logic” hidden behind the experience.
“Is the game over? It doesn’t matter, I have another life,” the Italian paper quoted Vatican sources as saying. “When the sign, ‘game over,’ appears, another coin can be inserted and it can start all over again. All is repeated obsessively, with the credibility that electronic progress has made impressive. However, if the boundary between life and death is so convincingly and intensely annulled by the game, could it not result in causing a highly dangerous confusion between fiction and reality?”
Game creators brushed off the criticism, however.
“Those who are alive know nothing about the death penalty, and do not ask themselves so many questions,” the paper quoted game creators as saying.
The article did not name the officials who spoke on behalf of the company or which company designed, built and marketed the game.
Vatican officials blamed the “superficial culture” of the Western world for tolerating such a game. Officials also said they are especially concerned because the game seems to target youth.
“Whole families wait in line. Hundreds of children, adolescents and adults fill the hall to see ‘who can last the longest,’ to see who makes it to the end. The winner is the one who ‘lets himself be killed,’ those who give up before the end are ‘chicken,’” said L’Osservatore Romano.
“Do we want our youth to understand this, or will we calmly continue to line up with our children to ‘play the electric chair’ game?” said a Vatican statement.
“Is this not what is happening increasingly in the numerous episodes reported, where the protagonists are children and youths who invent the crime ‘game’ to overcome boredom?” asked a Romano editorial. “Is this not what happens in the delirious nocturnal races in cars going at crazy speeds and driven as though it were a video game? Except that in such cases, the game ends in tragedy, the race ends badly, and there is no coin to start the game again.”
Execution by means of the electric chair is one of the most common methods used in the U.S. At least five people claim partial responsibility for helping invent the lethal device:
Alfred P. Southwick was the Buffalo dentist who first came up with the idea to use electricity to kill prison inmates and served on the commission that drew up the law that established the first chair in New York.
Harold Brown, a lobbyist who took orders from Thomas Edison, conducted many of the early experiments with the chair and helped construct the apparatus for the first electrocution at Auburn Prison in New York.
Carlos McDonald and A. P. Rockwell served on a commission that drew up the detailed plans for the chair and are credited with designing the chair. Rockwell’s obituary called him the “father of the electric chair.”
Edwin Davis, the first electric executioner, began his career as Brown’s assistant and pulled the switch at the first execution. He went on to kill more than 300 prisoners in several states. He also took out a patent for the electric chair.
The first person to die in the electric chair was William Kemmler, an axe murderer, originally from Philadelphia, who killed his live-in girlfriend Tillie Ziegler. He died at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York, Aug. 6, 1890.
A total of 25 states and the District of Columbia used the electric chair at various times during the 20th century, but nearly all of them either abolished capital punishment or switched to lethal injection. Today, only three states use the electric chair as their sole means of execution — Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska. Eight other states retain an electric chair as an optional means of execution: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.