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Good Sons and Bad Sons

Last night, Trisha and I hosted our friends B. and J., who were passing through Portland with their son, Cameron, a little boy whose off-the-charts cuteness puts him squarely in Lipnicki territory. Earlier in the day they had just purchased for Cameron an age-appropriate Star Wars book from Powell's. "Nothing too violent," J. said. After dinner, we returned to Trisha's and my apartment, whereupon Cameron made a beeline for the kingdom of plastic that is my frankly ridiculous number of video-game consoles and assorted peripherals. While they lack a system at home, and have no plans to buy one, J. and B. don't believe in shielding their son from games entirely. "Moderation" was the word they kept using, and wisely so.

I played a ton of games when I was a kid, certainly, but those games were of an entirely more limited magnitude of invention.I played a ton of games when I was a kid, certainly, but those games were of an entirely more limited magnitude of invention. Despite the enthusiasm of a youthful Jack Black, one can only run Pitfall Harry through the jungle so many times before skull-crushing boredom sets in. I often wonder how I would have turned out if the video games I play today were around when I was, say, seven. Would I have turned into the reader I am? I'd like to say yes, but I'm not sure I can. Given the contours of my obsessive personality, it's just as likely that I would have wound up like one of the characters in Infinite Jest or some South Korean Starcraft player, expiring from dehydration after a 50-hour bivouac on the couch.

I was a little reluctant to let Cameron play anything without B. and J. signing off. They did, and Trisha and I decided that the game we'd let him play would be Flower. Probably the greatest danger inherent to playing a lot of Flower is becoming an out-of-control hugging addict. It's a sweet, lovely little game in which one assumes control of a flower petal and floats around. That's about it — aside from its rather cudgelingly obvious ecological message that nature is beautiful, to which I say, tell that to these guys (and these guys). But Cameron loved Flower — he was also damned good at it — and his parents seemed relieved to discover that there are video games out there that were not organized around the putative pleasures of shooting people in the face.

One of the questions I was asked most frequently on my recent book tour came from parents who wanted to know how I could champion violent video-game experiences. What kind of a message did that send to children? This question enrages me, for two reasons. The first reason the question enrages me is that not everything in the world is meant for children. The second reason the question enrages me is that "not everything in the world is meant for children" is a pretty inadequate answer.

Violent games are so culturally omnipresent, and many are so insidiously and kinetically compelling, that even though they're not made for kids, they might as well be.Violent games are so culturally omnipresent, and many are so insidiously and kinetically compelling, that even though they're not made for kids, they might as well be. A lot of kids want to play violent games because they're kids, and there is not a whole lot parents can do about that. You can shield your kids from violent games all you want, but given the vicissitudes of parenting styles, and the well-documented allure of forbidden fruit, a determined kid is going to befriend the neighborhood whippet with the PlayStation 3 and unfettered access to Killzone 2 and come home for dinner all jacked up on headshots and killstreaks and you, as a parent, are going to have to decide whether or not this is tolerable. You can rule your own household but you can't rule someone else's, and all my reassurances to parents that game systems have easy-to-use parental controls and games themselves are subject to a ratings system will amount to a small pile of raccoon scat. No, violent games are not made for kids, and if I had children I would keep them away from the violent games I enjoy with a barge pole. I am also fully aware of how very easy that is for a childless person to say.

In The War against Cliché, Martin Amis writes of his doubt that violent entertainment can really do anything other than determine the style of how a violent person chooses to lash out. I think I agree with that. But I cannot see how allowing a ten- or twelve-year-old to mow down thousands of virtual human beings for hours on end, day after day, can possibly be good for that child's psyche or emotional well-being. I can mow down thousands of virtual human beings because I have a fully formed moral consciousness; I know it's a game, and what that means. The pleasure I'm drawing from that kind of game experience is, believe it or not, more grounded in an appreciation of game-engine physics and AI systems than it is in any will-to-power emotional catharsis.

The other day I finished Columbine, Dave Cullen's unbelievably good and bulldozingly definitive account of the Columbine Massacre. The perpetrators of the massacre were both fans of a modded version of the classic shooter Doom. Much was made of that at the time. Less was made of the fact that one of the boys, Eric Harris, was also a classic-lit buff. Shortly before the massacre, he quoted a line from one of the most transcendent works of literature in the language, The Tempest: "Good wombs have borne bad sons." For Eric Harris, the ecstasies of violent inspiration could be found everywhere. If we dutifully close off those forms of creative expression we find distasteful, the bad son will go elsewhere. He may, like Eric Harris, be able to find in Shakespeare, of all places, beautiful words of evil consolation.

÷ ÷ ÷

Tom Bissell (Xbox Live gamertag: T C Bissell; PlayStation Network gamertag: TCBissell) is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, and The Father of All Things. A recipient of the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Bay de Noc Community College Alumnus of the Year Award, he teaches fiction writing at Portland State University and lives in Portland, Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the... Used Trade Paper $10.00
  2. God Lives in St. Petersburg: And... Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. The Father of All Things: A Marine,... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. Infinite Jest: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  5. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter Used Hardcover $11.95
  6. The War Against Cliche: Essays and... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  7. Columbine
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  8. The Tempest (Pelican Shakespeare) Used Trade Paper $3.95

Tom Bissell is the author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

One Response to "Good Sons and Bad Sons"

    Jason Gajd. July 9th, 2010 at 8:34 am

    We live in a weird society where the people most likely to identify themselves as "pro-life" are also the ones most likely to stand in support of executing violent criminals and to vote for presidents who start full-on wars. These are also the people most likely to identify themselves as valuing "family values," and they are often rabid about attacking violent video games.

    I certainly don't occupy that position myself, but I'm not saying this to alienate anyone. My point is simply that we as a society often fixate on artistic expressions of violence, and ignore far more obvious, actual expressions of violence. Our country slipped surprisingly complacently into the Iraq War (to say nothing of the War in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier) at the same time as culture warriors were completely losing it over Grand Theft Auto III.

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