Tuesday, August 10, 2010



My good friend Gary urged me to read an article titled "Painkiller Deathstreak" by Nicholson Baker in the August 9 issue of the New Yorker (sorry, no link available.) The title, honestly, might well have turned me off right away without Gary’s recommendation. It’s about computer games.

I'll confess I have not played a computer game since Pacman, which dates me somewhat. Oh, wait a moment, I forgot: I was hooked for a while on Solitaire, but even that I haven't played since I switched from PC to Apple years ago. For some reason, it was no longer so easy to access--and I didn't miss it. In any event, be it known that I can't write out of direct experience--I have only the word of the author of this one article to go on, so I’ll have to chip in a few prejudices of my own. At the risk of sounding like a ridiculously uninformed and cantankerous old fogey, I have to say I was appalled.

There was a time, remember, when we were urged to worry about the number of (fictional) violent deaths our kids might witness on our television sets before they reached the age of adolescence. Now, it seems we must worry about the number of (fictional) violent deaths they have perpetrated by their own hand--let alone the number of brutal mutilations and maimings. From what I understand, it is likely to be in the thousands. The contemporary computer game puts every means of slaughter at their fingertips and provides them with a compelling narrative to engage their rapt attention. The plot can last for dozens of hours before it is exhausted--hours in which the eye-mind co-ordination is focused intently and exclusively on the task at hand: mayhem, and bloody murder.

As children, when I was growing up--I hate to hear myself sound so ancient and pompous!--we also had our fun with violence, and did act it out in the games we played. We hunted Nazis in the woods, and "tortured" them, when we caught them, or shot them, mercilessly, dead. Our "guns" were sticks, but the intent was clearly not much different than that of the boy, today, with his fingers wrapped around the joystick and his eyes on the action on the screen in front of him. Am I right in thinking, though, there there's a qualitative difference in the experience? That the imagination is engaged in a different and less healthy way today? That the mind is more fully consumed--entrapped--by the multi-layered structure of the computer game? That the "training" involved has a greater and more lasting grip on the mind than our games in the woods?

When we were not out in the woods, we played board games. We played chess and drafts, where "men" were captured, not killed, and where the action was slow, thoughtful, methodical. We played war games, like "Minesweeper," where little cards stood in for battleships and destroyers, submarines and mines, and where detonations were no more than simple graphics with perhaps a little fiery color for a touch of realism. It all seems so quaint, does it not, in retrospect?

Am I simply being old-fashioned, then, when I worry about the direction of our culture and the way in which the minds of our children are being targeted, commercially, at an early age, for this kind of training? Are we developing the means for those young minds to be sharpened, in extraordinarily efficient ways, to perform extraordinarily skillful feats--of simulated mass destruction? Do we risk numbing those minds to the kinds of brutal reality these games mimic so effectively? Are we breeding our own nation of Taliban---fostering murderous vengefulness, control, and utter disregard for human life? Okay, it's fiction. Okay, it's fun. But surely there is a system of mind-training involved that is far from healthy for the young, or for the future they will be need to assure.

I'm glad I am not faced with the responsibilities of my friend Gary, who must weigh what I'm sure must be the genuine passion of his two young boys in the balance of powerful social pressures and his own good conscience. Or of my son, Matthew, and his wife, as their son Joe approaches adolescence. I wonder how many victims have already met their violent demise under his watchful gaze and at the pressure of his skillful little finger? I wonder whether my concern for the shaping of his mind is justified, or whether I'm just taking on the role of some ancient Jeremiah, prophesying doom?

Lacking the training and experience of the child psychologist--or of the teacher who is in daily contact with these young minds--I am in no position to answer my own questions with anything like authority. But to read "Painkiller Deathstreak"--isn't the title enough to give you a serious case of the creeps?--is to begin to understand the scope and power of these products, for which our young people stand in line for hours to purchase at the moment of their release. The games the author of the New Yorker article decribes are magnificently crafted, both in story-line and visual effects. Art schools have developed whole "games" departments to attract and train the imaginative talent that goes into their creation. They are the flowering of the magnificent potential of the human imagination and human ingenuity—gone dreadfully awry.

It comes down to that age-old question, then: because we can do it so well, does that mean we should? Or, now that we have gone so far already down that path, is there any way to put ourselves in reverse? It's a cause, for me, of infinite sadness that the non-violence I personally embrace seems so thoroughly out of keeping with the age in which I live. I hang on to the belief--the hope--that there's a shift in human consciousness taking place on the planet, and I see signs of it all around me. Technologies of unprecedented power and promise abound. But at the same time the technologies for the implementation of the old ways--warfare, violence, brutality--become ever more powerful and efficient.

It's truly a critical moment in the history of our species and the outcome, as I see it, is far from certain. There’s much work to be done and many minds to change. Thanks to our apparent indifference, though, our leaders are disinclined to ask much more of us than acquiescence. And in the meantime, in our addiction to distraction, we continue like children to be seduced by the fun and games on our computer screens.

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