When a Game is No Longer a Game

xbox360 ControllerMy friend, Thomas Dewar, recently penned a post over at The Mudflats. It has stuck in my mind since I read it a week ago and I feel the urge to think it aloud, here.

While consuming Dewar’s words, I caught myself nodding affirmatively. This is worth noting because, immediately after finishing the post, I felt at odds with his premise. It’s not as if at the end of his essay he took a U-turn or in any way departed from his line of reasoning. How is it then that I can agree with the parts, yet not their sum?

My mind’s machinery grinded and retched and clattered and shook, but finally — after some necessary scotch greasening — I managed to find my mental footing.

Dewar comes close to analogizing flight simulators and air combat to first-person shooters and murderous rampages– and I’ll admit that I’m drastically oversimplifying his point. The premise makes sense. The military trains its members how to act and react in combat situations through endless hours of simulation. Instincts are reprogrammed, brain circuits re-routed. And, Dewar offers, a certain amount of desensitization takes place.

From there, he asks (and answers) the question, if these simulations desensitize our military do they not also desensitize the youth that spend countless hours engaged in — what I have no problem referring to as — simulated murder? Dewar doesn’t exactly make the case that violent video games by themselves can turn an otherwise “collected” child into a sociopathic killer, and even carves out special consideration for the “clinically depressed and the already distressed”. In my view, it’s that last bit that’s important.

Having grown up in a generation that was quite accustomed to having a video game controller essentially inseparable from our growing hands, I played a lot of video games. I played a lot of shooting games as well, as I watched them evolve from Contra on the NES, to GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64, to today’s modern and highly realistic shooters, such as Counter-Strike (where you can play either as a counter-terrorist or a terrorist) and the many iterations of the Call of Duty franchise. Over the past few years, I’ve had little time to continue engaging in this hobby, but I have many friends with much more free time than I do that still regularly play these games. I know myself — I also like to think I have a fair grasp on who my friends are –and I resent any suggestion that our hours of video games might have somehow softened the ache our hearts feel when we are faced with real-life violence. There is simply no way that my feelings of anguish, horror, and empathetic suffering have been dulled by my interactions with pixels and algorithms, no matter how much they resemble reality. I cannot agree that video games, on their own, can turn an otherwise “normal” mind into one that can senselessly unleash tragedy upon fellow primates.

However, I am willing to cede part of my argument: President Clinton has spoken on multiple occasions about how certain types of rhetoric can reach an audience that do not have the right mental framework to distill it into an expression, not a call to arms. Increasingly the case with the advent of the internet, anything we say can easily reach both the “serious and the seriously disturbed”. He said, “There can be real consequences when what you say animates people who do things you would never do”. And I think this might be where video games can come back into the conversation.

Video games potentially have that same power of animation that violent speech can invoke. While not able to “turn” the serious, they might very well contribute to the tipping of the “seriously disturbed”.

Unfortunately, this has not left me with any appropriate response or suggestions. To react by crying for the banning of violent video games gets us no closer than crying for the destruction of all firearms in the U.S.: neither are going to happen, and trying to yell it into reality is only wasted breath. Dewar suggests maybe an affinity for violent video games becomes “declassé” and socially scorned, though I’m not sure that paradigm is close to experiencing a shift (a quick glance at top-grossing video games affirms the “success” of the first-person-shooter genre). We came back to that repetitive question about what the many are willing to give up in response to the abuse of the few.

And that, pro or con, is a line not easily drawn in a free democracy.

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A Nation in Need of Discussion

On Friday, I woke up and prepared to take my daughter to school — as I generally do on Fridays, as they are one of my scheduled days off from work. Like many others, I’m sure, I glanced at my phone for any messages or notifications that came through while sleeping. One news alert notification disturbingly caught my eye: “Police respond to reports of shooting at elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut’. This prompted me to check the various news outlets for more information. It became immediately clear that a great horror had unfolded upon our nation once again. I exclaimed to my wife about what I was reading, forgetting for a second how she might react being an educator herself. Thoughts of keeping my first-grade daughter home from school worked their way into my thoughts, though some bit of rationality managed to seep through my befuddled mind and I elected to take her to school. I walked her into the school, told her I loved her, and walked away. Halfway to my car, I realized with a shock that, on the other side of the country, other parents had done the exact same thing with their kids that very morning, never imagining for an instant that those would be their final moments together. I’m certain my heart stopped in that moment and I recall having to force myself to breathe, as thoughts of turning around and bringing my daughter home for the day leapt back into my mind. Again, rationality permeated, and I managed to leave the school. I elected to leave the radio off for the drive home, letting silence intensify the thoughts ringing dizzily in my skull.

Extreme emotion tore through the social networks I monitor. Anger and grief — often intertwined — spilled out in front of me, and understandably so. Images of candles and calls for prayer were taking residence with shared news reports of that morning’s horrific events, sprinkled with wishes of eternal damnation for whatever monster perpetrated this mindless tragedy. In those early moments, I cannot find fault in the way anyone chose to cope with the situation. Some of us get angry, some try to ignore it, while others become frozen in sorrow — or, as was my case, a bitter combination of all of the above. As the day progressed, and into the next, some reactions began to turn vile. Comments, graphics and conspiracies from the fringe elements of our digital populace began to bubble up to the surface: sickening claims that the White House conjured up the morning’s events in order to expedite the taking away of our guns, theocrats shouting about secularism in our public schools being to blame, and even, I’m afraid, people claiming that the children of Sandy Hook got the best Christmas present ever by getting a headstart on their eternity in Heaven. The anti-gun crowd shared contradicting, lazy infographics while going up against the opposite end of the spectrum which espoused claims that “if only those teachers were armed…”.

It was, and still is, a sad sight that shows no signs of diminishing. Yet, I understand.

I was raised in a household full of guns — old guns that were passed down from generation to generation (and thus far, one generation beyond mine), as well as new guns for the upcoming hunting seasons. There were guns for moose, guns for birds, guns to provide some confidence around bears, and guns even for fish (I dare one to lug a 200+ pound halibut into a boat, that weighs about the same, without softening its fury with a few rounds to its flat head). Guns never held any taboo allure in my home and never once did my siblings or I feel an urge to sneak into the gun cabinet to show a gun to a friend while our parents were gone. The reason was because we understood guns. We knew how the worked, how to take them apart and put them back together, and how to handle them safely. To us kids, they were no more exciting than my father’s table saw. I can recall kids that didn’t have the same exposure that I had to guns. We may have had twenty or more guns in our house, but it was them that seemed to obsess over them. And as far as Alaska goes, and I imagine the same holds for other rural parts of this country, my situation was pretty normal. It wasn’t until I began meeting people from urban areas in the Lower 48, in my travels and online, that I realized my perspective on guns was not shared with a great number of other Americans. For the first time in my life, I felt alienated for my views on guns.

Politically, I occupy the pragmatic middle, so it isn’t surprising to me that that appears to also be where I fall on the “gun spectrum”. I own and use guns, believing that I have a right to do so responsibly. But I also have never felt the need to advertise that right by participating in the “Second Amendment Task Force” rallies that occasionally befall my city (Alaska has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation: you do not need a permit to carry a concealed weapon and it is perfectly legal to walk around town with a pistol on your belt or a rifle slung over your shoulder), I’ve never believed that the Democrats were going to take our guns away (“they” told a young and impressionable version of me that President Clinton was going to do it, yet I still have all of the guns I had at the time he was elected), and I’m not, nor have I ever been, a member of the National Rifle Association (I harbor a great disdain for Chuck Norris).

If you’re still with me at this point, please note that I’m not an apologist for the pro-, nor anti-, gun crowds. I have great friends that fall into either camp and can equally understand their respective arguments. My purpose here is not to make the case for one position or the other. There are plenty of activists on either side with the resources and passion to lobby their side of the debate, and I would prefer to occupy my time with other matters.

My perspective holds that this nation is long overdue for a discussion on not only how we “do guns” in this country, but how we handle the other pieces that comprise the puzzle of violence that has once again darkened our nation. Solutions will not be found by going to our respective corners and puffing our chests. Now is not the time to stand your ground or dig in your heels. The answers do not lie in misattributed quotes, “Likes” or “Shares”, or the words of a sports commentator. And they certainly do not occupy space anywhere near the fringes of any particular ideology. The solutions can only be found through honest and open dialogue, applying the principles of science and research, and agreeing on places we can draw some lines. If you think any of this can be summed up with an ignorant bumper sticker slogan, you’re the last person I want to see have a seat at the table. While it’s easy to crack jokes about false equivalencies involving spoons and obesity, you’re not only not funny, but missing the entire point completely. There are no solutions in the degradation of our discussions.

We don’t yet know the real cause of these great tragedies that are weighing heavily on our hearts and minds. We might do well to understand that these events are the symptoms of something we desperately need to unravel. Some argue that it is our nation’s legal stance on guns that is to blame. Others point to a poor understanding of mental health challenges and a desperate lack of proper coverage. Why not all of the above?

We can start by detaching gun philosophy from both the realms of partisan politics as well as religion. Both of these factors only intensify the rhetoric and thicken a reluctance to effect real positive change. From there, let’s focus in on the things everyone can agree on. No one believes that guns should be made available to people with violent pasts or without the proper mental capacity to responsibly own such powerful instruments. Background checks and waiting periods are of no concern or inconvenience to responsible gun owners. And maybe, just maybe, a semi-automatic Bushmaster with a 30-round magazine or other similar assault rifle should require a little extra work to acquire than the single-shot, Marlin 60 .22-caliber rifle my son just received for his 11th birthday. And as well, maybe we should start treating mental illness seriously in this country. We’d be served well to focus on the ailments that occur inside of us just as much as we do on the ones that occur externally. I’m confident that adequately-funded research, coupled with the proper political focus, is the path to unlocking the chemical and physiological mysteries that negatively affect so many of our loved ones, young and old alike.

These are things we should all agree on, if only we can sit down to have the conversation. Before we do that, however, we must reroute some of our anger and sorrow into the energy and will that we need to take reasonable and effective action, to shape the issue into one we can all agree to address, and put our political sensibilities aside so we may work together. Because when you boil it all down, there really is only one side.

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