Be Careful 1

Be care­ful, lit­tle ears, what you hear
Be care­ful, lit­tle ears, what you hear
For the Father up above is look­ing down in love
So be care­ful lit­tle ears, what you hear

I was whelped up by those lyrics, among many oth­ers.  Songs tend to stick with me, deep in that oat­mealy region of the brain that retains the ear­li­est and longest-lasting of life lessons.  The song in ques­tion con­cerns the plight of a Christian child grow­ing up in a world of increas­ing­ly open air­waves.  Of course, the Father was watch­ing eter­nal­ly (the Santa Claus anal­o­gy isn’t yet com­plete­ly bro­ken, though r/atheism has cer­tain­ly taken a fair stab at it), and so I should mind what goes into my head through any medi­um – the other vers­es of the song, in fact, address the other sens­es, though none of them are quite so inno­cent­ly poet­ic as “be care­ful, ears, what you hear.”

And care­ful I was, in my ear­li­est days of gam­ing.  I had heard dire warn­ings all my teething life from the likes of author­i­ta­tive fig­ures such as my par­ents, my Sunday School teach­ers, and books on par­ent­ing by the one now-excommunicated Dr. James Dobson (whose tomes I con­sumed rav­en­ous­ly, and pre­pu­bes­cent­ly, hop­ing to crack the arcane secrets of my method­olog­i­cal upbring­ing) that, inas­much as we are made of the stuff we feed upon phys­i­cal­ly, the same holds true for our men­tal (or, if you like, emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al) selves.  In short, a diet of the brain was the order of the day for me grow­ing up.

I began my foray into the pew-pew quite inno­cent­ly, with the game Tiny Toon Adventures on a Gameboy Pocket owned by a local fel­low urchin, which often enough found its way into my safe­keep­ing through the peren­ni­al bar­gains and (dead­ly seri­ous) con­trac­tu­al arrange­ments chil­dren are wont to make (I swear; I think lawyer­ing, like act­ing, is a pro­fes­sion best reserved for those who retain a youth­ful torch­flame).  Centipede and Tetris were the next to be checked, though I remem­ber Tiny Toons invad­ing my world in a way noth­ing had before – cer­tain­ly unri­valed by a mon­strous 8‑bit alien insec­toid.  I was enthralled by the idea that I could visit a world entire­ly of anoth­er human’s devis­ing: a world where­in talk­ing ani­mals could do bat­tle, trav­el through time, and, of course, trav­el through time while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly doing bat­tle.  I was soon to dis­cov­er a world in which the nov­el­ty of this idea had been worn sev­er­al years already (and by a much bet­ter execu­tor, no less), but it was still a grand adven­ture for my lit­tle mind.

All this, and I didn’t even watch car­toons.  Most TV, except for the local FOX affil­i­ate and PBS, was implic­it­ly dis­cour­aged in our house­hold.  I mon­i­tored my intake close­ly, always pry­ing my enter­tain­ment choic­es open at the seams for breach­es of taste, moral­i­ty, or dogma (not, at the time, real­iz­ing the irony inflict­ed by way of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s “respectable ladies”).

The trou­ble came when I began my jour­ney (later to coa­lesce into a long-standing love) with Japanese role-playing games.  I was intro­duced to such, like many of my gen­er­a­tion, with the orig­i­nal series of Pokémon titles.  Though my first sam­pling of Animal Abuse Palooza came from the Blue ver­sion (Green in Japan), I didn’t make major head­way towards mak­ing the Elite Four kiss my Poké-ass until I was given Yellow as a Christmas gift by a grand­par­ent.

My peers may well remem­ber the con­tro­ver­sy stirred here with­in the evan­gel­i­cal move­ment (and some Catholics to boot) when a seem­ing­ly well-researched (if you knew noth­ing about Pokémon, videogames, or tele­vi­sion, and were will­ing to accept a num­ber of pre­con­cep­tions) man­i­festo made the rounds of megachurch pastor’s offices.  There, right there on the desk next to the Strong’s Concordance, the keep­ers of the faith and the guardians of young minds could see the evi­dence as plain as the Men’s Benefit Charity Fellowship Buffet Night: Pokémon was root­ed in Satanism!

The rea­sons given for this aren’t worth get­ting into right at the moment, but if you have some time to shake your head and won­der at the fun­da­men­tal­ly terror-stricken nature of humankind, you can feel free to take a look at the work in its total­i­ty.

Not that I hadn’t heard such warn­ings before.  All ref­er­ences to oth­er­world­ly pow­ers or “magic,” even the Disney kind, were to be approached with extreme appre­hen­sion.  The rea­son­ing given was that if some­one were exer­cis­ing a super­nat­ur­al power not stem­ming from the God of the Bible, the source of such trick­ery was obvi­ous­ly and nec­es­sar­i­ly the old H‑E-doublehockeysticks.

I was able to shunt this aside for the sake of my enjoy­ment and curios­i­ty, for the time being, though not with­out a lit­tle cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance at hav­ing gone against what seemed like rea­soned and well-intentioned advice.  I pro­ceed­ed care­ful­ly nonethe­less, mak­ing sure to note those times when the game seemed to be tak­ing an evil or some­what sub­ver­sive turn.  I recall rush­ing to get through Lavender Town (for exam­ple) as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, what with its haunt­ed build­ings and deranged medi­ums sum­mon­ing spir­its and things.  When I came across the one bewil­dered old witch who had seem­ing­ly become pos­sessed by the spir­it of a venge­ful Marowak, I near­ly shut the game off then and there.

My ner­vous­ness notwith­stand­ing, I was able to jus­ti­fy my par­tic­i­pa­tion fair­ly well.  The pre­sen­ta­tion of “magic,” (as por­trayed in some of my other favorite games at the time, like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI-But-Divide-By-Two-In-The-US) or other mag­nif­i­cent forces such as the nebulously-sourced pow­ers exhib­it­ed by the Pokémon, was not real­ly so dif­fer­ent as any fic­tion­al real­iza­tion of advanced tech­nol­o­gy (in which cases rel­a­tive­ly fewer the­o­log­i­cal quib­bles seemed to present them­selves).  There were implau­si­bly for­mi­da­ble play­ers with amaz­ing feats under their con­trol: there were trans­for­ma­tions, bright lights, cool nois­es, threat­en­ing utter­ances spo­ken with all of the author­i­ty a mid-90s reverb effect could muster.  I was patent­ly obvi­ous that such gra­tu­itous dis­plays stemmed not from the bow­els of El Diablo, but from some­thing a lot more innocu­ous (most of the time): our very human desire to engage in Badass Fantasy.

Though I man­aged to set­tle my stom­ach con­cern­ing the mys­ti­cal, I still kept a close eye on the char­ac­ters.  Young though I was, I intu­it­ed what mod­ern psy­chol­o­gy has been mak­ing increas­ing­ly obvi­ous: we as con­sumers iden­ti­fy with the char­ac­ters present in our choic­es of fic­tion, sub­con­scious­ly, so much so that given enough time we start to act like them.

In Chrono Trigger, I won­dered about the impli­ca­tions of chang­ing time itself, of chal­leng­ing Fate, play­ing God (very often, actu­al­ly lev­el­ing up in order to gain enough steam to kill God, if the Final Fantasy series has any­thing to say about the prop­er reac­tion to received tra­di­tion).  I had sim­i­lar thoughts while jour­ney­ing down into Hell to face off against Satan him­self, with Heaven’s watch­ful agents being mar­gin­al­ly help­ful at best, and this in between wor­ry­ing over what could be inferred about my dark­est self from my pref­er­ence for necro­man­cy, and feel­ing slight­ly over­come by the Sorceress’s appar­ent lack of a mod­est dress code.

I con­sid­ered whether the years of joy I took in play­ing the orig­i­nal StarCraft over Battle​.net was worth the inevitable desen­si­ti­za­tion to real-world vio­lence I would incur as a result of repeat­ed expo­sure to the Terran Marine unit’s death ani­ma­tion, and the fuck­ing piss-poor lan­guage choic­es of my online com­rades.  I balked at the vision of the church of Yevon, baked and mar­i­nat­ed in the juices of cor­rup­tion and stag­na­tion, prof­fered in Final Fantasy X, and how the only recourse seemed to be vio­lent resis­tance.  I was even privy to the real­iza­tion that games which encour­aged real-life inter­ac­tion, like Super Smash Bros. and Mario’s ubiq­ui­tous Parties, tend­ed to cause more strife and flare more tem­pers with­in my peer group than seemed appro­pri­ate for a pas­time which was sup­posed to be (after all) fun.

But most of all, I wor­ried about videogames as a pas­time.  What did it mean for me to spend so much time play­ing games?

I sup­pose we all strug­gle with this ques­tion, one way or anoth­er.

I’m no clos­er to hav­ing the answers now.  I’m older, a bit more ruf­fled around the edges, and a but­t­load more easy-going.  Those who know me well, though, would insist that my latent puri­tan­i­cal streak is alive and well, and some­times rears its mandibles to strike at per­ceived igno­rance or injus­tice.

Instead of won­der­ing about whether play­act­ing at tear­ing down sour-milk reli­gious power con­structs is prob­lem­at­ic, I worry that games like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty typ­i­fy an urge toward zealotry which is actu­al­ly insep­a­ra­ble from noble-sounding ideals like faith or patri­o­tism – an urge which threat­ens to tear us down from the inside.  I worry that “empow­er­ing” fan­tasies of fight­ing demon­ic pow­ers (as in Oblivion or Ys: Origin), rather than being sac­ri­le­gious ego-trips, actu­al­ly serve to enable a trou­ble­some denial­ism – pre­vent­ing us from fac­ing the real­i­ty of mor­tal­i­ty as it is, with sober dig­ni­ty.

I’m no longer ter­ri­bly con­cerned about becom­ing famil­iar­ized to gory scenes: I know a life-saving tech­nique or two, and have had cause to deploy them.  So much the bet­ter for any poor unlucky souls for whom I hap­pen to be play­ing First-Responder, if I fail to become emo­tion­al­ly dis­traught at the sight of spilt guts.  Instead, I find myself con­sid­er­ing those ignored or mis­treat­ed by our country’s unbe­liev­ably shit­ty men­tal health and crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tems.  What do we game crit­ics, devel­op­ers, and enthu­si­asts have to say to those peo­ple?  For those of us who kill-camp, tea-bag, and head-shot on a night­ly basis: what assur­ances can we pos­si­bly offer those who find that the only place they feel strong enough to face life for one more sec­ond is behind the bar­rel of a gun point­ed at chil­dren?

Party games” haven’t changed much.  They’ve now opened their are­nas to the pub­lic at large, draw­ing enor­mous crowds to watch bur­geon­ing e‑Sports on gigan­tic tele­screens, Two-Minutes-Hating at oppo­nents and cheer­ing their favorite sweat-stained, lightening-fingered white-jumpsuited heroes as they com­pete live and in-person.  But one only has to play two or three pub­lic match­es on League of Legends to see misog­y­ny, trib­al­ism, sex­u­al­ly charged power-leveraging, uncon­trolled out­bursts of rage, and all such con­tin­u­al­ly forth­com­ing pri­mate demons dis­played in full 1280720 res­o­lu­tion.  Perhaps it might be bet­ter if we could some­how man­age to rally our fledg­ling gamer world around some­thing besides com­pe­ti­tion? Or at least reign it in a lit­tle bit.

If we iden­ti­fy so strong­ly with the tri­als and tra­vails of pro­tag­o­nists in lit­er­a­ture, how much stronger is the effect when we’re synched-up to a play­er char­ac­ter?  When we are respon­si­ble for act­ing through our dig­i­tal avatars and observ­ing the con­se­quences first-hand?  As G. Christopher Williams over at PopMatters con­sid­ers: “Is mak­ing moral deci­sions in video games a pos­si­ble form of devel­op­ing mus­cle mem­o­ry for the soul?”

Some of us, like Hannah, extol the virtues of badass-play as a legit­i­mate and nec­es­sary means of escape from the all-too-present pres­sures of an authen­tic life, while oth­ers, like Bill, feel a lit­tle bit guilty of let­ting “real life” time tick away unmarked.

I think they’re both right, but I won­der some­thing else, too.

Some games strive to make us aware of them­selves, effec­tive­ly point­ing us toward a larg­er truth and ask­ing us to con­sid­er what it means to be a gamer.  Little Inferno stri­dent­ly insists that this “can’t go on for­ev­er,” and implores us to con­sid­er the impli­ca­tions of our actions out­side and upward, beyond our Entertainment Fireplaces and the tem­po­rary (though bliss­ful) warmth they bring.  howl­ing dogs forces us to think about what life would have been like had we not dis­cov­ered the “Activity Room” and all of the facets there­of (which multi-sensory bom­bard­ments cause us to exclaim “How Interesting!” over and over until the words lose all mean­ing and leave us dry).

Perhaps, in mak­ing us iden­ti­fy with play­er char­ac­ters entrapped in their engage­ment with games, these fierce­ly self-aware and intro­spec­tive titles actu­al­ly give us over to a learned help­less­ness.  Obviously we’re going to exhaust the lifes­pan of the Entertainment Fireplace until it mal­func­tions and burns our house down.  Then we’ll go out­side and think about it.  Of course it’s going to take our water get­ting shut off, the Activity Room short-circuiting, and for­get­ting what once made liv­ing so alive to make us reflect a bit on the con­se­quences of our actions (those being reflect­ing on the con­se­quences of our dig­i­tal actions).

I hope I’m not com­ing across as stri­dent or reac­tionary.  Hell, prob­a­bly as soon as I fin­ish typ­ing this I’m going to set­tle in for (quite) a few mis­sions in Borderlands 2 (all the while won­der­ing if it was real­ly nec­es­sary to refer to one of the eas­i­est char­ac­ter builds as “Girlfriend Mode”).  I’m just glad for the space to speak open­ly about gam­ing, con­sid­er the impli­ca­tions of our shared vir­tu­al expe­ri­ences, and I know that the con­ver­sa­tion should, must con­tin­ue.

We don’t have any­thing close to the Answers yet.

One thing’s cer­tain: there’s some­times a great deal of wis­dom in childhood’s plat­i­tudi­nous rhyme scheme.  And I’d like to pro­pose a revi­sion to the par­tic­u­lar snip­pet of which I shared ear­li­er.

Though it may merit a charge of laps­ing from SRS DIAILOGUOE into the sac­cha­rine, I think it’s impor­tant to remem­ber:

Be care­ful, lit­tle hands, what you play
Be care­ful, lit­tle hands, what you play
For what you’ll want to do tomorrow’s what you fan­ta­size today
So be care­ful lit­tle hands, what you play

Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Gotzon was a contributor to the Ontological Geek from 2010-2013, and had more fun with it than Super Smash Bros. (most of the time) and the entire Halo series (all of the time). He can be still be found occasionally sharing Dungeons and Dragons memes on Twitter @AP_Gotzon.

One thought on “Be Careful

  • bloodofthefae

    Was just linked here by a friend. Great arti­cle! I am pleased to have found this blog to be able to fol­low!

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