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’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 1280 x 720 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