Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pixels, Ink, and tears. Some thoughts following a tragedy

I'm due for a writing-related post, with perhaps some thoughts on character, on modernism, or where I'm going to go next. Perhaps Duotrope's move from a donation-based to a fee-based service. Instead, I find myself writing this in the aftermath of yet another gun-related tragedy - the murder of twenty schoolchildren in Newton, CT. Today I give you my thoughts and reflections on that tragedy - as a writer, as a father, as a human being.

This will not be a post about gun rights or gun control laws.

Today is the first weekday since, a day I took a rare late start (for reasons unrelated) to drop off my own six-year old girl at our own local school and trying not to think about how final this same act was for so many people last week. I write these words on the Long Island Railroad, a commuter line that itself saw a senseless massacre two decades ago.  I didn't find out until hours later when I finally arrived home after a long, long delay in my commute. I was riding on the very next train. Caroline McCarthy, widowed those twenty years ago, ran for and was elected to Congress where she fought against the gun lobby and for gun control laws. There were flurries of action and long lulls, victories and defeats and finally, as the horror faded into memory for most of us, a slow erosion of regulations as we just simply stopped talking about the issue.

But, as I said,  this is not a post about gun control.

What is it about? What do I see in this about which I want to talk?

As a writer, a former gamer, and a citizen I want to talk about our culture.

This is a discussion some of us seem almost ready to have, but one which is still too easy to dismiss. When asked about the role of violent films, critic Roger Ebert turned the question around and blamed news media. When fellow writer Andrea Trask (her work, including Flash Fiction, horror, and even Pirate-themed erotica can be found on Amazon or Smashwords) and is highly recommended) shared her poignant thoughts as a parent of young children herself (here), it sparked several discussions on social media, including one in which a woman spoke of requesting that her (adult) son set aside his violent video games for a time as a sign of respect. Trask's answer was personal, well-stated, and encapsulates the pro-violent entertainment side of this discussion beautifully:

I play violent video games.

I play violent video games a lot. I play World of Warcraft and kill creatures by the thousands. I play Diablo I, II, and III and kill horrors unimaginable. I play Portal I and II and die endlessly, throwing myself against the wall of a physics-oriented challenge until I triumph over it. I play GTA, driving various vehicles willy-nilly through wet dark city streets, running down pedestrians who don't walk fast enough and shooting gangbangers. I play first person shooters, I play epic RPGs.

And I don't run people over, torture or kill small animals, or shoot people in the real world, because those are just games. They are pixels. They are NOT REAL.

Do not blame any sort of entertainments for a person's inability to distinguish right things from wrong ones.

Someone killing another person is not the fault of a video game, or a gun, or a book, or a genre of music, or a television show. It's the fault of a widespread cultural inability to foster the need for and encouragement of reaching out to other people, to give them anchors, and love, to keep them grounded in the face of a vast uncaring universe that is not obligated to care about any one of us. First we have to care for ourselves, and then for each other.

Cultural entropy is inevitable; the trick is not to stand around pointing fingers of blame, but to give it direction, and turn it into change.

I wish I could be so sure. I at one point was with her. Slaughtering orcs on the weekend, and slaughtering the demonic horrors of Doom in all their pixellated glory. I have not (so far as any of you know) murdered anyone. Along with Ebert, along with Trask, I considered entertainment to be just that - entertainment. But it is, of course, more. It becomes part of how we think. It becomes part of who we are. Does watching violent movies or playing violent games make all of  us violent? Of course not. One effect they do have is to make us see the exercise of physical power as a virtuous act at best, as a just another means to an end at worst. Having respect for violence, seeing supposed heroes commit acts of violence on the silver screen or the pages of a comic book, role-playing such violence yourself through video games or pen-and-paper role-playing won't turn you violent, but it will erode a barrier towards seeing yourself that way.

As writers, should we even be writing if we don't believe that our words can change people? Should game-makers be game-making and filmmakers film-making?

Sharing such entertainments might not create killers overnight, but they help weaken those barriers between acceptable thoughts and the idea of murdering everyone you know. We push and push at them, until something breaks and people are dead.

This is not a new idea.  Plato, in his Republic said that the state should carefully choose which stories we can tell our young people because stories have power to shape the development of our values.

This is not an old idea. The American army uses simulations -- video games --  both as a recruiting tool and a method of training. Scenarios are played over and over again until what the army considers to be the "right" choice has become the soldiers natural choice.

This is not a purely subjective idea. Powerful tools such as fMRIs let us look into the brains of people as they play games. We can see how an increasingly immersive experience is effecting emotional responses, and compare it to the effect of real-world actions. 

Finally, this shouldn't be a controversial idea; after all, a story or film or video game is, beneath all else, a means of communication. If you believe in literature -- if you believe in stories -- then you believe that they have the power to move people, to make people think and, after all is said, to change people.

I don't know what the answer is. This is a time when there really are no answers. What I know that we shouldn't do is fear asking the questions, and fear examining the parts of our culture and our actions that could lead to this kind of tragedy.

1 comment:

  1. I truly believe it depends on the individual. My husband can play horrific games all day and it doesn't affect him at all. I am uninterested in first person shooters in large part because they turn my stomach. And we've banned my 10 year old from all violent games because for him the line between reality and fiction already is thin, and playing a first person shooter quite literally started affecting his behavior and having a negative impact on every aspect of his life. I certainly believe the ratings system is a useful tool, and wish more parents respected those guidelines. But I know at least three 10 year old boys who show no effect even after hours of playing games rated for Mature audiences. Again, I believe it depends on the person. Regardless, I appreciate your thoughts.