I can't say I was happy when my wife's friend brought over her seven-year-old terrorist of a child, Charlie, one summer afternoon in 2010, the same day I brought home a freshly cellophaned copy of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. All I'd wanted to do was pop it into my first edition PlayStation 3 (the one that looks like a Prometheus stage prop), sit on my ass, forget my name, and blow some shit up. The entire Uncharted franchise is basically a cross between the Indiana Jones movies (sans Crystal Skull) and every Die Hard ever made, and the truth is that when I surrender myself to such afternoons with my PlayStation, I'm partial to doing so with 16 grams of weed.
Charlie himself could be, as his mother was prone to say, ‘feral.' His fundamental impulse was to savagely attack the male testicular region with whatever object turned convenient. It didn't matter whose testicles they were. If a pair happened to enter his purview, he just lunged at them like a jaguar.
But when Charlie walked into my living room in a Captain Flapjack t-shirt, he was immediately intrigued by the Tibetan snow flurry conjured on my 27-inch flat screen. And truth be told, my heart just crumbled watching his lusty gaze. I felt…young again.
"Whoa…" he said, bushy hair practically shocked awake. He knew exactly what he was looking at. Every child does, whether from Oakland or Macau.
"Can I play?" he asked.
A question I found all too familiar. I'd grown up in the era of Megaman, anyway. Contra. Castlevania. Zelda. Duck Hunt. The Silver Age of Nintendo Power, both as a magazine and an idea. I practically spent my entire childhood uttering those very words: "Can I play?" with murderous insistence. In the moment, my insouciant childhood was jarred to the forefront, and suddenly I knew that if I didn't do the right thing here, I'd be exactly the type of person that, when I was seven, I liked to hate.
"Of course you can," I said, with what I hoped was a cool-grownup smile. My nether regions were no longer of concern. I was going to blow Charlie's mind. Not only was he going to play a video game. He was going to play the title IGN rated 9.5 out of 10, and that caused PlayStation Magazine to extol, "Forget Game of The Year. This is one of the greatest games of all time!"
I handed over the controller, which Charlie proceeded to examine like an alien landmine. The kid knew squat about the medium. Charlie's father's house was austere, moneyed, and mirthless, and the man himself, no different. Charlie's mother's, an upbeat woman with a background in modern dance and a love for the Goddess, though caring and attentive, had lodged video games in a category as foreign as Statistical Thermodynamics. In her walk-up apartment were mostly books on Native American Basket Looms, and other things you tend to find in Bay Area, Feng Shui domiciles.
Charlie nibbled his tongue as he thumbed the wrong controls, so I repositioned them, encouraging familiarity. For anyone who knows Uncharted 2, I'd just watched the opening cut scene and now come back to the present, where, wounded, Drake picks up his first weapon, and proceeds to wind his way from a train wreck.
Charlie's eyes bulged as he shot that weapon. He became mesmerized at the cordite BOOMs on the screen. I had discovered a rehabilitation tool for budding ball-busters the world over.
But before he could finish the phrase, "This is soooooo cool," the living room door creaked open.
"Whatcha two playing?" Charlie's mother said with a fanciful hand flourish. Hers was a look of kind concern as she took in the images on the screen. Parenthood (especially when replete with a dubious partner) conjured a fair amount of trepidation.
"It's okay, mom," the seven-year-old whined, as if he'd anticipated what was to come.
His mother saw the gun on the screen. The bullets flying. The trains burning.
"No," she said. He winced as his mother gently began to drag him from the screen and into the kitchen. "Swords are okay. But not guns. Way too violent."
"But I know it's not real," Charlie said, his signature ferret-y grin returning as he struggled from his mother's grip. At one point, he gave her a smack. "I know it's not real!"
At the moment I'd failed to understand what sin I, Charlie, or poor Nathan Drake had just committed. Only after Charlie had been removed to the kitchen to recuperate did his mother came back to fill me in. With a mixture of sweet and stern, she thanked me for playing with him, appreciative of male guidance in his life other than his father's.
"He's just not old enough for guns," she said. "You'll understand when you're a parent. For now, only swords."
I nodded my head, a little embarrassed. As she left the room the reality set in that I'd been teaching her seven-year-old boy how to fire a virtual firearm. Uncharted's variation on the Colt .45.
For a while afterwards I went between feeling culpable and self-righteous. When not indignant, I couldn't keep from thinking, in retrospect, it had been my onus to protect Charlie from harm. We live in the age of Columbine, Springfield, Aurora. And I was the adult. The arbiter of good sense. I was, some might say, part of the village. And now, when I'd had my chance to embark some knowledge, as opposed to teaching an already volatile child how to play chess, I'd taught him how to gun down smugglers in the Tibetan frost in the aftermath of a train crash. What type of asshole was I?
In the wake of recent gun violence in the United States, a phenomenon taking on the dimensions of an epidemic, there's been a lot of conversation about cause and effect. Who's accountable when a Jared Loughner patrons his local Wal-Mart to pick up ammo for his Glock? Or when a James Holmes dashes into a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, less than a mile from the house I grew up in, only to make you wish Batman really existed? Is it the fault individualism? Right-wing extremism? The PlayStation, the Xbox, and the Wii? In the morass of Second Amendment bombast and counter bombast–much of which this debate revolves around–I found myself looking at the sources of American fantasy, and whether or not they truly, in some form or another, could be looked upon for slaying the sanity of our youth.
As a thought experiment, I decided to compare the video game I played as a seven-year-old, Contra, for the original Nintendo, with the most violent video game I came across in the last three years: Sniper Elite V2, for the PlayStation 3:
CONTRA (NES, 1987):
Premise: Lance ‘Scorpion' Bean and Bill "Mad Dog' Rizer, are sent, side scroll, through what is practically Vietnam, to destroy the alien terrorist group Red Falcon.
Weapons: Rifle, Spread Gun, Flame Torch, Rapid Fire Gun, and Barrier Gun.
Level of Violence: What made this game a challenge for me at seven (particularly until I found The Code) is that touching anything kills you instantly, an act depicted with a Brrrrzzzoowww sound, and a bloodless fade into oblivion.
SNIPER ELITE V2 (PS3, 2012):
Premise: OSS Officer Karl Fairburne fights through Nazi and Soviet operatives in the final days of WWII in attempt to destroy ballistic missiles.
Weapons: You have a variety of weapons to choose from, including sniper rifles. The game is stealth-based, which means most of it involves skulking about for your next target, and blowing it away from a distance.
Level of Violence: The most controversial feature of SEV2 is the X-Ray Kill Cam. When you fire your sniper rifle, the Cam activates, following the bullet's trajectory in slow motion as it reaches its target, and then goes inside the target, tearing apart organs and bones.
Things had certainly changed since I was kid. If not in subject matter, then in the degree to of reality rendered digital. Maybe I really had made a mistake with Charlie, not thinking to realize that the world had become a different place since 1987.
There's something about narrative, however–perhaps in its inborn mendacity–that's hard to twist out of focus. I've always thought people who try to demonize entertainment culture, especially modules that feature violence, even in the modern age, are lacking in crucial grey matter. Obviously guns are an issue in this country. Though I might be able to see the validity in owning a Beretta for self-defense after actual psychological testing (not the current NICS-touted bullshit), there is no reason anyone not defending a full-on land war should be handling an AK-47. But at the same time, just because we should decrease our access to guns does not mean that art should be anesthetized from exploring, or even acting out, images of violence, as a vaccine for the daily news. Reality and representation aren't mutually exclusive, even when they appear to be. And how important was it to eschew all references to firearms, or weapons in general, afraid of what exposure may bring? Are swords really ‘okay' for a seven-year-old, as opposed to semi-automatic weapons? I'd heard such logic used before, and was bothered by it. Swords are antiquated weapons, sure, but sheared flays of steel nonetheless, designed to maim, gut, slit, and splay. Just read a page from A Song of Ice and Fire (the grotesque and popular basis for Game of Thrones) to get a feel for how grizzly blades can be.
Children, even feral ones, however, whether born in 1982 or 2005, are experts at make-believe. They're also experts in knowing when someone crosses the line. If an injury occurs, a game is over. Adults are alerted. If negligence is at fault, someone gets in trouble. When I first began playing video games, no one had to tell me what was real and what wasn't. I didn't have a perfect home either, but I knew that only when you took a plastic cartridge with some sensational illustration, blew the dust away from the bottom, and inserted it in the electronic grey box, was an image was projected on a screen. If the power went out, the game was done. If you had no television, it never started. In some ways, I wonder if games with a high amount of interactivity served to strengthen my ability to distinguish the real world from pretend. In the digital world, you can defeat fire-breathing dragons. In reality, however, the place you call home could be a dragon itself, and you could never defeat it, no matter how hard you tried.
I'm not saying that I should have let Charlie play Uncharted 2 that day in my house. I might have considered that certain narratives appeal to children while others do not. And some subjects are premature. I wouldn't have dared show Charlie Grand Theft Auto, for instance. Or God of War I through III, for that matter, because someone's head is ripped off pretty much every six and a half seconds. But isn't it possible that a fear of new technology, and new modes of pretend, can also affect our youth?
I understood why Charlie's mother fretted for her child, and I'll never let anyone's child but mine touch anything I own without ironclad legal protection (a symptom of the 21st century if there ever was one). But I also don't know if Uncharted 2 would be capable of causing a young mind to snap. I saw the glee in Charlie's eyes that day. He'd begun to detach himself from the discord surrounding him in his daily life, disappearing into a less concrete world. Sometimes I just worry that if children can't decide on the boundaries between reality and fantasy for themselves once in a while, they'll become convinced that dark urges are only fit for real life, where the realm of make-believe is rarely welcome. And that would be truly frightening in my opinion. A genuine cause for concern.
This essay originally appeared on The Weeklings and is being republished with permission.