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I was Long the Terror and Scourge of Mario Land. The Stalin of Marios.

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There's a place called "The Gun Store" in Las Vegas where you can shoot a real AK-47 at different targets (including zombies and Osama bin Laden, though I suspect the latter has been discontinued). It's expensive, over a dollar per round, and as you can imagine, those will mount up pretty quickly when you are shooting an AK-47. They have loads of other guns as well, including a 1911 Colt .45.

The Yelp reviews for this place make for scintillating reading. I especially liked this one:

"Our Rangemaster Scott was the best! He was very patient with all of us (2 Adults/ 2 kids Seven and Eleven Years Old) and we literally had a blast shooting various types of M4's Pistols, M249, and various rifles!!!!

"He made sure to give us very ample time to safely pose with each gun as well so we could capture the memories!

"It's cool to see my 2 boys knowing all of the names of almost all of these guns (Call of Duty!) and firing them in real life; all the while learning to respect firearms and the responsibility and seriousness of them all in real life."


"What could be more fun than shooting zombies?" asked another satisfied Gun Store patron. "Shooting zombies with a .44 Magnum, of course!"

The idea of playing a game with real guns scares me, but I have to admit it that part of me may recoil, so to speak, yet another part can hardly wait to try it. There is a vertiginous appeal in the idea of reality inching just that little bit closer to the fantasy. After all, one has already killed quite a lot of zombies, one way and another. With a real .44 Magnum? Now that's a game.


Fantasy murder is the best kind, no doubt. If you actually had to go through with killing someone, all kinds of disagreeable realities (e.g. blood, guts, irreversibility, a grotesque corpse to dispose of, plus shame, remorse and possible detection) would be bound to come in and ruin the whole thing. "I could kill him/her!" we often shout, apropos of whatever politician, athlete, musician or family member we are momentarily enraged with. Ever so violently, ever so briefly, one is seized with the desire to strangle or dismember. We want to kill someone for a moment, we really do, but not really really. Not so you'd have to go all Lady Macbeth about it afterward.

This paradox has long been understood by the generations of geniuses who produce cartoons for children. Long before Itchy & Scratchy, the deceptively peaceable-seeming Road Runner was, in essence, a murderous character, constantly contriving to have Wile E. Coyote plunge off a cliff, shoot out of a cannon and into a wall, etc. Still earlier, the stars of Merrie Melodies were constantly being blown up, or having 1000-lb. anvils collapsing onto their hapless heads. Yosemite Sam seemed to spend half his pint-sized, furious existence covered in post-explosion soot.

These abstract, violent and yet harmless deaths are perhaps the precursors of game murders, pleasantly refined so that the player is the one doing the ultraviolence.

That is exactly the sort of murder I have in mind for my own adversaries, by the way. And by "have in mind", I mean, "imagine constantly". They will be flattened under one of those massive anvils or blowed the hell up, and then they will return in the next frame, suitably chastised, dusted with cinders or comically squashed, maybe wearing a Band-Aid, who knows? I find dreaming up such scenes to be deliciously soothing; it expiates the rage, all by itself.


In game play, of course, one begins by being a murderer despite oneself. I was long the terror and scourge of Mario Land. The Stalin of Marios. Not because I was any good at those games, mind you, but for exactly the opposite reason. Any Mario with two brain cells to rub together would be running the other way the mere sight of me, since he was almost certainly about to be incinerated, mushroomed, smashed etc.

One dealt out death in the old games, with their strangely bewitching music and rudimentary but hypnotic graphics, with very little fanfare. Marios do not suffer even today when they are dispatched; they do not bleed even a tiny bit, or put up much of a fight to speak of. Today's Mario is still merely surprised by the sudden appearance of deadly peril and just flies off the track with a little squeal. How I loved the way they used to float down with a thin, lovely cry of 8-bit surprise, softly falling, not accelerating at all, sweetly tragic in their helpless unrealness, down into those mysterious and inaccessible worlds below the screen.


But the way of the old games, where a character would just shrivel a little bit, whine or go pale, has given way to the pseudo-realistic "gore" of today's games. I remember Doom and Quake being particularly thrilling to many in this regard. I would argue, though, that this is just another kind of abstraction, with unreal conventions borrowed from slasher films rather than postwar cartoons. There's very little in the way of actual suffering depicted even in Grand Theft Auto, no, not even when you run over a lot of hookers, which many adolescents find so entertaining.

Warring sociopolitical camps have long disagreed over whether or not violent video games promote aggressive real-life behavior, and studies have been commissioned to prove the claims of both sides. The gamers of my own anecdotal acquaintance tend to be surpassingly gentle creatures, so I am tempted to believe that this is because any murderous instincts they may have are fully expiated by their death-dealing exploits in the realm of fantasy.


And yet. There really is a cloudy line between game play and real-life violence that can be exploited, as I was suggesting earlier, to take us just a little closer to the real thing. The zombie firing range, the extra-gory Halloween haunted house and underground LARPs such as Killer (and their precursors) share this aspect of bringing a little something quite a bit more like real violence into play. (For those interested in this aspect of game-psychology and its underpinnings, I can highly recommend the novel "Fifth Business" by the great Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies.)


Some of us do want to escalate things a little bit. The real gun; the frozen paintball. Almost-violence, almost real. How dangerous is it to access the murderous impulse that is buried, however deeply, in us all?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.



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