In my home we, as parents, have tried to encourage non-violence. Although countless parenting battles have been waged around cruelty between siblings, when it comes to violent video games I fear that we are losing the war.
My key concerns about these games are:
1) They are addictive, and exploit the brain for economic gain of the companies that sell these games
2) I worry that they model and foment aggression as a problem-solving strategy
3) I fear that they might negatively shape consciousness, which in turn may adversely affect the hearts and minds of players, as well as our collective consciousness which has yet to realize that there truly is no winning in war
The question of whether to allow violent video games, and in what amounts, is one of the parenting topics that I find most vexing. I personally detest the games, and yet I can recall being a kid obsessed with my pellet guns, bb guns, sling-shots, pocket knives and seeing every violent movie I could get into—from Bonnie and Clyde, to Dirty Harry.
As an aside, I once told Jerome Hellman, the producer of Midnight Cowboy, who was teaching a seminar on producing at NYU, that his movie ruined my life. He looked at me with puzzled concern to which I added that his film made me want to make movies. He said, “That didn’t ruin your life…” To which I replied, only half joking, “Yes, it did.”
Thus I wonder about everything from why kids like these games so much (how quickly we, at least we sensitive males, forget our aggressive impulses), to whether they cause neurological, emotional of spiritual harm and on to what this mass craze says about our culture and the state of human consciousness.
Sometimes I think that an hour on the game is like a kid martini, still raising the question of whether temperate enjoyment of virtual killing is a harmless pastime, or whether some people are addictive by nature and can’t walk away after just one hour any more than they can have just one drink. And even if we do have just one drink, are there any reasons to re-think this? For example, if one is depressed already, alcohol as a depressant will only exacerbate the melancholy over time. If kids are anxious, will situations where they are violently attacked help channel the anxiety and give it an outlet, or does it key up the brain and impair sleep and concentration over time?
Last June my older son and I were engaged in a pitched parenting battle around these games (see previous post The Killing Game: http://tiny.cc/LBJKM), one in which he was so angry he wished I might die in a car wreck. Ah, the joys of parenting.
Half a year later, I have spent a good deal of time reminding my kids of the current time limit: one hour and twenty minutes per day (one hour to play, and a fiercely negotiated extra twenty minutes for “loading”). Part of my “best Self” parenting was also to agree to play these games with my kids, striving to enter their world and take an interest in what interests them. In six months I have done this a grand total of two times. The first time I got rather dizzy; the second, over Thanksgiving, it was actually quite sweet as my son had me follow him (or I should say my avatar learned to follow his avatar) through a maze of levels, lifts, cliffs, weapons, shields and the like. It was like being taught to virtually walk by one’s child, bringing to mind my dad tentatively learning to walk again after his stroke.
It was also oddly bizarre to be back somewhere between “in country” in a middle school mentality where my son cajoled me to “kill him”—first with a gun, then with a different kind of gun, then with a punch. He taught me how to jump around, making me feel like Tigger until he’d get bored and kill me for just about the same reasons Meurseult randomly kills that Arab in Camus’ The Stranger. It was kind of fun to bond with my kid, but the game still didn’t do much for me.
Now for all I know, maybe if enough people are plugged into their gaming equipment, killing and being killed as avatars, perhaps there will be less actual violence on the street. As much as it horrifies me to see human beings become Matrix-like batteries feeding some corporate machine with a hand in their (and by proxy my own) pocket—a big brother that gamers don’t realize is sucking the life energy out of them, it seems possible that in evolutionary terms gamers will soon die off, atrophying on their couches rather than siring progeny, too pallid and spent even to procreate. Yet I think we owe more to our children than that.
When my kids were little, we did not give them sugar and we did not allow them to play with guns. Over the years I learned that the nanny would ply them with junk food and let them watch wrestling, clearly making a secret of it. My kids held the secret until their language skills developed, telling all eventually; but by then the nanny was long-gone, an emblem not of our affluence but our lack of it—as I was in school at that time and we could not afford for my wife not to work, at least if we hoped to eat and keep our apartment.
At the progressive, but by no means “elite” pre-school we chose (and drove clear across town to have our child attend), the rule was no toy guns or games about hurting each other. But boys seem to want to play shooting games, I know I did, and when everything gun-like was barred, the teacher still came out to the sandbox to see one kid “shooting” another with a stick. The teacher said, “No guns, Kenji!” to which Kenji immediately replied, “It’s not a gun, it’s a camera!”
While I would argue to hold off the violent games as long as you can, by the time kids are thirteen and fifteen as my boys are, it seems that the horses or the cows, or whatever leaves the barn when you leave the door open, have indeed already left the building. They will play the games at friends, on the various devices they get ahold of, and so it seems time to think more deeply in the service of a better relationship to the way things are.
If war has likely always been with us ever since we formed anything resembling culture, myth and a collective identity, perhaps the question is what might it take to evolve beyond our present human condition? Whether you personally believe anything in the Torah, the New Testament, the I Ching or the Bhagavad Gita, the very fact that they have endured for millennia underscores their enduring importance as wisdom texts; in other words they seem to hold something that keeps them alive—arguably, these sorts of books are alive.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is a noble warrior who is suddenly disillusioned about war. His humble charioteer, Krishna, reveals himself as God incarnate and illuminates Arjuna on unconditioned reality, yoga and spiritual evolution. In contrast to the Torah and the New Testament where good and evil are divided, Krishna represents the paradox of containing all opposites, emanating from the source of both darkness and light.
In Krishna’s words to Arjuna after he refused to fight in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita I found myself thinking of Arjuna as a kindred parenting spirit, no longer having any taste for the fight, while on the other side of the equation, life marches aggressively ever onwards, beyond our singular comprehension:
“Although you mean well, Arjuna
your sorrow is sheer delusion.
Wise men do not grieve
For the dead of for the living.”
I contemplate the Universe whispering through my kids who sit thumbing away on their game controllers as virtual mayhem reigns.
“Just as, in this body, the Self
passes through childhood, youth
and old age, so after death
it passes to another body…
These bodies come to an end;
But that vast embodied Self
is ageless, fathomless, eternal.
Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.”
I think about how we, as parents, try to get it right and yet it is all so vastly beyond us, within us and between us.
“If you think that this Self can kill
or think that it can be killed,
you do not well understand
reality’s subtle ways.”
So, what do we do? What wisdom text, or expert, or study will guide us?
“The scriptures dwell in duality.
Be beyond all opposites, Arjuna:
anchored in the real, and free
from all thoughts of wealth and comfort.”
Later in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna removes the veil and reveals the full intensity of the cosmos to Arjuna who is quickly overwhelmed and asks him to put it back the way it was. This finds parallel in Moses getting to see God, or a glimpse of his back, while hiding in the crevice of a rock while shielded by god’s hand as God passes by.
Thus I conclude that I don’t know what is right. I don’t know why we fight, or why it calls to so many of us, virtually and more horribly still with “real” war (which Krishna, apparently would argue is just as virtual as a video game).
Now while life may be an illusion, I do find that illusion quite convincing—especially any time our kids are sick or in harm’s way—that’s where my intellect crumbles before the awesome dread and power of a universe we can only hope to align with and never in any way control. We can, however, consciously choose to love our world, all it contains and the unknown and unknowable source of it.
So today, my vote is to dedicate our consciousness to loving our world and all it’s children, fighting where we must (even fighting against the tide of video games), but with an awakening gentleness that liberates us from fear and desire. In this way parenting, and anything else for that matter, can be a devotional practice and a path to our own paradoxical happiness—offering us the opportunity to trust the vast universe and our place within it—an unconditional loving embrace of our expanding,“best” and most complete Self, one rippling with the good, the bad and the interconnected.
p.s. I quote from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita—a book well worth reading in the service of better parenting.