Lieberman has a point re: kids’ lethal electrogames

Families Opinions - October 6th, 2000
Henry Scott Stokes

 by Henry Scott-Stokes

Joe Lieberman has found my voice. I like the guy. He has spoken out against a “culture of carnage” and I say right I guess this topic began for me—as a parent—with the first generation of hand­held Gameboys in the late 1980s. My then 4-year-old son Harry learned the art of gun­ning down strange creatures in empty land­scapes from his Gameboy. He knocked ’em down and blasted ’em one after another, hour after hour.

But going back earlier than that, back to the early 1980s, I remember the uncomfortable feeling that “In­vaders,” the arcade game of that era, gave me. All of a sudden that game was the rage for adults in Japan around 1980. It was the same story line: gun ’em down if they are different.

I’ve talked with my son of late and heard how his friends think. They are 15 years old now and have access to such items as “Final Fantasy Eight,” a video game that took Japan by storm not so long ago, and duly wowed ’em in world markets. Our computer at home in England comes up with a full screen’s worth of soppy adolescent faces, when I switch on—before I can get into it and find my e-mails. Harry has ingeniously transposed those faces from “Final Fantasy Eight.”

I watched him play earlier this year. The “music” includes some passages of surging choruses and fierce chanting, half to my taste, if deformed from the origi­nal. That music, I mentioned to Harry, is a rip-off from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” They’ve cribbed a bit of Orff’s composition here, snagged a few bars there. Just to make my point I gave him one of the many CDs of “Carmina Burana.” The rest of the sound for “Final Fantasy” was trite, I said.

“Oh, I think the music’s great,” responded our darling son in a replay, no doubt, of father-son conversa­tions taking place all over the world. Brrh! Stupid me. I used to think it was just I who worried—but there are millions of us who are caught up, parents and children. And for some reason we were silent.

Joe brought the issue to the surface. There is a video game morality. There most certainly is an ethic— a highly explicit ethic—in all those ritual duels with weird beasts in the inevitable characterless landscapes. It is to kill what is different.

Oh Harry, Harry, I think. Is this the world I hoped you would grow up in? I put it to him.

“It’s something we’ll grow out of,” he responded.

What does Olly say, I asked—referring to one of his English friends?

“Oh, he giggles about it, he says the same thing, it’s just a phase.”

The limit came for me the day Harry turned up a video game set in a virtual art gallery. The only works on display were full-face portraits of Adolf Hitler, sporting a swastika armband.

Chaps in heavy leather coats popped their heads round the corners of the gallery’s many corridors. The game was to shoot ’em. When Harry got one with his gun, the dead man would lie in a pool of his own blood under the portraits of the Fuhrer, while Harry waited to pot the next one.

Belatedly, far too late, I drew the line. Not in my house…

All of which is to say that I hope Joe Lieberman will carry on pinioning Hollywood and the video game industry, whether he’s elected Veep in five weeks time or not… But in the end we parents have only ourselves to blame if we tolerated the rubbish in the first place.

My solution for this problem? First, our son now goes to a UK boarding school where this dross is not allowed. That takes care of two-thirds of the year. At home my wife and I have a rule: no more than two hours a day.

Gradually, over time, I have found that Harry is weenable away from his screen. What he and Oily have told me is proving to be correct. The lure of these games fades and, I believe, disappears in the end, just as the boys say.

By this time they will have seen, I suppose, roughly 30,000 killings of humans, humanoids and beasts, half of which they will have carried out themselves. So they’ve had a schooling in, as it were, Khmer Rouge morality: give the children weapons; let them go out and shoot who they like.

It takes me back. One night 20 years ago in Djakarta I was staying with a UPI friend. Weird sounds floated into the house from the street outside of an evening, when it got dark. Peddlers hawking stuff came by. There were popping sounds, birds warbling, half-stifled cries—of rigmarole of street sounds that just totally entranced me. Indonesia is like that. It is the only part of the East that lived up to my schoolboy stereotype of the Mysterious Orient…! loved being in Djakarta at my friend Joe’s place, and meeting folks who dropped by.

One was a tall guy with a drooping moustache, a loose cat. I never saw him again. A couple of months later he became one of the first casualties of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia 1970. Sean Flynn’s body was never found, nor that of a companion, also American, who was with him on his last ride out of Phnom Penh. They were almost certainly shot by soldier boys. Made to get off their scooters, marched through the jungle a bit and butchered. The presumed murders entered into the lore of that time. Sean was a Time photographer. He was Errol Flynn’s son.

To the boys who killed them, they were just “oth­ers,” not their kind? But wait a mo: pulling the triggers, did they do much more than Harry did 10, 000 times in our home? In terms of consciousness, of awareness?

You don’t know the answer to such questions, ever. But I do want Joe Lieberman to know that there are tens of millions of parents out here—if he ever had any doubt—who support his concern.