My generation of men was the last with the option to take or leave video games. Some of my friends really got into them, but I just didn’t care. For a year or so I spent my quarters at Tipton’s Arcade, on Galaga and Centipede, and when they got a new machine I might have the high score for a day. But I played these silly games, set in worlds that didn’t exist or matter, only to pass the time until I got an older friend who could drive. Who drank. Who was a girl.
By the time Game Boys and Playstation came around, I had my extra time all mapped out.
I appreciate the appeal of video games. They’re a lot less passive than my favorite zone-out entertainments, books and movies and plays; you control the action, to an extent, and you exercise important social rituals, like competition and camaraderie, tolerance, hazing. But I always had real-world recreations far too involving to afford more time in front of a screen. I haven’t had a television since college for that very reason.
But then, well into my adulthood, at either Jeff Ham’s or Jeff Cox’s house I played Grand Theft Auto. And it will come as no surprise to some that with this one, I really enjoyed a video game for the first time. This is because I believe that art and entertainment ideally incorporate, contribute to, inspire, the impulses and mysteries of mythology. We know that without a rich and dangerous fantasy component, real life achieves the menacing instability elsewhere denied; those daydreams of sin and vice have to pop up someplace. And boy, did GTA appeal to my secret self. In this very different type of video game, you could choose to perform little progress-related chores, or you could simply wander among the textures of the game’s world. Those textures included dramatic id-serving activities like stealing cop cars, running over pedestrians, and punching random strangers in the face.
Killing cops is an elementally Freudian gesture. Here was the forbidden wish, fulfilled in three dimensions of living color. A society without rules, where gratification was the only currency, in which you could strongarm your way into your favorite vehicle and play your favorite radio station while subjugating an entire city? Well. I saw GTA and knew instantly that within a few years, it would replace all other video games. The skiing and footballing games might still find a marginal market, but all the first-person-shooters would fall away, replaced by this perfect exercise. I knew this.
Then Columbine happened, again and again and again. It keeps happening. I am not one who thinks this phenomenon was caused by first person shooter video games; I believe, rather, that sensational media coverage of real-life senseless massacres has been directly responsible for the failure of GTA’s video game supremacy. (GTA 2, the most successful in the franchise, is now 25th on the list of all-time best-selling Playstation products.) But why? How could this fundamental exploitation of a basic psychological need not just win outright against sanitized zombie-killing? Maybe because the kids who grew up playing video games in the third millennium had the premise of murder drummed out of their conscious “want” cycle.
That might sound like a good thing.
But when I was in high school, not a month went by that I didn’t think of killing somebody. A teacher, a bully, a girl; and really, a month’s stretching the point. I was hormonal, I was callow, I was indifferent, I was almost entirely self-involved; I was essentially psychotic, as all teenagers more or less are for more or less all of the time. It’s normal for them to want to kill each other, and their teachers, and their parents, and yes, this is true of girls at least as much as boys. It could be argued that some kids have better reasons to kill than others. But just about none of them, really an absolutely statistically insignificant number of kids, ever do it. I surely didn’t. And gee whiz did I have my provocations. So say all of us. Thinking about these things, not unconsciously where such ideas lurk in every human but right-out-in-the-open-awareness of wanting to kill ordinary citizens – to hell with zombies, forget Nazis, but my classmates and my boss at the after-school job and my coach – that did me a great deal of good. So says the Vienna school, anyway. And so say I.
So now I see these kids, some of them my students, some of them among my favorite people in the world, running through life with ABC and Lionsgate and every prescribed role model telling them, actively, “Don’t shoot your friends or your bullies. Don’t kill The Other. Don’t even, in your private heart of darkness, hate. Anybody. Because you’ll become the Bad Guy.” And I want to take their little faces in my hands and say, “You’re an animal, and that’s okay.”
It’s not just about games and shows; this sanded-edges Nice Guyist pedantry permeates the majority of young people’s social experience. Look at Justin Bieber, for God’s sake, a rock star as sexually threatening as a hummingbird. Shaun Cassidy at least looked like he would seduce you in the back of a car with half a Quaalude and some Triple Sec from his mom’s cabinet. And of course there was a lot more heady stuff than a Hardy Boy back in the day, much of it fairly mainstream. What Tipper Gore started has plugged a necessary release valve in the national consciousness, and now the alternative to pop’s saccharine pablum is a rap/R&B culture whose brazen violence and misogyny is tolerated only because it has become politically incorrect to demonize the ghetto mentality that spawned it. Justin Bieber or Chris Brown: so the pendulum swings, and I find this skewed paradigm a poor substitute for the anything-goes fun I got to have in the 70s and 80s, unenlightened and raw as it was.
So what did those kicks do to my generation of boys and girls? Like any other bunch, we’re doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs. We’re fine and we’re completely screwed up and everything in between. But I worry that our kids might just implode with all that repressed desire, and I’ll tell you what: I don’t want to be around to see it.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for stageandcinema.com, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.