While the dead-eyed child squirms in your hands, piteously begging to be freed, the voice in your head gives you a choice: kill it, or save it. You suspect there will be consequences either way.
That’s a scenario in the video game BioShock, and you can imagine the outrage: This is entertainment? What sort of culture produces such depravity? Perhaps this will help: The child is possessed by a drug-induced insanity, she’s accompanied by a lumbering robot that wants to kill you, you’re in a ruined underwater city populated by people driven mad by genetic manipulation, and the entire story is about a society constructed along the principles of Ayn Rand.
Hope that helps. If not, play the game. BioShock rewards your humanity, plays with your loyalties, picks apart your character’s sanity. It’s a way of telling a story that some hesitate to call Art, because unlike Tolstoy, you can shoot fireballs from your hand. But for the kids who grew up controlling digital alter egos, it’s high literature — and was probably illegal for minors in California. Until the courts weighed in.
Late in June the Supremes struck down a California law that said it shall be illegal to sell, rent, describe, admit the existence of, or otherwise disseminate a violent video game to minors, even if they can join the Army after their birthday tomorrow and get a serious gun with actual bullets. The decision contained lots of solid eye-glazing constitutional folderol, most of which confounds parents who wonder why it shouldn’t be illegal to sell a ten-year-old StrangleFest Death Party. (But Mom! The controller vibrates to simulate the death throes of your victims! Timmy has it! Pleeeeeze!) Shouldn’t the Supreme Court take on real issues, like whether protected speech includes marching right down to the store that sold your kid the horrible game and giving them a piece of your mind?
Some on the right liked the pushback of a speech-regulating law; others worried about the kinder-kulture coarseness of shoot-’em-ups. Either way, you can’t say it was a glib decision: The Court noted that literature abounds with violence, citing some torture-porn from Homer. This might be relevant if kids were playing Homer simulators. But reading is not doing; watching is not doing. Games are kinetic entertainment activities, if you will. They’re spellbinding and immersive. There will always be those who see such statutes in the continuum of hapless prudery: Why, back in the 19th century, there were laws preventing an adult from describing a bout of fisticuffs with semaphore flags if there was a minor present. That comstockery was struck down by the courts, too. Same thing here. But not really.
Today’s games contain much more realistic depictions of ballistic perforations. “Realism,” however, is a shifting standard. In the mid-1990s, which is two geological ages ago in gamer terms, there was “controversy” over Doom, which now looks like you’re fighting off angry pieces of Lego. Duke Nukem provided a ration of hysteria when someone heard from someone else that the player could shoot strippers. Ink was spilled like blood in the last reel of a Peckinpah film, condemning this new low, but it missed the point. You could shoot anything in the game. If, however, you hit what we call in the post-Weiner era a “featured dancer,” you would be swarmed by policemen who had been mutated into bipedal hogs by space aliens, and you would die. It was the game’s way of establishing a moral code.
Yes, that sounds silly. You like to think that all your parenting instilled the “don’t shoot the strippers” lesson early on, if only by the behavior you modeled. But then a gamer of a certain age hears about games like Grand Theft Auto, which most disapproving press accounts describe as a sociopathic instruction kit on the best way to apply a tire iron to a streetwalker, and the gamer yearns for the old days when there were codes of honor.
Oh, for the simple Manichean duality of Pong! Then Pac-Man ruined everything by making us seek the fruit at the expense of our own safety. That’s when it all fell apart.
If games weren’t the primary daily entertainment option for millions of minor boys, it might not be an issue. But concern over a few bad games vilifies titles like L.A. Noire — you’re a cop in a Chandler world — or the sprawling western Red Dead Redemption. Not for the Pooh set, but if they’re off-limits to a 16-year-old, then so’s a Road Runner cartoon.
Basic kvetch: Does there have to be a law, for heaven’s sake? When you have a law that says kids can’t buy the game, but shall borrow a friend’s copy on the sly, then you get rulings that establish a minor’s free-speech right to Grand Theft Auto, which means you’ll have a kid sue his parents because they didn’t give him Chainsaw Bob Orphanage Fracas IV for Christmas. It’s not hard for parents to find out what a game’s about, thanks to this thing called “the Internet.” They might be alarmed to learn there’s also a popular game in which small children are encouraged to imprison creatures in cramped, dark spheres, letting them out only to battle in cockfights that often send one to the hospital. Michael Vick got put away for something like that.
The game goes by the name of Pokémon.
By the way, if you release the child in BioShock, you get all sorts of rewards. Never met a gamer who didn’t let the kid go.
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.