Magazine | July 18, 2011, Issue

To Save the Dead-Eyed Child?

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.

#page#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

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Mad as Hell

The vicissitudes of the marketplace are, as everyone knows, not easily calculable. Who, for example, would have foreseen that a pamphlet written by a 93-year-old man, and published by a ...


Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Cruel, Cruel Summer

When Christopher Nolan’s Inception made a fortune at the box office last summer, while the usual lineup of sequels, remakes, reboots, and superhero vehicles failed to live up to expectations, ...
The Straggler

Ex Libris

Miss Straggler, just graduated from high school and with time on her hands, came home the other day with two boxes of secondhand books on the back seat of the ...


Politics & Policy


Mystery Mnemonic In his column in the June 6 issue, Richard Brookhiser mentions what he says is a mnemonic: “Some men have many stones, but we have lots of hair.” Please, ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Rich Lowry’s wedding to Vanessa Palo went off without a hitch, and the two are now on honeymoon. So the trend of beautiful young brides jilting old magazine editors ...
The Long View

For AARP Strategy Group Only

  CLOSE HOLD DOCUMENT Focus Group Results AARP Medicare and Entitlement Reform Messaging Strategy Present: MODERATOR MALE, AGE 19 MALE, AGE 22 MALE, AGE 27 FEMALE, AGE 8 FEMALE, AGE 25 FEMALE, AGE 29 MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, and thanks for coming. As ...
Politics & Policy


BLUE SKIES, 8:46 That I can safely watch them safely graze Might seem like little. Still, it feels like much Beside this fenced-in field this day of days. The distant bay and — close ...
Happy Warrior

Debtor Demographics

The other day, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank, fled the country. The only wonder is that there aren’t more fleeing. Not Afghans; central bankers. I mean, ...

Most Popular


Ezra Klein’s Intellectual Demagoguery

Ezra Klein wants you to know that he doesn’t think Sam Harris is a racist. “I’m not here to say you’re racist, I don’t think you are,” Klein explains in a two-hour debate with Harris on the latter’s podcast, Waking Up. “We have not called you one.” No, not at all. Klein is telling the truth ... Read More

The Scholarship/Activism Balance — A Rejoinder

The Martin Center recently published an article by sociology professor Fabio Rojas, in which he argued that professors should maintain the right balance between their teaching and scholarship on the one hand, and activism on the other. In today's article, the Center's Jay Schalin pushes back somewhat. Schalin ... Read More

The Book Comey Wanted to Write

Making the click-through worthwhile: the book James Comey had wanted to write, Facebook starts to feel useless to some writers, an infamous D.C. city councilman manages to make everything worse, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign finds its wish granted. What Did James Comey’s First Draft of A Higher ... Read More
Film & TV

Pro-Life Feminist

My paisana at the Human Life Review are hosting an event in NYC on Thursday, May 3, at the Sheen Center (18 Bleeker Street) for the airing of director Jim Hanon’s half-hour documentary, Pro-Life Feminist. After the viewing, he’ll join the trio of castmates -- Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, Aimee Murphy, and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Good News for Pompeo

Looks like he's in, as he should be. But this fight has been a hint of what life will be like for Trump if the Democrats somehow take the Senate -- they'd refuse to confirm anyone for anything. Read More