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Put Down the Controller!

by James Lileks

We need to have a national conversation about national conversations. There aren’t any guidelines. Do arguments in our heads with people who have different opinions count? Does “conversation” actually mean “shut up and listen to some guy paraphrase a New York Times editorial”?

Once that’s settled, we need a national conversation about violent video games. Specifically, the alarming rise of high-tech assault game-controllers. The Framers did not intend for the Second Amendment to cover today’s controllers; they were used to games like chess and checkers. Today’s controllers can fire a burst of fire from inexhaustible magazines by the simple holding down of a button; military-style joysticks — similar to those used to control drones — can be used to kick fictional martial-arts opponents hundreds of times without stopping for new batteries.

I’m not saying we should ban them, but for the sake of interchangeable enemy minions in modern games, what sensible person would oppose reasonable Control control that limits the player to ten shots, then locks up for a minute?

That’s ridiculous, you say. These games have no effect on people’s behavior. Oh. Really. Violent video games are quite handy for honing murder-skills. I’ve been playing the zombie levels of Call of Duty — sorry, the Nazi zombie levels. You can argue the ethics of shooting zombies, I suppose; being dead does make them disadvantaged, and as the president might say, let’s spread the brains around. But they are Nazi zombies, which gives the game a thin sheen of just-war approval.

I have learned much about Nazi-zombie combat from the game. I know that I will be able to get points for each one I shoot, and like the old S&H Green Stamps of yore they can be exchanged for more powerful weapons that are hanging on the wall but cannot be dislodged without points. If I have enough points, I can buy a potion that brings me back from the dead, and if I ever see that potion-dispenser in real life I am stocking up.

The zombie levels are a break from “realistic” levels in Call of Duty, one of which concerned infiltrating a Soviet rocket base, overcoming 5,000-to-1 odds, auto-healing from repeated gunshots by crouching behind a desk until I felt better, then bringing down an enormous spacecraft with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher after I’d died six times. I can’t remember if this was before or after I single-handedly repelled the Tet Offensive.

Oh, but what about that other game? The really bad one someone mentioned on TV? Grand Mal Auto, or something, a bunch of kids got seizures. Well, I played one of the “Grand Theft” games out of curiosity, and wasn’t charmed, possibly because my inner moral compass has trouble pointing in the “carjacking sociopath” direction. Even if I’d liked it, I would not have stolen cars. After Pac-Man came out no one spent weeks running down dark hallways looking for fruit. Pong did not noticeably increase participation in racquetball. Angry Birds does not depersonalize pigs into an evil “other,” thus giving us subconscious justification for eating bacon.

Since these games contain preposterous, unrealistic violence, they have attracted the attention of preposterous, unrealistic people. Like Connecticut state representative DebraLee Hovey, who wants to tax violent games. She told NBC News: “I think that putting a sin tax — and in my mind this is a sin tax — on the M-rated video games . . . will cause people to think about what they are actually purchasing.”

Yes, because there’s nothing like a price jump to tell someone that Bonesaw Mayhem might not consist of helping pink ponies make cupcakes. The emphasis on sin is quite revealing: Playing games that simulate combat against Commies or Nazis or cyborg invaders from the planet Strogg is a sin. A vice, like smoking or drinking or eating foie gras or buying sodas in a non-mayoral-approved quantity. Vices. Actual sins are just lifestyle choices.

This makes as much sense as taxing dog collars because the Son of Sam thought a neighbor’s pooch told him to kill. The money, of course, would be used to fund “a campaign” to “educate families,” because if there’s anything that opens the eyes of a parent whose son stays up until three with the sound of constant gunfire coming from behind his locked door, it’s a PSA that Dad glimpses briefly while fast-forwarding through the commercials.

Hovey is a Republican, by the way. As is Missouri state representative Diane Franklin, who wants a 1 percent tax on video games. You hate to draw lines that disqualify people from calling themselves Republicans, but if someone in the party says “I would like to raise taxes and use the money for instructional campaigns” he should be informed of the existence of another party, one whose members would lean forward and say “Do tell. I mean, you had me at ‘raise taxes,’ but go on.”

But let’s say the tax is passed. Shouldn’t a portion go towards Nerf Awareness? The New York Times reported on modern parents whose tummies suffer a pretzel-twist of anxiety when their little boys want Nerf guns. On one hand, they’re guns. On the other hand, it’s Nerf. The guns fire foam pellets whose lethality is confined to soap bubbles.

Perhaps a tax on Nerf ammo, so people will think about what they are purchasing? An Awareness campaign about working conditions in Chinese foam factories? Better yet, a national conversation about the difference between fantasy and reality?

Providing we can all agree on which is which. I think I can tell, but I’m probably living in a fantasy world. Really.

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