Maybe the violence is good.
1985. I'm 18 years old. I'm in college. I'm a member of my local Tae Kwon Do gym. Three to five nights a week, you can find me there, taking classes, sparring, lifting. To be clear: I suck. But I love every minute of it. I love the contact. I love the discipline. I love how I feel now that I've taken off the weight. Of course, I can't afford it. I can't possibly afford it. So when the opportunity comes to make a little extra cash to cover my classes, I take it. The gig?
For two to three hours on occasional Thursday nights, I walk into a darkened room filled with women. I walk up behind one. I talk dirty to her. I reach for her shoulder.
And she turns around and beats the ever loving crap out of me. 60 seconds later, I'm on the floor, covering my head. The blows to my face are crippling, and she finishes me off by dropping her elbow into my left temple.
The "take back the night" classes seem like a win/win situation. I make a little, and I give a little. The college town was home to some close calls and some outright attacks, and while the police and pathetic small-town justice system somehow failed to engage in the public castrations I feel appropriate, other folks in the community work to fight back. I think the big red suit would be fun.
I'm wrong. It's one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. The instructors -- a couple -- work hard to create an emotionally safe space for the women training, train them well, and then put them in the most realistic conflict situation they can create. They turn the lights out. They disorient the victim. Then I walk in, approach them from the rear, and put on a character. A vile, disgusting character.
It was intensely emotional, for me and for them. I know they cried. I know I cried. In these kinds of classes there's usually a decompression period at the end, where the red-suit-guy comes back in without the suit. There's a chance to be face-to-face and say "hey, I'm not a rapist" and for them to say "no, you're not, but thank you for pretending." Unfortunately, these classes -- as helpful as I hope they were -- were put on by amateurs; they didn't have the closure bit.
This is a case where real violence means something. Believe me, it was real violence. For many women, the experience was overwhelming, and they reacted exactly as they should: with blind, unthinking, murderous rage, fueling a few key actions guided solely by muscle memory. I hope they left understanding that they were far from powerless, and just a tiny bit more skill to bring to their defense. I was viciously beaten, but as real as the violence was, I never got hurt.
By contrast, my Thursday night sparing sessions were far from real. Largely the domain of a certain kind of lanky, antisocial macho, during that "light contact" sparring I broke my nose (several times), broke ribs (once, but 3 of them), twisted a thumb that still hurts, and took innumerable stunning blows to the head that knocked me on my ass. But this "fake" violence was largely without purpose. It was a game -- as far removed from the vicious instep-stomping, eye-raking, palm-to-the-nose with a side of knee-to-the-groin as paper airplanes are from stealth bombers.
The real violence came from a place of hatred, anger, and self defense. It was a good and powerful thing, where no bones were broken. The pretend violence had no moral context, and yet more often than not I walked away in physical pain.
I don't do either of these anymore. But I do play games.
In the virtual world, I'm a mass murderer and an indefatigable zombie. Thousands fall beneath my weapons. I rise from the grave ten times more. My entertainment hours are soaked in the blood of the make-believe.
But in this last week, over a billion people have evaporated at my command. A week I spent playing Defcon. In the ongoing debate about the desensitization and dehumanization that is supposedly wrought by violent media on our young, Defcon is the apagogical argument. There simply cannot be a more violent game. If we are nothing but what the media makes us, then Defcon should be quarantined, its bits scrambled, and the designers publicly executed during a prime time TV commercial break.
Instead, I think the game should be required in every highschool history class. Its influence is subtle. It forces you to make choices that are all bad. There is no reveling in glory. There is only the dissociative reality of the blue glow, the somber music, and the flashes of white. I admit that in a rousing teamspeak game of Defcon I am not drawn into bouts of real-time reflection. But on closing down the game for the night, I find myself oddly thoughtful: sad, reflective, a bit fragile. But not upset, and not wanting to wipe the game off my hard drive.
Violence in games can teach us things. It can reach us in ways beyond mere titillation. It's all about context. My days in the red suit had a very different context than my Thursday night sparring. America's Army has a very different context than Unreal Tournament. Defcon has a very different context than StarCraft. At some level, all of it can be fun and rewarding. But for me, I think context is more important than I've given it credit for in the past.
2006. I say my good byes on teamspeak. My cursor lingers over the top-right corner of the dark blue window that has been my evaporating world this evening. It's been a good few hours in the aging Aeron chair, but I'm drained, spent. I click and the world blinks out. I will be back. It's a brilliant game. It's made me think.
I turn off the screen, walk up the stairs. The first floor is dark. My wife's left a light on in the kitchen. The grey mumbling of the refrigerator stops, and it is silent. Silence that goes through merely quiet and comes out the other side. I pause for a second, turn off the kitchen light and make the trip up the next flight of stairs by feel.
At the landing, I turn to the left, into my daughter's room, glowing with blue from of her night-light. She's fast asleep, mouth hung open, body limp, legs hanging out of the bed. As I tuck her back in, she barely stirs. I stare at her perfection for just a second longer.
God keep you safe little girl.