The Personal Demon

Doom was my first ultra-violent video game, as it was for many of my generation, but Doom wasn’t really about the violence. It was a horror story portrayed through an action lens, and looking back from our era of hyper-realistic military shooters, it was almost shockingly tame to have caused the stir it once did.

Really since the events in Connecticut last December, I’ve found myself thinking about violence far more than I ever have before. That’s not to say I’m connecting violent media to the events of that horrible day. I have no interest in the larger debate (if it can be called such a thing) about the influence of violent media on children — at least not from a legislative perspective.

But from a personal point of view, I am very cautious about exposing my children to most violent media, whether that be a television show, a video game, the nightly news or even a commercial. I don’t believe that, if they somehow get their hands on a Call of Duty, they will be predisposed somehow to commit some atrocity or lose their ability to empathize for others. No, the reason I make my choice — a choice I demand be left to my discretion as a parent — is that I simply want to let them live in their childhood world as long as they may. Someday they will be older, and it will be irresponsible of me to inhibit their understanding of a too-often unforgiving world, but my boys are still young and live in a world where magic is possible, where they feel safe in their own beds, and where someone cares enough to run interference between them and a world sometimes seemingly obsessed with tragedy and pain.

I make the personal choice about violence and exposure to violent content, one that does not impart an imperative on anyone else, because as I look back on the comparative innocence of Doom, I wish that I had lived longer in a world freer from horror and fury. You see, I believe that something precious is lost once you cross through the veil of a certain innocence to see what the world can really look like.

Innocence is a luxury. It is an illusion. It is in fact the very illusion itself, a fictitious word that is in the end only a lie. A lovely, loving lie we tell those that we think we might be able to protect.

I remember the day I feared that my son had been abducted. I remember a part of that fear and sadness was that all of of that carefully guarded innocence, all of that certainty and comfort of a knowable world populated by beneficent people, might be ripped from him in the worst possible way. We all lose our innocence; some lose it slowly and in manageable chunks over years, others in the time it takes a bullet to travel a handful of yards.

You see, I think violence and the way we deal with it are a very, very personal thing — a thing where there is no right answer, no universal solution, no one way to deal with it. Every year I find myself with less tolerance to violence as an entertainment medium, not because I have some kind of moral authority, but because it is an adversary against me and the illusion I try to weave. I understand that others can draw a clearer distinction between violent entertainment media and the truer horrors of the world, and their interest in a photo-realistic tale of horror and pain has no impact on their ability to empathize with those who suffer. Hell, I used to be able to do that. I have gleefully played some of the most violent games of all time, and slept easily that same night.

I can’t do that anymore. My relationship with entertainment and my threshold for casual violence have changed. I think part of that happened when I became a parent, only because I could hold something so fragile in my hands and feel the both wonderful and terrifying responsibility of being a shield against the world. At some point I would play one of these games or watch one of these movies that had previously been a comfortable abstraction, and unbidden to my mind would come the thoughts that connected these on-screen representations to something real. Once the connection bridge was built, it could not be undone, and over time I could not escape the idea that something horrible happening on screen had happened — and possibly at that very moment was happening — to someone.

It wasn’t that I felt that I was shaming someone’s memory or being callous by taking some kind of pleasure from something that in the real world would be horrible. It was more that I had less and less desire to live in virtual worlds that echo and remind me how cruel we can be to one another. I miss the innocence, or at least the illusion of innocence that I once carried. But there is nothing I can do to get it back.

The last solution I have is to let my own children keep their innocence as long as they may. The world will win eventually. It will break through this wisp of a wall I’ve built, and more than likely they will anxiously and voluntarily walk through to see what is on the other side. They will, in the end, likely be willing participants in deconstructing all of this useless smoke I’ve put in their way. They will play their first violent shooter. They will go see their first horror movie. They will find out in books, on the web and on the television what we are capable of doing to one another. And I will sit on the sidelines and watch as their eyes are opened, and I will try to guide them through to whatever understanding I can offer.

I dread it, frankly, because I know in the end that I am helpless. I’m as helpless as I felt on that horrible day when I feared all that innocence I had nurtured for nine years would be snuffed out. All I can do is feather the brakes and try to control the long, slow crash. I am angry at that fact, and that inevitability is mirrored to me in every torture porn film and every game that revels in shock violence as a pointless crutch to lazy storytelling. So my tolerance is diminished; my capacity for finding joy in those things, so much less than it had once been.

The fact is, how we interpret violence and how we deal with it are extraordinarily personal. It is shaped by the way we perceive the world and how we manage to live on it. It is an abstraction for some and a dagger through the heart for others. What we see within it may be nothing more than a ghost story told over a campfire, or it might be the catalyst for a hated memory. We can’t talk about violence within entertainment media in generalities, because it is not general. It is specific, and it is personal.

For me, though, it is an unwelcome guest who will eventually wedge a foot in the door and take that which I value most. So you will forgive me, if I am not on good terms with the monster who is to come.

Comments

This kinda reminds me of why I never started watching Game of Thrones on HBO. The heat wasn't working well that past winter, and my house was cold, and while the promos looked cool--no pun intended--I just didn't want to watch anything where 'winter was coming'.

Whenever I think about these issues, I always ask myself, "What would Fred Rogers do?" My daughter's just exiting the "appropriate age" for Mister Rogers, but I made sure she got a heaping helping when she was younger, and in so doing, I realized how profound and important (and easy to forget) those simple lessons are for everyone.

Anyway, I'm sure he wrote a lot more on the subject, but I found even the bits in this newspaper article illuminating: Mister Rogers Explaining Violence.

I wish I could find the TV show they're talking about.

Mr. Rogers' urban legends gone satirical, btw. See the comments:

http://www.factropolis.com/2006/11/f...

Fascinating, otares. Would you care to elaborate?

Who is even dumb enough to try and search for those terms?

I really enjoyed reading this article, but I'm also troubled by some of Sean's underlying assumptions here.

Some context first: I don’t have kids, but as a high school teacher I do spend an awful lot of time around them. I see the question of violence in the media from a different perspective—one that I’m readily willing to admit will probably change once I have kids of my own—because I see the negative effects that stem from parents romanticizing childhood, as I believe Sean does here.

A bit more context before I get to my example: I’m a 34-year-old white male who grew up in the ‘burbs. I firmly believe that this setting, along with some leftover notions about the blissful state of childhood as the end all and be all ideal of our lives (thanks to the cultural legacy of European Enlightenment poets), sets the stage for our misguided attempts to let our kids “keep their innocence as long as they may.”

I see this rationale as predicated upon a literal white-washing of history that is understandably uncomfortable for many parents to come to terms with, let alone explain to their children. Long story short: I understand your motivation, but as an educator I’m telling you that you’re not doing your kids any favors.

Take this example from a recent blog post, one that rings especially true for me as an English teacher. Just as this author does, I too see the desire to “shelter” children as ultimately destructive to their fundamental understanding of the world around them and one that’s largely built out of our own privilege. As a former marine myself, I think that Keithustus’s comment hit it on the nose:

“Only in the US and a few other places can we pretend that violence isn't an everyday part of life, and there's no predicting where any of us will go, so best to be prepared with a courteous smile and with a warrior ethos.”

I have a hard time separating this infatuation with the “innocence” of our children from what we now (thankfully) regard as the discredited notions of innocence that used to surround our ideas about sex or race. No one here would make the argument that white people are more favored in the eyes of God because our skin is pale, or that women who’ve had sex before marriage are somehow less pure than a virgin on her wedding night, so why is that we continue to disguise or conceal the realities of the world from children for fear of them losing their innocence?

As adults, I think we all appreciate the effort to foster in the next generation a level-headed approach to the world, sans rose-colored glasses and lofty notions of the past, but just as Sean said that violence in the media “is not general…It is specific, and it is personal,” so too are the boundaries we place between our kids and the world—as if there were, in fact, any real barrier between the two at all, besides the ones we erect in our minds. To echo the sentiments of many of the other people here, I believe that parents should have the right to decide when their children start to grapple with the harsh realities of life. However, I also believe that anyone who’s survived 7th or 8th grade has already seen more violence, humiliation, and degradation than any parent would be comfortable with.

Like Sean said:

“The world will win eventually. It will break through this wisp of a wall I’ve built, and more than likely they will anxiously and voluntarily walk through to see what is on the other side. They will, in the end, likely be willing participants in deconstructing all of this useless smoke I’ve put in their way.”

So my question is, if all that effort and “smoke” is useless, why put it up in our kids’ way in the first place? If, as a society, we’ve gotten past the place where we think dancing is a tool of witchcraft and that any woman who (gasp!) has sex before marriage is a whore, can’t we get past this idea that childhood is a sacred valley of ignorance?

Adjusting TV fare may affect child behavior.

A partisan, but somewhat "has a point" opinion: Why the AAP's latest and greatest studies are bullsh*t

Full disclosure: Most studies of this nature have an agenda and generally hide their weaknesses. This is not unique to AAP scientists. ALL scientists engage in this shell game to a greater or lesser degree. Yes, that includes me. I try not to, but I'm only human. If a useful rule of thumb is not to buy "alternative medicine" in Western markets, I would extend that to not buying anything that's "scientific" in media coverage. If you can't see the studies' limitations and weaknesses, they're useless to you at best.

My own opinion on this is that most of the Western cartoons (Tom and Jerry, Road Runner show, etc.) and material have a questionable ethos regarding violence and are incompatible or require a lot of interpretation for my own children and culture. The violence shown is often casual, cruel, even sadistic - and that's from the heroes!

Comparatively, I would have less problems showing my kids something like Samurai X or a game with a similar viewpoint of violence. For those not in the know, Samurai X is about a reformed assassin - Himura Kenshin who has sworn off using violence as a solution to his problems, but has a hard time tearing himself away from his violent past. While the show is bloody and occasionally quite violent, the violence is almost always treated seriously and never presented as a good solution. My friend often jokes that Kenshin unique in that he almost always talks his opponents into defeat. That's not actually too far off from what frequently happens.

Kenshin is often portrayed resisting using violence as a solution even when it appears that it's an easier way out. Villains believe that violence solves problems (and are often shown to be wrong). The overall message is that violence is not a solution to anything. At best, it's a last resort you use for self defense while you work on an alternative solution. Heroes generally voice hopes of not having to use their weapons even while they prepare their defenses.

Contrast this to something as apparently wholesome as The Transformers. While few characters actually die, even Optimus Prime doesn't hesitate to pull out his gun at the first opportunity and rarely seeks an alternative solution, even while their conflict with Decepticons endangers and presumably causes the deaths of innocent bystanders. Villains are not portrayed as simply mistaken, but Evil (with a capital E) to the core. It's easy to engage in Othering and see Megatron as better off dead. It's a deeply unsettling way of thinking, to me. I would not let any of my kids watch that without close supervision.

Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the lead author of the study:

The take-home message for parents is it’s not just about turning off the TV; it’s about changing the channel.

That's his way of saying, in effect: 'Don't worry parents, the tv will still your job if you are worthless people, but keep it on PBS.'

Keithustus wrote:

Only in the US and a few other places can we pretend that violence isn't an everyday part of life

Most parts of the US.

That said, even in rough neighborhoods and hard parts of the world, violence is a societal reality and hopefully not an intimate physical reality for children. There's a very delicate balance to manage between understanding that reality and giving one's family over to it. I think you and LarryC, among others, are doing a good job of trying to be careful about that.

Keithustus wrote:

That's his way of saying, in effect: 'Don't worry parents, the tv will still your job if you are worthless people, but keep it on PBS.'

Snide as that is, I can't think of a better surrogate parent than Fred Rogers (when he was alive).

I don't know if I can think of a better human being than Fred Rogers, though.

My son loved Halo at 4 years old, God help me. At 5 1/2 now, he is well versed in the lore of the Halo universe. He has the 2002 Joyride light-up Cortana figure as his bedroom night light and the new "Halo 4 Master Chief in Cryo Tube" toy right next to her. We taped a small mag flashlight to the Buzz Bee Halo Assault Rifle rip-off from a few years ago and he and I run around the house in the dark "shooting the flood," and he got the Halo 3 Plasma Pistol Laser Tag guns. He has all of the games cutscenes ripped to his iPad and watches them like another kid watches Dora cartoons. We regularly have Spartan action figures in Warthogs attacking his Thomas the Train Tidmouth Shed train station (because Sir Topham Hat is in league with the Brutes and the Convenant, and they're stealing Forerunner artifacts). We even listen to the Halo soundtracks in the car while driving (Halo gave him an appreciation for classical music... who knew?).

How did I let a 4 year old watch Halo? It started innocently enough. My wife had the flu for what seemed like days and days. I was running out of entertainment options, and since he loves cars, explosions and fast vehicles (we had played Cars 2 on Xbox for nearly 8 hours), I decided to show him the final level of Halo 3 where you're doing the warthog run across the exploding Halo ring. Well, silly me, I forgot I had to shoot my way past a few "floodies" (as he calls them). Well, they're just alien blobs, I figured. they're not real looking humans like Call of Duty.

He loved every moment of it. We must have done that part 6-7 times. He loved watching the cutscene ending too, and peppered me with questions about who the "worm head guy" was (the Arbiter). Who's the "blue mommy"? (Cortana). What's exploding? (the Halo ring). What's a Halo Ring? (well.... see, there were these ancient beings called Forerunners...) Are they like dinosaurs? (No).

This was the first time he had really shown an interest in ANYTHING I liked, since I had tried to show him some child-friendly Star Wars stuff but he showed no interest (I was so sad!). No interest in Star Wars LEGO either. So what did I do? Showed him more stuff. The double scarab fight at the end of Halo 3 and the Mongoose desert run, also in Halo 3. The "banshee level" in Assault on the Control room. The "tank" level in ODST. He loves Pelicans, Warthogs and any sort of vehicles (especially Ghosts).

I have been collecting Halo toys for years, and I opened the flood gates. It was like Christmas 2 that long March weekend in 2012. These were his first real "action figures" and I had a BLAST playing with him. ODSTs attacked brutes, gravity hammers sent Spartans flying, and banshees blew up warthogs.

My wife was surprisingly fine with it all since the game is shooting aliens, not people, and there is next to no swearing, except for the occasional word "crap" said by a marine alley if you have the IWHBYD skull on.

Maybe I've robbed him of some innocence, but he still loves playing Kirby's Epic Yarn and is still well behaved. I enjoy sharing Halo with him, and while I was worried at first, I think it will turn out okay.

We regularly have Spartan action figures in Warthogs attacking his Thomas the Train Tidmouth Shed train station (because Sir Topham Hat is in league with the Brutes and the Convenant, and they're stealing Forerunner artifacts). We even listen to the Halo soundtracks in the car while driving (Halo gave him an appreciation for classical music... who knew?).

This is where I struggle, because that is both awesome and fantastically reminiscent of the way I played as a kid. ("Bazooka and He-Man are going to take out those cars, because they're the evil Hot Wheels.")

Wordsmythe what an awesome story. I wouldn't change a thing if I were you.

I will say I was lucky. When my kids were at that impressionable age it was the era of PSX and N64, and we had an N64. In the years since then I have seen most of the 3D platformer and mascot games fade away and shooters become the predominant game type of this generation. How could my kids not have a healthy and innocent love of gaming with Mario64, Banjo Kazooie, and Tony Hawk as their go-to games?

MrMetonymy I would say we just have to keep some sort of bubble of childhood in existence for the innocence of the heart to flourish. I don't want an entire Earth of trained warriors, like a global Sparta. Diplomats, healers, lovers, artists--all of them are nourished by a world that can at times transcend brutality. The dream of a world of human love and cooperation is born from a mother's first embrace with her child.

We in America have lived in an America where this innocence was taken too soon: where children worked 12 hour days right beside their parents before labor reform was introduced to our nation. There was a reason our high school teachers had us read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

As pointed out, in much of the world, this is in fact currently the case, in much more horrible ways, as young women in all parts of the world are pressed into sexual slavery, and young men without the ability to read are pressed into brutal military service for long-held grudges of old men.

Readiness for a world of brutality implies compliance with a world of brutality. Guns are purchased to protect from violence in my country, yet statistically bring a much greater risk of violent death. With respawn a button-press away, how many games bother to posit the question "what is there worth dying for?"

Gaming could be doing better, about providing a richer variety of experience. This is part of the reason my whole family, not just me, has a soft spot for Nintendo. Not just me. And part of the reason we will probably get a WiiU with our tax return.

Even though another part of the reason is that my daughter wants to play ZombiU.

Draco wrote:

This was the first time he had really shown an interest in ANYTHING I liked, since I had tried to show him some child-friendly Star Wars stuff but he showed no interest (I was so sad!). No interest in Star Wars LEGO either. So what did I do? Showed him more stuff.

I suspect that his interest is dependent on your observable reaction to a game, that he can see you invested in Halo and that when you showed him LEGO Star Wars he sensed that he was being, in effect, condescended to. "Try this, it's fun. So much so that I'm going to play something else."

Draco wrote:

Maybe I've robbed him of some innocence, but he still loves playing Kirby's Epic Yarn and is still well behaved. I enjoy sharing Halo with him, and while I was worried at first, I think it will turn out okay.

Snippy response: whew, close call! Most of the other kids I've heard about playing Kirby's Epic Yarn have become psycho killers.

True response: it's not the one or two games or gaming periods that I think people worry about. Instead, it's a fascination with weaponry, sadism, and/or violence that grows unnaturally powerful in some kids, likely over years of exposure and without parental contextualization.

In other words, there's nothing wrong with action figure cut-scene play acting or enjoying a universe--just as I did as a kid and predict that you did too--until a kid believes it's okay to use those behaviors to deliver pain onto pets and/or other kids. When the shooting/killing becomes the entertainment, the kid is no longer enjoying the games' worlds.

Imbarkus,

It's hard for me to feel like anything other than a huge jerk trying to argue against your point, which reads like the heartfelt and genuine concerns of a father who's simply trying to give his kids the best childhood he can. I can't fault you for any of this, but what I was trying to say in my previous post is that this very natural and completely understandable drive to shield our kids from violence in the media can sometimes have unintended consequences that, I believe, can actually be more harmful to them in their later lives than the violent media itself is when they're young.

I can sympathize with the idea that "Readiness for a world of brutality implies compliance with a world of brutality," but I can't subscribe to it. I think you're absolutely right to say that things we value in life, diplomacy, love, art, etc., can only flourish in the absence of violence; however, I also believe that championing the former without acknowledging the existence of the latter can lead to a lopsided worldview that neither takes genuine human motivations into account, nor allows for an honest appraisal of--and strong warning against--the horrors that humanity is capable of inflicting upon itself.

But this argument exists along a spectrum, not as a simple binary choice. I would never advocate, say, making a child play through the "No Russian" mission in order to "toughen him or her up," or some other such nonsense. If that's the extreme on one end, then I would also think that not allowing them to play anything more violent than Kirby's Epic Yarn is also doing kids a disservice in a less obvious, if perhaps more well meaning, way.

The crux of this issue lies your words:

"We in America have lived in an America where this innocence was taken too soon: where children worked 12 hour days right beside their parents before labor reform was introduced to our nation. There was a reason our high school teachers had us read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

There are only a handful of people left on this planet that actually have lived in that America; for the rest of us, there is only "The Jungle," and other books like it, to explain the nightmares of our ancestors' day-to-day existence in terms we will remember and, hopefully, never repeat.

What happens when a parent decides that "The Jungle" is too upsetting for their son or daughter read? Where else will that child be exposed to those ideas in so visceral a fashion that they will retain that memory into their adult lives, when they need to be reminded of it so that they're not lulled into repeating it by lawmakers who ought to know better?

Now, I'm not trying to equate Call of Duty with classic literature, but I do think that by denying a child access to the former it becomes easier to rationalize denying access to the latter.

Deciding whether or not some bit of media that your child is clamoring for is appropriate or possibly harmful for them has got to be one of the hardest decisions modern parents have to make. I'm glad that I don't have to make those decisions (yet). All I would ask is that parents consider the idea that censorship, at any age, is a double-edged sword.

I would say that not only is readiness for a world of brutality not compliance to brutality, but the strongest love, art, and diplomacy can conquer violence. The idea of "shielding innocence from violence," is based on the assumption that violence is supreme and unbeatable; the ultimate arbiter of every significant conflict.

If you truly believed that love conquers all, then violence and readiness to love in the face of it should not be an issue.

IMAGE(http://gelsantosrelos.typepad.com/.a/6a0128775b3615970c01310f4b1885970c-800wi)

wait, has anyone brought up DOOM: Repercussions of Evil yet? Is that where the title comes from, from the lines:

John was a space marine for fourteen years. When he was young he watched the spaceships and he said to dad “I want to be on the ships daddy.”
Dad said “No! You will BE KILL BY DEMONS”
momgamer wrote:

Every time the topic of media violence comes up, everyone seems to assume the case for limiting exposure is all about the God-bothering or censorship. No one ever points out that there are other reasons to pace your child's access to things, or for a grown-up to make the choice to avoid those things for themselves.

not everyone

Re-reading the OP and looking at the dialog that has followed in the comments, I don't think kids actually learn what the world is "really like" from, say, video games with violent content.

I think sometimes we project our own damage as adults onto children. We assume that if something affects us in a certain way, it must affect them even more strongly because they are weaker. I don't think that's always the case, especially when it comes to feats of imagination. and Chicken Pox, I guess. Their "connection bridge" as the author puts it isn't necessarily built.

I do think there is an innocence there that goes away once they 'play their first violent shooter or they go see their first horror movie'. However, that's a different loss of innocence than when 'they find out in books, on the web and on the television what we are capable of doing to one another'.

I feel like the two kinds of losses of innocence are being muddled together. I don't think a violent shooter or a horror movie (usually) involves learning about the evil that is out there in the world. It involves learning about aggression and fear maybe, but that's different from learning what the 'real world' is like.

Maybe it's along the lines of why I argue that participation awards are not a bad thing. Why not let kids retain the innocence that comes before they really grasp how competition divides us into winners and losers?

tl;dr: innocence isn't an all-or-nothing thing. There are all kinds of stages of losing the different kinds of innocence. And while some will be lost to 'bad things' like learning about evil in the 'real world', some will be lost to good things like learning about love.

I'm not sure we should be so quick to lump the loss of innocence that comes with violent or scary content in with the loss of innocence that comes with learning about the evil we do to each other; on the other hand, I don't see anything wrong--on in most cases harmful--about wanting to give kids as much time in each stage of innocence as possible.

I grew up in an environment of isolation and real life violence. I would have done just about anything to make certain my children didn't grow up in that sort of situation. But I wasn't going to just step out and not be their parent because I was too afraid of accidentally copying what I see as the mistakes of my own upbringing. It was a struggle to find appropriate models to work with. But I did. I know it wasn't even close to perfect; I know I made mistakes. But I can safely say they weren't the mistakes my parents made, and they don't bear much resemblance to the mistakes I've seen made by my kids' peers parents all around me as they were growing up. And my gang is old enough and transitioned enough into their own adult lives that I feel comfortable enough to say that it worked for us.

Cheese, if I'm reading you correctly, we agree with each other at least in part. There is a middle ground here. You don't lock them in a box, but you don't just throw them over the side of the boat, either. You protect them until they've got the base skills to learn, help them learn the skills to cope by having them practice on metered amounts while slowly stepping back and supporting them as they learn and grow, and then when they're grown they cope just fine.

Where those lines are drawn and how to structure that progression is different for every child, and each parent is going to have to make those choices based on knowing their child. The child and the parent and the world all change during the course of the run. There is no absolute answer, and absolute perfection of whatever you choose isn't necessary either. Children are not robots, and the issues that are being addressed here aren't managed by binary switches. You do the best you can, work with them, and everyone will be all right.

momgamer wrote:

Cheese, if I'm reading you correctly, we agree with each other at least in part.

We are, and it's something that bothers me at least in part the same way it bothers you. I agree that people incorrectly assume just because something is inappropriate for children, that's always moral judgement about it, or at least an assertion that it will cause long-term damage. I often stick up for the rights of children when it comes to the importance of their short-term enjoyment, and the flip side of that is concern with their short-term discomfort, too.

Besides, the most disturbing thing I ever saw growing up wasn't violence or even horror:

European men in leotards are scary to everyone, regardless of age.

Actually, as a kid, what I think bothered me most was not the beginning of Robocop or any of the Poltergeist films but the transformation scene in Willow. I had nightmares about being turned into a pig for weeks!

I played Nintendo games with my kids. Allowed them to Play DOOM, Wolfenstein and Descent when these came out. Neither of them had nightmares or developed overt aggressive notions or any of that ilk. The games were fun and challenging to them.

It's too easy for politicians to point to violent video games as a "cause" then fix a more serious mental health/drug issue.