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.