On December 14, 2012, a psychopath walked into a classroom with an assault rifle and two pistols and opened fired on children for no particular reason -- as though there could possibly be one.
A culture that allows this to happen is clearly a culture that needs some help. And thankfully, it would get that help less than one month later. On January 11, 2013, the vice president of the United States of America sat down to tackle this problem, to take the issue head on, to hash out the role that guns have in today's society ... with a bunch of video game designers.
Win McNamee / Getty
"Crap. Did I get high before work again? I can't remember; I'm too high."
Instead of admitting that he got lost on the way to the real conference room, which contained key members of the NRA, child psychologists, and mental health professionals, Biden made like a 10-year-old crashing his bike, and told everybody he "meant to do that."
He seems to think that one of the very first steps in addressing America's plague of school shootings is finally cracking down on our video games. Jesus, could he be any more out of touch? That's like sitting down with television executives to talk about cigarettes.
No, it's like politicians going after the music industry for violent lyri-
Shit. That one happened too, huh?
"I've brought Mr. Hancock here today to talk about his violently sick piano riffs and what they're doing to our children ..."
The simple fact of the matter is: There is a strong precedent for this kind of reaction. When it comes time to tackle tough issues in the wake of unimaginable tragedies, politicians are at just as much of a loss as we are. But it's their job to act, so they start throwing wild swings, hoping they're going to hit the right target but too scared to open their eyes to see where the punches land. And while Biden's talks with video game designers are certainly tangential, and maybe demonstrate some skewed priorities...he ain't wrong.
We gamers make it seem like Biden is somebody's drunken uncle, setting out to explain the birds and the bees once and for all, and then 15 minutes later he's rambling about Vietnam and how they don't build cars like they used to. When the truth is, while Biden's not exactly hitting the nail on the head, he's at least swinging at the right board: The thing gamers absolutely hate to admit is that modern games probably do have some connection to gun violence. It's just a matter of correlation, not causation.
"Yeah! Causalate the shit out of those invading Correlations!"
Listen: You can't say games are causing the violence. Nobody was gunning down punch-card terrorists on their local laboratory's Computomograph the day before Fullerton. Oswald didn't train to shoot Kennedy by hunting down frightened Pong balls. Yes, we are playing increasingly graphic and violent video games, and yes, there is something kind of disturbing about that fact -- but the far bigger issue here is a pretty basic one that I haven't seen anybody in mainstream media discussing:
Americans are, and always have been, an incredibly violent society.
The first school shooting in this country happened before there was a country. We've spent the vast majority of our national history involved in active, bloody wars. We won our independence with gun violence; we stayed a nation with gun violence; we helped stave off worldwide genocide with gun violence. Gun violence has, generally speaking, been working out pretty spiffy for us. The vast bulk of our movies, television shows, and, yes, video games revolve around praising gun violence. And we're all writing, approving, designing, and buying these things, then turning around and looking at the finished product like we've just discovered a rabid animal in our bathroom. Everybody is standing there aghast, wondering which of our media caused all of this violent thinking; nobody's asking why we made them all in the first place.
"Becky, don't panic, and don't turn around: Call of Duty is right ... behind ... you!"
I can take a guess at the answer, but it's going to sound really stupid. I'm sure this will wind up on a Tapout shirt or atop a '69 Charger somewhere, right next to the hand-painted confederate flag -- but there is a grain of truth to it:
We're a nation of warriors, and most of us don't have a war.
Ask anybody -- go down to Whole Foods and dive-tackle the most liberal-looking person you can find (Hint: Look for earplugs). Put that sucker in a headlock and only release him if he answers the following question truthfully: What do you think of the troops? Just before he passes out, he'll choke out one word: heroes.
The troops are heroes. They protect our freedom. They're making the great sacrifices so we don't have to.
Of course that's all true, and like hell am I going to say otherwise. But we as a society worship our soldiers as icons, the pinnacles of noble sacrifice, and what is their single identifying trait? Guns. Violence. We're not wrong to praise and respect our soldiers, but in idolizing them, of course we end up wanting to emulate them.
"I wish I were a battle-hardened soldier," thinks the frustrated barista, as disgruntled customers whip room temperature coffee in his face -- not because he wants to shoot people, necessarily, but because soldiers hold the highest societal value to us. His life would have more meaning if he were in the heat of battle instead of crying in a Starbucks bathroom on his breaks.
"Can you get PTSD from the lunch rush?"
We place almost as much value on our doctors, and they, too, save lives, but when it comes time for fantasy, who do we cast ourselves as? When that asshole in front of you in line at the movie theater starts shoving people around, do you imagine knocking his lights out, or rushing up to tend to the victims? Hey, maybe you fantasize about both -- but what's the order? We're punchers first and healers second. Because, like it or not, that's our subconscious archetype of the word "hero": somebody who solves problems with righteous violence.
That's what video games are: They are emulators for the systemic violence inherent in our culture. They allow us to hurt a lot of people, to feel that we are effective problem solvers and prolific distributors of sacred punches, all without actually harming anybody. Yes, that's pretty fucking sick. But so are human beings in general. Video games are just a symptom, not a cause. The cause is that basic, nasty little idea: "Heroes hurt bad guys."
That's the problem.
That's the idea that gets twisted. Who the villains and the heroes are is a malleable concept: Everybody's the protagonist in the story in their head, or at least the relatable antihero. If they're not Die Hard, butchering terrorists for freedom, then they're the Count of Monte Cristo, doing awful things but for perfectly valid reasons. The roles are flexible, but the way they deal with one another is not. It's violence. And violence escalates. Somebody shoves you, so you throw a punch. When your back is turned, they throw a rock. You retaliate with a board; they come back with a knife. You come back with a gun, and they -- oh hey! Looks like that confrontation is over. You don't come back anymore when the gun comes out.
"Ah! I see that you have a firearm. I shall be on my way. My apologies, and good day, sir!"
So confrontations are most easily solved with violence, violence escalates, and right now, guns are at the top of the escalator - all waiting to shoot folks in a nice neat little assembly line. The solution seems obvious: Why don't we just ban guns? Shit, that was easy. Right?
Well, no: Guns are only the easiest of the final solutions. Bombs are harder, more technical, and less certain. But ban guns, and you'll find bombs will have taken their place. People love to point out that most other First World nations have a near blanket ban on guns, and their murder rates are so far below America's that you need to lean way back from the chart just to see both of our relative positions.
But that's supposing that America is like other First World nations. We're not. Break those murder statistics down and you'll see that the vast majority of them are gun crimes, but not all. Americans murder with everything -- with cars, with knives, with frozen fish -- whatever's at hand, we'll kill a motherfucker with it, because he needed killing and we're a nation of go-getters.
"Give me 23 licks and yes, I could kill a man with that."
So if the problem isn't our video games or our media, but rather the stories and the roles we idolize, how do we address something so abstract? Well, we can start by consciously thinking about the ways that we teach children moral lessons. No more conventional heroes -- no more knights slaying dragons with swords, or gunslingers dueling at high noon, or martial artists split-kicking time-ninjas in their underwear. Our heroes need to start solving problems with polite but firm discussion and careful planning.
In short: We need to start becoming a bunch of pussies.
Our blockbusters need to be more Frost/Nixon and less Taken. Our games need to be more The Sims and less Call of Duty. Our TV shows need to be more The Bachelor and less Boardwalk Empire.
What if, instead of embarking on a bitter, violent rivalry fueled by greed, they just kissed right now?
No? You're not on board with that?
All right then, I guess we as gamers have only one recourse: We stop denying our role in the larger problem of gun violence altogether. Nobody's buying it anyway. You can spout studies and statistics all you want, and your debate partner will turn around and see a 10-year-old in his living room mowing down a village full of Arabs with a technically accurate machine gun, proudly rattling off the virtues of its fire rate and reload times. Gamers look ridiculous when we flail about, trying to deny that a fourth grader who understands the benefits of burst fire and knows to hold his breath while sniping is a bit disconcerting. Just like movie-goers look ridiculous if they say James Bond movies portray a pistol as anything other than an excellent solution to the problem of people who are in James Bond's fucking way. Just like music fans look ridiculous when they insist that all the gang violence glorified in giant, flashy colors in every other rap video has no effect on the children watching them.
"... said put your fuckin' Wingulls in the sky, it's a Pokemon drive-by."
Our collective response, as gamers, to the accusation that video games have some connection to real violence should not be: "Nuh uh!"
We need to cop to it, and start thinking of ways to mitigate the consequences.
The first course of action is easy: Don't let the kids see it. Kids are impressionable, and they probably shouldn't be playing violent video games. But we tried that -- we have ratings on all games already, just like every other piece of media. It's just that nobody is really enforcing ours.
The second course of action is much harder: We band together as a people and look to whatever little kernel of callous anger is germinating inside of most Americans, then figure out a way to address it that doesn't involve blowing away Germans on top of a skyscraper.
And shit, we're Americans: Let's be lazy!
I'm sorry to have to twist your arms like this ...
Let's just start enforcing those goddamn age ratings. You see a kid buying Battlefield 3 at GameStop, you remind the clerk that it's out of his age rating. If you are that clerk and you see a bleary-eyed parent shoveling games at his kid without thinking, you stop and point out that it's rated "M" for "Mother of God! They're raping everybody up in here!" You hear a 12-year-old trash talking on Call of Duty multiplayer, you report him -- not because he called you a "fagmobile," but because he's too young to be playing that game. If that's not an option for a complaint, let's make it one. Why isn't this the immediate course of action every gamer on the planet recommends? Why are we having any other discussion? The solution here is not to fight about whether or not kids should be playing violent video games -- shifting and shunting blame never helps in any situation. The solution is to immediately admit fault and correct it: "Yep, you're probably right, in a very weird, roundabout way. Let's make sure kids don't play those games anymore."
And that's it. That's the first step to addressing a major cultural problem that is quickly getting out of hand, and possibly helping to prevent more impossibly awful, incomprehensible tragedies in our nation's future.
And if Xbox Live becomes usable again as a side effect, well, that's just fins on the ol' fagmobile, isn't it?
Buy Robert's stunning, transcendental, orgasmic science fiction novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here. Or buy Robert's other (pretty OK) book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.