A History of Violence

July 8, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that kids have the right to buy violent video games. It’s not that I have anything against video games, violent or not, and I know there’s a lot of debate about the effect of video games even on adults. Maybe violent games are desensitizing, or maybe some people, after a hard day at work, like to come home and pop Resident Evil into their Playstation and spend a little time blowing away zombies with a virtual arsenal, and find it a healthier way to relieve stress than going back to work and blowing away coworkers with a real arsenal. Or maybe it’s just pure entertainment because, honestly, if you even think about really shooting people and use a video game as an outlet you should probably get professional help. And I do have to wonder about the reasoning behind the ruling. Video games have their own rating system, which was created and instituted voluntarily by video game makers. Just like with movies. The difference is that an eight-year old can’t go see Six Characters In Search Of Severed Limbs IV without being accompanied by a parent or guardian, or someone who’s old enough to pass as a parent or guardian, but apparently it’s a eight-year old’s right to be able to buy a copy of Skull Severer. I couldn’t see Alien in the theater when I was eight because it was an R-rated film. My parents wouldn’t take me and even if I could get to the theater by myself no one at the box office would see me a ticket because at eight I could, at best, pass for nine, and even then only if I was wearing platform shoes. You may have noticed that R-rated films always say “Under 17 not allowed without parent or guardian”, but I live in an area where theater owners actually decided that you had to be eighteen to see R-rated films no matter that the MPAA said. It was easier for me to get cigarettes and alcohol when I was seventeen than it was to get in to see The Seventh Sign. Cigarettes were available from vending machines, and to get alcohol all I had to do is walk into a gas station minimart and say, “Let me have a Three Musketeers, and a ball point pen, and one of those combs there, a pint of Old Harper, a couple of flash light batteries and some beef jerky." Okay, technically it wasn’t that easy. I had to put on a mascara moustache and some platform shoes in order to get a couple of six-packs of wine coolers for myself and my friends so we could all discover that, even though we shouldn’t have been drinking alcohol in the first place, two wine coolers apiece didn’t do much more than get us in trouble, but that’s another story. In spite of the local theater owners’ adherence to a standard that went even further than the MPAA’s rules I don’t remember anyone going to the Supreme Court to defend my right to get into R-rated films.

And also at that age I couldn’t buy violent video games for the simple reason that violent video games didn’t exist. All I had was an Intellivision console, the one that was advertised by George Plimpton, because the game manufacturers were aiming at the Paris Review-reading video game player demographic. The fact that we’re talking about games that didn’t even exist as little as a few years ago is why the reasoning of why kids should be allowed to buy violent video games gets muddy. At least one Supreme Court justice compared violent video games to fairy tales and other children’s literature, saying tha violence has always been part of children’s entertainment. Technically this is true, although I’m not sure we want to set, say, The Three Stooges as the standard bearers of what should be acceptable. Specifically fairy tales were mentioned, but, while it’s true that there’s a lot of violence in fairy tales it’s always in a context. In Little Red Riding Hood the big bad wolf gets cut open with an axe because, well, he’s eaten Red’s grandmother and–depending on the version–Red herself. When Jack chops down the beanstalk killing the giant it’s a subtle critique of supply-side capitalism, and when Goldilocks gets mauled by the three bears IT’S BECAUSE THEY’RE BEARS. At the end of Snow White the wicked mother is forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she dies only after she’s tried to kill Snow White twice. If you’re thinking the dwarves ran her off a cliff, by the way, you’re thinking of the Disney version, which did clean up a lot of pretty gruesome fairy tales. For one thing in Cinderella we were spared the wicked stepsisters chopping off their own toes to make the glass slipper fit. And don’t get me started about what happened to the original Little Mermaid. And let’s not forget Hansel and Gretel in which the two kids are abandoned by their parents, think they’ve found paradise when they find a candy house, and end up pushing the old witch into an oven after she’s spent weeks fattening Hansel up so she can eat him and forcing Gretel to do menial housework–which is enough to make anyone snap. The message here is don’t trust authority, especially if you’re being offered a deal that seems too good to be true. If the story of Hansel and Gretel were updated the witch would have at least two of every game console on the market now and none of the games would ever freeze up. If you’re playing a first-person shooter like Halo in spite of the game’s complex story you’re still basically just there to shoot things–including other players because that’s the point of the game. There are no other options, you can’t negotiate, and even if you can explore the elaborate virtual worlds you’re still locked into the game’s written scenarios, which raises the question of who’s really handling who’s controls.

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