Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Sandies and What Good Geeks Can Do

The 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy relief concert was the cathartic national closure to one terrible tragedy that tested the human spirit, the collective will, and our country's social conscience. While many victims and communities directly hit by the storm's devastation will continue to be tested, we can at least mark 12/12/12 as the day the world watched, wiped off the muck, pulled ourselves up, and agreed that we would make it through after all. We can continue helping as long as help is needed...but 12/12/12 was the multimillion dollar moment when we stopped brooding and got to rebuilding.

We did good. We all showed the strength of heroes. But this had been a natural disaster. This was a force beyond humanity's control. Homes were destroyed. Lives were lost. Neighbors came together. There was no questioning what good was during the storm or after it passed. There was no conflict between good and right.

So let's be honest--this catharsis came easy. Most of us can walk away from Sandy now and wish those poor souls who lost their lives or their homes or their stuff luck in the aftermath. We can count the pennies raised and look at our closets emptier by whatever amount we rushed to donate after the skies cleared. Except for the people directly hit by Sandy, we can all go back to our pre-Sandy mindsets, except now just a little more wary when the newscasters warn us of threatening cloud formations.

But where that first Sandy couldn't keep us down, the Sandy of 12/14/12 just might. There will be no easy catharsis in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

The super storm was no geek culture issue, except maybe in the sense that the destruction mirrored something you might see in a comic book or video game or summer blockbuster. Maybe an arguement can be made that geeks like us are built to deal with that form of chaos and devastation, and therefore comic books and video games and blockbuster movies made us better equipped as a society to cope and recover.

Maybe. It would be a stretch.


With Sandy Hook, the link to geek culture is no stretch. Sadly, the link is to the negative. How much does the current state of geek culture feed the controversial gun culture at the heart of Sandy Hook? I think we are dealing with a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma that connects the most violent corners of geek culture to the dangerous reality of gun rights.

Here's something I wrote on Facebook the morning after, which seemed to resonate with some...piss off others:

I live in an apartment in the Bronx a block away from a recent fatal shooting and two blocks away from the site of a foiled terrorist plot. Wanting to be prepared to protect my family in the event of a home invasion, I place a very heavy wrench in a reachable location and a large knife in another. It never crossed my mind that a gun was the safest or smartest means of physical defense. Stray bullets, misfire, the weapon turned on me or my own in a close-quarters struggle. So if my child grows up to develop some sort of emotional disorder or evolves into a homicidal sociopath, she will be doing so armed with a wrench, maybe a knife, or maybe nothing, because I teach her about right and wrong and good guys and bad guys and how there are no outcasts or "others" to identify negatively with or to lash violently against. If I die violently, it will have been out of my control, because I know what and where and who to avoid, so it would have to be random and chaotic, unexpected, and not something a rifle in my closet could prevent. The reason the initial gut instinct in response to this school shooting was "take the guns, stop the guns, it's the guns" is because this kid saw those guns as an answer. He had to. The answer to what, I don't know. Mommy didn't love him enough? He wanted more syrup on his waffles? Irrelevant. He was fucked and he had guns, and he saw them as a solution to problems. He may have been twisted or wrong minded, but we now know he grew up in a house where guns were presented as an option. Multiple legally registered weapons. Now we understand why those guns were REALLY there...protection or sport. BUT if there was a home invasion, in the chaos of the moment, would someone get to them in time? Would gun fire spray through the suburban home's walls into neighboring apartments as registered mom fired wildly at a cat burglar looting for some fancy jewels? And if they were for hunting, did they not have a Shoprite or A&P or WalMart nearby from which to buy their Dead animals? Nobody NEEDS these things. The government isn't coming for your land or your things. They like you where you are, dumb and complacent and playing video games and watching reality TV. Buy a wrench if you are scared of burglars. The guns were there because the guns were their right and their privilege, and because the Right and the Privileged have this fantastical notion that they pump into the minds of the masses that some day they will have to fight back the "others" in this world who come for them and their stuff...that they will have to fight back, confront them head on in an armed assault. Because gay love and brown skin and green energy are coming to get us all and because guns are the answer. At least that is what it looks like from my soap box. Guns are also now an escape. The best selling video games in the world are basically gunfight simulators creating a direct link in some minds between a good time and a good shot. What happens when that kid who needs stronger meds and another hug is instead sent up to his room, down the hall from where they keep the shotgun and glock, to play a round of Call of Duty instead? Or the outcast kid who sees all of the "normals" enjoying themselves doing just that but can't even get an invite into their virtual murder circle? Well, he has the IRL version right down the hall. I'm not saying these details have anything to do with what happened yesterday, but this is gun culture and this is why people immediately rallied (again) about gun control instead of "letting the dust settle" or offering a prayer. Those dead kids don't need our prayers. The ones that are still alive need our voices. As passive as it may seem to some, a newsfeed filled with posts like mine can get pretty loud, and forcing the hard talk immediately is what will invoke change.

In this rant, I dwell on the gun problem and only touch briefly on the matter of mental health. But these two issues come to a head when you bring violent media into the conversation.

I don't want to be that guy, but let's be honest--what might pass as fantasy for a sophisticated, healthy mind can easily be misread as instruction by an ill-formed or misguided or unfocused child's mind. An ill-formed, misguided, unfocused child becomes a teenager who becomes an adult much faster than anyone realizes. We can't just blindly lump all games together, never check the ratings, and turn our backs as a generation locks itself in a room for 12-hour stretches of simulated warfare. Anxious about raising a flag against violent media -- and violent games in particular -- I was happy to find this article, posted by Buzzfeed's John Herrman, which said exactly what I have been feeling better than I could. I'll let him be that guy...

Herrman, like me, doesn't (seem to) want any direct or obvious action taken to censor the gaming industry or to even change the types of games being made and played. What he is asking for, however, is for his fellow gamer geeks to reflect on their beloved and emboldened industry, to take some responsibility for the incredibly violent cultural shift that they have been a part of since the first first-person-chainsaw kill in DOOM and the first hooker murder for points in GTA. This is not a lot to ask. In fact, this is a small price to pay for the lives lost in Sandy Hook and those lost before and after in similar violent tragedies.

Self-reflection, introspection, and maybe a little care in to whom and how we push the most egregiously amorally violent games. Mortal Kombat has been an awesome fighting game for years, gruesome fatalities are fun to watch, but I would be doing my daughter a disservice to hand her a copy of the latest MK, stick her in a room for a few hours unsupervised, and say "Have fun!"

Still, Guns and Games are not the same. I really do want to infringe on the rights of gun enthusiasts. I want fewer types of guns available to citizens. I don't want you to have the right to bear just any arms you want. I want limits and liability to make gun ownership a pain. I want it to be a bear for you to bear.

I don't want to limit the gaming industry any more than I wanted to limit the film industry after Aurora or the music industry after Columbine. Not at all.

So a few popular games make bad guys sexy and reward doing harm... The "guns don't kill people" argument is a shallow, hollow one, but that logic DOES apply with intangibly playable pixels. A video game may be more immersive than a book or a movie, but it is still, ultimately, a form of storytelling. Not all stories have heroes or happy endings. So I do NOT want to put limits on the types of games or the sort of content allowed by the gaming industry. Nope. What I would like is for the gaming industry and its aficionados to limit themselves, within reason, and with respect for the collateral damage of irresponsibly hiding behind the banner of "it's just a game."

Call of Duty and Super Mario Bros are not equal. They do not belong in the same section, on the same shelf, or on the same child's playlist. Adult gamers can do what they want, just like adult moviegoers and readers do. But protect the kids who don't know any better. At the very least, encourage adult consumers to talk to kids about their games, about the subject matter, to KNOW what they are consuming and interacting with for hours at a time.

My daughter LOVES a gory little game on the iPad called Zombie Swipeout. This game is essentially fruit ninja with zombies instead of watermelons. You get extra points for headshots and you lose if you swipe (with your sword or bat or chainsaw) the nonzombies. It is cartoony and ridiculous, but it is still violent enough that I hesitated. I debated allowing it at all. But we talked about it, we limit it, and she only plays it WITH me or my wife, not alone (unless she is being sneaky). I may very well be responsible for dementing my poor child with this horribly violent game...but I did so with forethought and debate and discussion. I monitor it, as silly as it is, and I even rationalize it by saying it is the compromise for not allowing her anywhere near the TV when Walking Dead is on, no matter how much she wants to watch it. I could be stricter. Some parents are. A lot of parents don't give a crap one way or the other, see something as fictional and cartoony, and therefore child appropriate. This is the same non-logic that has little kids watching Family Guy and South Park. All I want is for the responsible parties to think first, think often, and be willing to reconsider along the way. If Zombie Swipeout has an "Xtreme Update" with added screams and splatter, I may just ban the app after all. Or not. But I will think about it and everything else I allow my kid to consume.

I want mothers and fathers and older siblings to just use common sense. I want them to apply the same sense that I hope gun owners apply when deciding what to make available to the young and impressionable people-in-progress who might be in their care.

Geek culture has power here. We can do good simply by reflecting on ourselves and drawing the lines where we know they should be, putting our own limits where common sense dictates, respecting the ratings and the warning labels and the potential for harm that a crime or war or murder simulator might have on our little brothers or sisters or daughters or sons. We won't be able to move on from Sandy Hook with a concert and a seasonal shift the way we can the hurricane. We shouldn't. We need to live with this horror and we need to decide HOW we are going to live responsibly with our games and our guns. Where are we going to place our priorities? Where and when will we find our Sandy Hook catharsis?

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