The following is a personal response to Katie Couric’s tweet that followed her recent piece on videogames.
I remember when I was 13 years old and beat Halo for the first time. As it happened, I finished the game alongside a good buddy of mine while we played splitscreen on a <25 inch TV. That good buddy also happened to be my dad.
To give some background, my mother and father got a divorce only a couple months after I was born, so my time with my parents was always a bit tenuous. While I lived with my mother, she was often swamped with the responsibility of trying to fulfill both father and mother roles with her two children while still trying to provide for our livelihood. My father would come to see us for one weekend every month, and for a month during the summer I would stay at his house. While these times were nice, they didn’t particularly allow my father a lot of time to do typical fatherly things, like teach me how to ride a bike or how to throw a football. This only really started to bother me when I entered my teenage years. I became very aware that I didn’t have a “real” father, and my connection with him started to suffer.
So what does this have to do with Halo or any other violent videogame? You see, prior to my dad first buying an Xbox and a copy of Halo that particular summer, we had occasionally played videogames together in somewhat short spurts. We’d do rounds of the original Mario Bros. arcade game, but we never embarked on a true videogame “campaign” together. Although he picked up the game due to critical acclaim from Electronics Gaming Monthly, I wasn’t really enthralled with the idea of shooting aliens in their tiny faces. My dad, a person who proudly proclaims that he brakes for squirrels, was no different. But that’s not why we played Halo. In fact, the violence in any violent videogame we played was never the reason we enjoyed them. Halo was a sweeping science fiction adventure in which the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of the hero(es), and in order to prevail, my father and I would have to learn how to work together by formulating and executing strategies against increasingly insurmountable odds.
In a way, think of the violence as the result of a much more important catalyst. Our hero, representing the good side, is confronted by a much stronger enemy and its corresponding army. A battle in any form of media is not enjoyable because people get hurt or killed. Rather, we enjoy these “epic” battles because they are the manifestation of the stakes and emotion that has been building throughout the story. For example, when Luke fights Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, what we witness is much more than some fancy special effects. It’s the climax of Luke’s struggles with himself, his struggles with his father, and his struggles with his darkness. The outward battle is representative of everything happening internally for our hero, which is why this battle still keeps movie goers at the edges of their seats to this day. Likewise, videogames are generally good at building narratives of “lone warrior(s) facing impossible odds,” which is why the majority of videogame stories tend to be violent in some way. The battles against many classic videogame villains – Final Fantasy VII‘s Sephiroth, The Legend of Zelda’s Ganondorf, even Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Robotnik, to name a few – are all so memorable because they are climaxes for the “against all odds” journeys that the players embark on to get to those points. In a way, I would say that I hate killing, but I love battles.
For my father and 13 year old me, being able to embark on an against-the-odds adventure was a perfect way for us to bond. We’d order pizza and play through the game one level at a time, occasionally replaying earlier levels just to sharpen our skills. Because this was the first time either of us had played the game, much of the experience involved us sharing our tactics and observations in order to come up with effective battle strategies. This extended beyond just playing the game, as we would usually talk about our adventures over breakfast. Due to the nature of the game, we both constantly had to play to the best of our abilities in order to prevail, as either of us failing or “dying” had serious repercussions for the other player’s effort to finish each section. Numerous were the times we’d see the influx of enemies and say to ourselves “how are we expected to get through this?” but with enough perseverance and teamwork, we were able to overcome everything the game threw at us.
For these moments, I didn’t think about my father as “the guy I get to see on occasional weekends.” My father was my partner, my equal, and my friend. Our battles in the game were not only the representation of the game’s narrative, but also our narrative.
The world is full of senseless violence. According to 2011 statistics, there will be around 40 murders today in the United States. Around 90 US citizens will die in car accidents today as well. These realities are, frankly, terrible, and if videogames truly are to blame for any of these, then something has to be done. At the same time, I have to wonder how many people are just scared of videogames because they don’t understand them. From the outside looking in, I could see someone looking at my father and me and shaking their head, wondering why we’re wasting so much time with one of those “murder simulators.” Maybe if my Father didn’t play videogames himself, he might have had a similar reaction. Maybe I would have sat there by myself that summer, playing my new copy of Halo, while my father wondered why I was so enthralled by these images on the screen instead of all the sports and girls that other guys my age should be obsessing over.
Instead, I am left with the memory of an epic escape scene. My blood pumping, my father driving while I manned the gunner seat, neither of us knowing exactly what was going on, but only knowing that we literally had to work as one unit in order to overcome this final trial. I remember giving each other a high-five during the ending sequence, feeling triumphant with the thought of how much we were able to accomplish together. It is because the world is so dark, so depressing, and so violent that we need these “violent” videogames. These stories give us hope for the future, even in the face of a world that seems to stack impossible odds against us around every corner. Claiming victory in these battles gives us that feeling of courage that let us know that there is always a way to prevail, even if we feel small and insignificant in comparison to what we’re up against.
In that one moment, I felt like my father was my best friend in the whole world. In my opinion, that was a positive side of violent videogames.