I recently signed up for wireless broadband internet access, several years after embracing an idyllic country lifestyle and simultaneously setting foot into that particular level of hell reserved for dial-up internet users. To call it a revelation would be a grotesque understatement; even taking into account the day-to-day vagaries of a wireless connection, it has utterly reshaped my internet experience. Patches and driver updates no longer require an overnight download. Google Earth is now a practical reality for me. (The thrill, unfortunately, could not live up to the anticipation.) I haven’t yet figured out exactly what torrents are, but I’ll be getting to work on that soon, and naturally I find myself swimming in a veritable ocean of pornography. But to properly commemorate my newfound bandwidth and the freedom and empowerment it offers, the first thing I did was reinstall Counter-Strike and look for a game.
A few days later, still ignoring all the cool internet stuff I’d missed out on over the past half-decade in favor of ventilating to online strangers, I began to wonder: Why, of all the many and varied high-speed options available to me, would Counter-Strike be the one to rise to the top? I could have used the opportunity to start stealing music and movies, or tried out some hot-n-sexy video chats, or downloaded new versions of my horribly out-of-date video drivers, but instead I chose to spend hours on end inflicting virtual violence upon my fellow man. Why?
Genetic hard-wiring, perhaps? A good many years ago, when I was a wee lad, one of my fondest hobbies was getting together with as many of my neighborhood friends as possible for rousing games of war, which essentially involved chasing each other around with the most gun-shaped twigs and sticks we could find while making loud machine-gun noises and falling down dead in Oscar-worthy fashion. As we got older, our wargames grew more sophisticated: Ambushes, flanking maneuvers and some astonishingly effective camouflage were all incorporated into our gameplay, although in the end all it added up to was heightened volume and chaos when we finally did get down to the serious business of pumping each other full of pretend lead.
Sometime during those years, professional wrestling made its presence felt, both figuratively and literally. I wasn’t a big fan of the rasslin’ extravaganza back in the day but I had friends who were, and I quickly learned that a shouted cry of “S.D. JONES!” meant that I was about to be clobbered with or into something. I remember thinking, as clearly as I could while lying on a friend’s front lawn trying not to cry and/or puke after being hit with a particularly nasty and surprising flying elbow drop, that maybe nearly killing me would be enough to convince him that pro wrestling could be dangerous in the hands of outsized idiots who hadn’t yet figured out that it wasn’t all “real.” In retrospect, I suppose I should’ve known better, because it was entirely irrelevant. Emulating Greg “The Hammer” Valentine was really just a thin pretext for having fun by beating people up.
As we grew older, moved into high school and developed a healthy interest in (and fear of) girls, our gaming habits naturally matured along with us. Blasting away with toy guns and rolling around on the grass trying to figure out why our sleeper holds weren’t working gave way to the more dignified adolescent pursuit of Hacky Sack, in which we would spend our time between classes roaming the hallways looking for opportunities to hack each other in the sack. What seemed uproariously funny at the time now strikes me as perhaps a little bit vicious, especially the treatment of one old friend (ironically named Rod) who suffered particularly harshly during these episodes of beanbag blitzkrieg, but despite my late-to-the-party misgivings I can’t say that I honestly regret any of it. Dull, wriggling agony notwithstanding, it was a riot.
My nephews, the oldest of whom just turned five, are already showing a gut-level understanding of the games = violence = fun equation. Despite my sister’s best efforts to raise her three sons in an egalitarian and nonviolent household, toy guns and swords moved to the top of their perpetual shopping list almost from the moment they were old enough to run around the house waving them over their heads. And while their parents ensure their videogaming habits are appropriately innocuous, their favorite “real life” games are those in which one of them gets hurt.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Leonard Sax, a Maryland physician and research psychologist, recently said in a recent interview with Maclean’s magazine that curtailing violent gameplay among young boys can actually be detrimental to their development. “Prohibiting children from playing with toy swords or guns does not decrease the likelihood of any bad outcome, indeed it accomplishes no useful end,” he said. Parents and supervisors “could have taken the opportunity to build imaginative play around concepts like teamwork and heroism. Instead, schools too often simply endorse traditional girls’ activities like condemning traditional boys’ activities.”
Let’s face it: We’re a violent species. We’ve been beating ten shades of shit out of each other since the dawn of time, not just out of necessity but because at some level it’s a whole lot of fun, too. Though we can’t go around kicking the asses of our fellow citizens with quite the level of abandon we enjoyed a few millennia ago, there’s still a little tiny bit of caveman brain inside all of us that longs for nothing more than a bit of skull-busting in the name of survival competition. And while warfare is a cataclysmic explosion of those base instincts, gaming is a slower, more controlled and far more socially acceptable (and healthier) release of the same pent-up steam: Nobody dies, for the most part, but the itch to cream somebody still gets scratched.
So after a brief period of reflection, I’m still playing Counter-Strike, but I’m not feeling quite so conflicted about it anymore. Traumatic dismemberment in the name of fun and games? No sweat. That’s just human nature.