Not long ago videogames were, by and large, the realm of children. And like anything kids absorb into their unique culture, they spawned more than one playground rumor. While there were always stories about secret characters, minus worlds, or Easter eggs, there were darker whispers too, mostly originating from adults. Myths our parents passed on to us. Lies they fabricated to make us behave. Offhand comments that ignited playground hysterias over what games were doing to us – or what adults might do to our games. A child’s world straddles the line between reality and imagination, and that shadowy borderland mundane events can take on a cartoonish or apocalyptic quality.
I’ve chosen three events from my own past that demonstrate this. Some stem from adults misinterpreting things they’d heard about games. Others are old wives’ tales. Some are a mixture of both.
All of them, in their time, struck fear in the hearts of elementary schoolers.
“Hey guys,” said my friend Brian, one day in first grade. “You need to stop playing so many videogames.”
“What?” I said. “Why?”
“My mom said it’ll make your eyes square.”
I froze on the spot. Could that happen? It sounded ridiculous. There was no way it was medically possible. Utterly absurd.
My friends and I scoffed at Brian, giving every reason we could think of:
How come we hadn’t heard that on the news?
Why wasn’t our doctor warning us about it?
And what about Andrew? Andrew’s eyes weren’t square, and that kid played tons of games.
But Brian insisted. His mom had said it. And to a young kid, moms basically have God on speed dial. Could it be true?
To a child, there’s this uncomfortable cognitive space where you’re sure an adult is lying to you, but not totally sure. You know that it’s impossible to make an ugly face and have it stick like that, but there’s always doubt. A little voice that says but maybe…
Maybe if you strain a muscle your face does stick.
Deep in your marrow you know that adults lie, but you haven’t seen enough of the world to call them on it.
So rather than tell Brian he was full of it, we started arguing over what square eyes would look like. One friend claimed they’d be like a pair of dice, uncomfortable cubes rattling around in your sockets. As for myself, I imagined an iris and pupil squared off like Tetris blocks. A human eye turned pixel, blazing with the rich colors of Green Hill Zone.
It was laughable. Ridiculous. A bizarre old wives’ tale.
After a long bought of Sonic that weekend, I went to the bathroom, peeled back my eyelids and took a close look in the mirror.
Just in case.
The Game-Burning Mob
When I was nine, my favorite game was Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.
In my defense, I was nine, only owned six games, and Moonwalker was the newest one. By kid logic, that made it my favorite.
Well, except for maybe Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Or Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t my favorite game, but it was at least in my top six.
If you’re a certain age, you might remember that 1993 wasn’t the greatest time to be a Michael Jackson fan. To summarize it in the least gross way possible: a dentist named Evan Chandler accused Jackson of sexually abusing his 13 year-old son, and sued the pop star for millions in civil court. There were a lot of inconsistencies surrounding the case, but regardless of the fact that Chandler lacked hard evidence and was financially motivated, the media dragged the issue into the court of public opinion. TV shows ran daily updates on the case. Tabloids threw money at Jackson’s disgruntled former employees. Reports circulated of people throwing away or destroying their Michael Jackson albums. Parents, including mine, started making offhand comments to their kids that maybe we shouldn’t be listening to Michael Jackson.
While our parents were just thinking out loud, their comments kickstarted the kid rumor mill. Word on the playground had it that the adults were plotting to seize our Michael Jackson stuff. Cassette tapes. Posters. Plush toys of that freaky butterfly hamster from Captain EO. The adults would confiscate and destroy everything.
And that included my definitely-at-least-fifth-most-beloved game, Moonwalker.
The nightmares started soon afterward. I’d wake up to see a crowd outside my window, shouting and carrying torches. The ringleader – our neighbor – would bang on the door until my parents answered.
“We’ve come for Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker,” he’d say, looking at us over the door chain. “Toys R Us told us they sold you a copy. You have five minutes to bring it out. After that, we’re coming in.”
My parents would reason with me, telling me that if we didn’t comply they’d break down the door and turn our house upside-down looking for it. With shaking hands, I’d give the game over to our neighbor, then watch as he threw it on a burning pile of Jackson memorabilia in the middle of our street. The crowd circled around the enormous pyre, tossing in records and Jackson dolls. It mirrored the book burning scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
That was when I started hiding my Moonwalker cartridge under my mattress.
At this point I should probably mention that I wasn’t a big Michael Jackson fan as a kid. His songs were good. I liked the part in Moonwalker where he turned into a robot and slaughtered a bunch of bad guys. I didn’t care about him as a person, though. If he’d gone to federal prison, I wouldn’t have spared a thought about it. Michael Jackson was just some guy who made music, but Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker? It wasn’t just a game, it was my game and I loved it with a ferocity that only a child can. No one was taking that game away from me.
This rumor wasn’t the only game-confiscation rumor I heard either – I heard it at least once more after the Columbine shootings, when parents were rumored to be coming for Doom (the nightmare reoccurred then as well). According to my research, however, the rumors were spurious. There was never an organized game confiscation and destruction during my childhood, at least not in the U.S. The closest thing was last year’s “violent game return” effort in Connecticut that came in response to the Sandy Hook shootings and a similar event held in Germany in 2009. But both were voluntary.
Moonwalker, it seems, was safe the whole time.
Pause or Die
One day when I was six or seven, my mother sat me down on the couch and said we had to talk.
This was never a good sign.
When you grow up with a working mother, you have a lot of conversations in the car, between events, at dinner, or waiting in line for a movie. When multitasking’s a way of life, dedicated conversation usually signals a seismic shift. Divorce. Changing schools. Breaking news that we can’t keep the dog. Uninterrupted conversations could also come in reaction to something I done – flooding the house with multiple garden hoses, for instance, or exertions to really, please stop eating cat food, it’s starting to freak your father out. Either way, it was never good.
“Do you know how to pause your SEGA Genesis?” she said. Her face, from eyebrows to chin, was one concerned frown.
“Um,” I said. “Yes.” The question confused me. There were only four buttons on the controller, and that was if you counted the obvious START button in the center. Was there someone who didn’t know how to pause a Genesis?
Then the conversation turned medical.
Our family doctor had read an article about kids rupturing their bladders while playing Nintendo and was warning everyone about the danger. The article advised parents to make sure kids knew how to pause their game when nature called. Though I’ve looked for this article, I can’t find a single documented case of this occurring.
“Promise me you’ll pause Sonic the Hedgehog when you have to go, okay?” my Mom said. “You don’t want a ruptured bladder.”
No, I absolutely did not.
Because when I heard ruptured bladder what my mind saw was kids exploding.
I imagined a kid hunched over a Genesis controller, his square eyes transfixed on the screen. A bead of sweat ran down his forehead as the game’s sound effects intensified, followed by another. He needed to go, but he was so close to beating that boss. His face reddened and bulged, cheeks swelling out like he was bee-stung.
BANG, the kid burst in half like a firecracker, spraying the walls with Gatorade-yellow pee.
And not just one kid – twenty, fifty, a hundred – in my mind kids all across America were bursting in a chain reaction. It must be an epidemic, or else magazines wouldn’t write about it, right?
With eyes wide, I eagerly agreed that I’d hit pause if I had to go really bad.
I warned my friends at school the next day too.
Guys, pause your games or you’ll explode.
Kids have their own stories. Academics call it children’s street culture or children’s folklore – an amalgam of songs, stories and games passed from generation to generation. Every kid in America, for example, can sing “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” knows how to summon Bloody Mary and can clap along to “Mary Mack.” It’s a culture given to crazes and hysterias, which like most rumors, can gain intensity from interacting with a new and unfamiliar medium like video games. But like so many children’s crazes, these rumors faded with age, disappearing into obscure memory.
Except for one.
A few weeks ago I was teaching a game-writing activity to a 5th Grade class here in Hong Kong. As an aside, I mentioned that when I was a kid, parents told us that videogames would make our eyes turn square. Imagine my surprise when the class – 5,500 miles from where I grew up – said that they’d heard that too.
In fact, roughly a third of the class had heard from either a parent or friend that videogames could turn their eyes square. A few still believed it.
Twenty years later and an ocean away, the rumor lives on.