Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Parenting in the Nethers

As we stand in the middle of Barnes and Noble I’m torn. I told him that he could pick out a book and the one that he’s selected is about Minecraft. That, in and of itself doesn’t necessarily bother me. But this particular Minecraft guide is about combat. That is quite literally the title. Something about combat best practices. I recoil in horror and snap at him in a way that is an intensely disproportionate reaction to an eight year old just wanting to buy a book about a video game he likes. Inside, I begin to hold deeply irrational conversations with myself.

Is this how it starts, I wonder? Is this where it began with Adam Lanza? I know there was more, trips to the shooting range and increased isolation. I know there was more to his story. But at one point, he was just her little boy, right? How did it all start? How does it ever?

He’s arguing hard for the book now and I wonder if I should waver – it is just a book after all. But I hate it. I hate all of it. I hate the idea of violence as play and they know that. I hate the sound of mock shooting and their dimpled fingers drawn which they do with no knowledge at all of how real and terrifying it is to the adults that just seem to swim in new bloodshed each and every day. I feel the insides of my stomach twist up and knot. How do I walk this line between giving him the space I know he needs to explore these games and telling him that there is nothing playful about pretending to kill someone. Anyone. Ever. Killing is not child’s play.

There are two parts to Minecraft: a creative side that is largely about building cool stuff, and a survival mode that is about defending your world and killing angry mobs. It is this survival mode that terrifies me, the way the bad guys descend on you at night and the way you must be ready to kill or be killed. As I replay the morning’s news and faces from Orlando in my head, I wonder how different real life is from all of these games anyway.

I shift his attention quickly to lunch at a nearby restaurant that features an old school Pac Man game which is a major draw for the kids. My son in particular loves it, and I long for the old school video games where monsters were candy colored ghosts that could be eaten. We spend much of lunch talking old school Atari like Frogger and Donkey Kong and I get that wistful look in my eyes that my father used to get when he would think about drive in movies and sing Pete Seeger. I realize how old I must sound. I also realize how much infinitely more idyllic and safe my own childhood was in comparison to my own children’s formative years which seems to just take that knot that formed in my stomach in Barnes and Noble a half hour earlier, and set it on fire.

I want to understand it, all of it, genuinely. I find myself googling things like how do you kill an enderman and happen upon a site that includes a very neat 11 step process. It includes things like:

1.       Get your weapon

2.       Do not look in his eyes

3.       Hide

4.       Eat first and bring food with you in case you get hungry

5.       Go with a full heart

6.       Bring a buddy, because this will make it easier to kill mobs.

I feel a lump of something grow in the back of my throat and swallow my heart. It is so methodical which is appropriate for a video game. But yet maybe I’m also teaching him that violence can be this detached process that can be playful and game like and that’s wrong. I am completely at war with myself as I assume some sort of split parenting personality, one part of me wishing for him to fit in and not overthink it because it is what all the other kids do. The other part of me wanting to draw a sharp line where all of it never becomes okay, the way it’s not okay out there in the nethers of Orlando or Sandy Hook. That it will never be okay in here in the nethers of our basement based video game lair.

So I ask him, why do you like it so much? Why not just stay on the creative side of the game? What is appealing about the survival side? I need to remind him that no matter how playfully it is depicted, killing always ends with someone or something dying. There is a horrifying finality to it. One that video games in particular grossly distort when it portrays this kind of violence as both a winnable and reversible feature.

He describes how terrible the creepers and enderdragons are, and the way the mobs descend on your creations and worlds when night falls. He talks at length about what it feels like to finally destroy them.

“Pride,” he says. “That’s what I feel when I finally defeat the bad guys.” I close my eyes and picture Senator Murphy’s filibuster, the sit in on the House floor. I can relate perfectly to what he is saying.

Later that night, no one is more surprised than me to find myself cruising Amazon in search of Minecraft fan fiction. This is my chance to squash this moment but instead I’m encouraging him to learn more about the game, to pursue more battles and swords. As I navigate this minefield of both actual and virtual complex emotions and violence, I am struck by how much modern day parenting feels like we are all perpetually operating in survival mode.

Perhaps if I am honest with him about how difficult and scary all of it really is, I can keep us safe until morning comes again.