How ultra-violent arcade games helped me be a better father
Arcades are my blind spot when it comes to raising my children around video games. I’m usually a tyrant when it comes to limiting their time playing games, and I like to curate those experiences as much as possible. I watch the ratings, and I make sure they’re playing games that will, in some way, help with their development. All that careful planning goes to hell when we go to an arcade.
The smoky, slightly dangerous arcades of my own youth have been replaced by GameWorks, Dave & Busters, and other corporate establishments where you put money on a card you swipe through the games to play. No more quarters. As much space is taken up by redemption machines that spit out tickets you can exchange for toys or candy than by actual video games. My eleven year-old son and I like to play light gun games, the kind where you pick up a big plastic machine gun and shoot at the people on the screen. We like the Time Crisis series, complete with the pedal that you push to take cover.
Every now and again I catch the eye of someone who clearly doesn’t approve of my playing such graphic games with a young child. I ignore them, although I know how it looks. It helps that we’re playing the game together, and the experiences are clearly fantasy. I don’t worry about him picking up a real gun, or learning any violent tendencies. I know that killing terrorists on jet skis isn’t training him to react one way or another to actual violent acts. I don’t feel like he’s desensitized, even if he clearly enjoys the virtual bloodshed. He still covers his eyes during the scary parts of Jurassic Park.
Light gun games are enjoyable because we’re both on the same level. You point, pull the trigger, and shoot. We’re working together, so I don’t have to worry about him getting frustrated, and I don’t ask myself if I should let him win. It’s also easy to talk about his life when we’re playing these games together. His mind is focused on taking cover and killing all the bad guys, not on the things he’s revealing to me as we play.
It’s like talking in the car; since he doesn’t have to look me in the eyes he doesn’t feel as ashamed or self-conscious when we talk about his fears or frustrations at school. He wants to be a writer, which is something I knew. He also thinks I shout too much, which is something that scares me. He knows when I’m fighting with his mother, even if we think we’re hiding it well.
It is very easy for us to get along when we’re in an arcade together. I’m not worried about the work I’m not doing, the environment makes me happy, and we’re sharing the same experiences. It’s hard for me to give undivided attention to the kids in our day-to-day lives; a complicated relationship with my own father, a bad case of workaholism, and a new baby constantly test my nerves. At the arcade, we truly spend time together, and that’s something that makes me happy. Happy enough to overlook the fact that our quality time often consists of holding plastic guns and taking part in graphic acts of virtual violence.
Time is only moving faster
Due to the magic of Spotify, I know that the Queers’ album Move Back Home was released when I was 14 years old. I had a bootleg copy of that album on tape, and it changed the way I looked at the world. The lyrics are embarrassingly childish and angry when I read them today, but at the time, I too was embarrassingly childish and angry. Every word of that album hit home, and I can draw a straight line from listening to “Highschool Psychopath” to sneaking out at night, losing my virginity, cutting classes, experimenting with drugs, and beginning to take my own writing more seriously.
Today, my son showed me his first poem, and he asked if writing was something I did when I was his age. I told him it was, and I read his poem. It rhymed, and you could see the lines he erased and started over. I asked him what it meant, and he told me it meant that maybe everyone can write, and maybe they should. I told him it was great, and afterwards I became scared of what this all signifies.
He’s 11 years old, which means in a short time, someone at school is going to slip him whatever his version of Move Back Home will be, and it’s very possible he’ll start to feel angry, and questioning, and alone. He could begin to take his writing seriously, or it will be something he tried just because he knows it’s how I make my living. But in that time, he will likely stop seeking out my company and will instead shun it. The clock is ticking on the amount of enjoyment he will draw from spending time with me in these arcades, sipping on sodas and congratulating each other on headshots.
These arcades may not be the loud, slightly scary places of my youth, but I don’t miss the smell of skunky weed and the aggressive atmosphere. I could relate to Seth Killian’s memories of seeing violence go down at local arcades, and even goading it on from time to time.
The environment may be more corporate, but the games are what matter. I don’t mind exposing my son to these violent games, and I treasure every credit we put into Terminator, or Rambo, or Crisis Zone.
I like watching him holding these guns, his pupils dilated, a thin sheen of sweat over his face as he focuses on killing as many people as he can. I don’t worry about the effect of the violent games on his mind. I worry about how long I have until he has as little time for me as I often have for him during my work week. I worry about whether he’ll call if he’s at a party and has a beer or two and doesn’t feel safe to dive home. I don’t worry about school shootings.
These games bring us closer, and if it takes a little bit of the old ultra-violence for me to connect with my son, that’s a tolerable compromise. So I'll continue to take my son to these places, put the credits on the card, deal with the disapproving looks from other parents, and think about how long I have until I lose him.