On Fantasy and Reality (and Violence?)

A million stories tell us that woods are magic places... what the cat with a giant sword on fire is doing there, I dont know...

From as early on as I can remember, I have always grown up with the fantastic.

80s cartoons like “He-Man, Masters of the Universe,”  “The Centurions,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Transformers” and their attendant advertisements were always an important part of my childhood.

Were they violent?

Well, they did involve lots of battles against villains, and a truckload of laser blasts and rocket explosions.

A dozen years on, a class project involved another group of classmates who gleefully projected the number of laser shots fired and explosions and so on in just one episode of X-Men.

I think their count was somewhere in the 80-100 number range.

From there, I think they were trying to make some kind of point about how media influences our lives and our perceptions, and linking cartoon violence to real violence – you know, that thing that has been going on with video games and violence for the past dozen years now.

I remember being ridiculously skeptical because my biggest take-home from watching entire SEASONS worth of X-Men was that discrimination of the mutant or the outsider for the color of their skin (or how many arms they had) was unfair and hurtful.

This was also the same class project where my own group attempted to belittle Xena: Warrior Princess for being demeaning to women by camera angles that always insisted on a boob shot before panning to the face.

A couple of years later, the advent of popular internet revealed to our general knowledge how feminists and lesbian groups were praising the show for not shying away from using two females as their main characters and passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors… so you might indeed want to treat our adolescent attempts at matching our teacher’s assigned theme with a hefty helping of salt grains.

These days, I think adults too often project their own fears and interpretations onto the kids themselves.

Has anyone ever asked the children what they’re thinking?

One such person that did is Gerard Jones, author of “Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence” and he goes on to say:

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that young people emulate literally what they see in entertainment. That if they like a rapper who insults gays, then they must be learning hostility to gays, and if they love a movie hero who defeats villainy with a gun, then they must be learning to solve problems with violence. There is some truth in that. One of the functions of stories and games is to help children rehearse for what they’ll be in later life. Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions as well – one of which is to enable children to pretend to be just what they know they’ll never be. Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden to them is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.

In focusing so intently on the literal, we overlook the emotional meaning of stories and images. The most peaceful, empathetic, conscientious children are often excited by the most aggressive entertainment. Young people who reject violence, guns and bigotry in every form can sift through the literal contents of a movie, game, or song and still embrace the emotional power at its heart. Children need to feel strong. They need to feel powerful in the face of a scary, uncontrollable world. Superheroes, video-game warriors, rappers, and movie gunmen are symbols of strength. By pretending to be them, young people are being strong.

Adults, however, often react to violent images very differently – and in the gap between juvenile and adult reactions, some of our greatest misunderstandings and most damaging disputes are born. Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many toy retailers reported sharp increases in sales of G.I. Joe and other militaristic toys. But some of those same retailers also began pulling such toys from the shelves, largely in response to parents’ requests. Newspaper stories reported that many parents were forbidden violent toys and entertainment in their homes as a reaction to the tragedy. One mother said she’d hidden her sons’ toy soldiers because “It’s bad enough that they see the Army in the airport.”

Many of us worried about how we would help children deal with the terror of September 11, but when I went into the classrooms, I found that the children were far less shaken than their parents and teachers. Most of them talked about the horrific images they’d seen with a mixture of anger and excitement – and a lot of them wanted to draw pictures, tell stories, or play games involving planes destroying buildings or soldiers fighting terrorists. This isn’t a failure to react appropriately to tragedy: this is how children deal with it. When something troubles them, they have to play with it until it feels safer….

…Adults are generally more empathetic, more attuned to the greater world, and more literalistic than children. We are more likely to feel the pain and anxiety caused by real violence when we see it in make-believe. It troubles us to see our kids having fun with something we deplore. We fear that they are celebrating or affirming a horror that we desperately want to banish from reality. We want them to mirror our adult restraint, seriousness, compassion and pacifism. But they can’t – and shouldn’t – mimic adult reactions. Play, fantasy, and emotional imagination are essential tools of the work of childhood and adolescence.

If any of the above makes sense, I encourage you to take a browse through the actual book itself, recall and think about your own childhood and come to your own conclusions.

Personally, Gerard Jones’ words resonate a lot with me.

I remember my favorite daydream, an elaborate saga that would go on in repetitive vein fueled by the latest plotlines of the week’s cartoons and whatever books I’d read. I was a god on a spaceship.

My house was my spaceship. I’d jump onto the sofa and it’ll become the comfortable control center for taking off to the next planet or magical plane of existence. The balcony was the viewport, and of course, the spaceship had plenty of laser guns and was so shielded by godly power that it could dive into the sun and come out again.

As for godhood, I had to be, because gods are powerful, you know? They can do anything they want.

Except you know, gods also had powerful enemies, so there was a very fair share of getting weakened by a Kryptonite equivalent and getting captured. He, of course, had friends to rescue him from these perpetual predicaments. Godly disciples yanked out of the latest books to capture my imagination.

I don’t remember all of them, but I know the first was Lord Mhoram – out of the Stephen R. Donaldson Chronicles of Thomas Convenant series.

(Yeah, that series that has an anti-protagonist that dared to commit the r-word. I don’t think I even understood that part as a kid, just glossed over what I didn’t understand at the time.

All I knew was that I wasn’t at all impressed with the craven Covenant, and that Lord Mhoram was so much more a wise and active figure that he became my hero and favorite character of the series. Try as I might, through repeated attempts over the years, I could never properly get through the Second Chronicles after the series moved on past the age of the Lords.

I wince to think about what kind of trauma I might have suffered, if anyone had pulled the books out of my hands as a kid and told me not to read the dang things because OMG RAPE.)

Lord Mhoram was simply my wizard figure. He worked for me, because I was a god, you know – that standard narcissistic center of the universe reasoning that children often enjoy. He’d give advice and lead the rest when the god was otherwise (and frequently) disabled or incapacitated and get me out of a million and one scrapes.

I was a bit of a precocious kid, by the way. My mother tells me I was reading by the age of two. Something I naturally don’t remember but would credit her patience and willingness to teach and read with me till I picked up the habit.

Enid Blyton was entertaining me before and through the first years of primary school – groups of five kid adventurers (always five, for some reason) who would visit incredible places and solve mysteries that stumped adults, a fantastic tree that two kids would climb and enter lands of make-believe, often filled with delicious food, and so on.

From youth, libraries were exciting places, and I’d soon find myself exhausting the children’s section and wound up nestled away in a magic Dewey Decimal System number somewhere past 100 and just before the 400s (the Sciences, from which I’d also borrow tons of plant and animal books.)

Whoever thought to put Folklore in the 390s was a genius.

It was an eclectic mix of only two shelves or so, but I patiently worked my way through as many as I could decipher. Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights – a humongous tome that I’d never quite get to the end of, before running out of library borrowing time, tales of greek and roman myths and gods, tales of the devil and ol’ Nick and the common man taking them on.

The second disciple of my long and extensive imaginary childhood construct was Lord Aragorn.

Of course. How you can have geek cred if you didn’t read Lord of the Rings, eh?

My father shared his well-worn browned and very thumbed through copy with me, when he realized I was reading a bunch of folklore and fantasy epics from said library.

The first page contained his signature, a black ink scribble running to purple and green from the passage of time, with a date marked before I was born, to say when he bought the book. Marking a book like that was quite unthinkable to me at the time, but I found it fascinating anyway, to realize that my dad had a past that existed before I had even existed, and that this book was older than I was.

Naturally, the hobbits were too modest a hero to idolize when you’re young and small yourself, and my wizard needed a warrior to do the melee fighting, right?

Who better, than Strider himself?

(Sorry, Gandalf, Lord Mhoram’s cooler than you. You can come and play a bit part and guest star in my cartoon, no problems. Plenty of plotlines of the week.)

Sadly, I don’t remember the third any more, and I knew the fourth was a purely imaginary character that joined up with the group later, a sort of karate fighter that I named Tiger Khan (from glomming together a cool word and Ghengis Khan – don’t ask, I don’t know how it got created in my head either. Watching Karate Kid and Eye of the Tiger movies, perhaps?)

I’m sure there was PLENTY of play and pretend fighting through the storylines. I had my share of plastic swords and Super-Soaker Blaster types to use, after all.

When I played with LEGO, it was castles and knights, and then subsequently pirates. Much pirates. Pirates upon pirates.

I had two ships, and they’d clash forever, with cannons blazing and crew clambering aboard the opposing ship, lots of cutlass swinging and stabbing, little yellow figurines going into the water and getting sheared in half with only the tops remaining visible on the floor (“HALP! WE’RE DROWNING!”) while the two pirate captains would smirk and pet their red and yellow parrots with their hooks and stop by the local fortress to jail their captives. (Cue rescue mission later.)

Try as I might, I simply don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware that all my fantasies were exactly that. Just pretend. They weren’t real.

All they were, were simple joyous escapism. They were a place where exciting adventures could happen, in contrast with real life and grades upon grades. A place where one could feel powerful and in control, where kids are often just the opposite in reality, acted on by adults who had more authority.

The emotional content was the real reward, not whatever wrapping lay around it – be it sci-fi or medieval fantasy or cowboy western or supernatural fantasy.

Even then, I’d probably look pityingly on an adult that somehow got this confused.

When I was around 11, one teacher of mine took one look at the -cover- of the Blood Sword gamebook I had brought to school, The Battlepits of Krarth, that sported a slimy looking horror monster. Without even reading the contents, she did a double-take, took me and my friends aside and gave us a serious heart-to-heart talk about how satanic and dangerous ‘roleplaying games’ were, while we looked bemusedly at each other and tried to explain what an adventure gamebook was, and this particular volume’s foundings in folklore – she was an English/literature teacher.

Fortunately, confiscating student property on trumped up charges wasn’t a thing in those days, so I got to keep my book. Our entire class did get to sit through a Christianity video she brought to school after that, where we blinked amusedly at caricatures of American kids who dressed up in wizard robes, carried D&D books as a prop, and tried to sacrifice cats and summon Satan. Naturally, one kid saw the light of God and defeated the evil Game Master or something of that nature.

Leslie Fish – Gamers (As she says, I really wonder and worry about these people who think a game is real)

It makes me wonder why and how we come to differentiate the real and the fantastic.

Maybe the secularity of my upbringing helped?

Maybe it was just what my parents taught me?

I dunno. My mom believes in Catholicism, but she never imposed that belief on me or anyone else.

My father believes in UFOs. (Or at least thinks they could be a very real possibility. Why not? Is his line of thinking. He’s never really heard of Occam’s Razor.)

It’s especially ironic that we had a screaming argument when I was in my rebellious teenage years and I almost threw a punch at him (my only attempted real world violence against another person, only held in check by my mother. Thank you, mom) because he thought my highly valued comic book and roleplaying game collection indicated that I was lost in a world of fantasy and wanted to throw them out to ‘force’ me to live in the real world.

All I was really thinking of at the time was how much -real life- dollars that collection had cost me, how impossible it would be to find copies of them again, and how unfair it was that he had a roomful of DVDs (many of them with fantastic themes) while I apparently couldn’t be allowed to maintain a collection of what I enjoyed, because he specifically didn’t understand what they were, and feared what he didn’t understand?

My mom talked us down and the incident blew over. Logic prevailed over tempers.

Maybe, ultimately, I have to credit books and my mother for teaching me how to read them, so I could think for myself.

Googling up “how people distinguish real and fantastic” brought up this article about children’s beliefs in fantasy and magic and how theatrical plays may have an impact:

What might account for the age differences in children’s understanding of the reality-fantasy distinction? Anne Hickling at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and I have proposed that a number of different factors contribute to children learning what can really happen in the world, and what cannot. The first is increased knowledge. The more knowledge children acquire about objects in the world and their causal mechanisms, the better able they are to distinguish real from unreal events. A second factor is parental input and encouragement.

Knowledge is key.

Reading is the key to knowledge.

Or rather, exposure to information, with parental encouragement, rather than repression of what adults fear.

This post is a lot more personal than you’d usually see from me. Think of it as my little sort of Blaugust contribution, in the spirit of things, even if I really don’t intend to do daily posts or share too much personal stuff in my gaming blog.

It was written as a sort of response to Aggro Range’s “Rated M for Mommy” post. It’s not a criticism of any kind of parenting – I believe all parents have the right to do as they see fit for their particular household and context – but the story of the kid that had a screaming tantrum when he wasn’t allowed to play Call of Duty got to me a little.

I don’t know the context, if this kid really believes terrorists are going to come to get him and everybody else, if he couldn’t shoot them before they could, that really suggests something has gone awry with his ability to distinguish the real from the fantastic. Or maybe it’s just the only way he can cope with the reality that his oldest brother is facing real danger, to shoot pretend terrorists and exorcise the fear demons haunting him by doing it in a safe environment.

The whole patriotism jibe is not cool, of course. Seems to be a trend in conservative America now to accuse anyone with differing viewpoints of not being ‘patriotic.’ That’s a kind of groupthink that can easily lead to more dystopian scenarios – as reading or watching sci-fi stuff might teach.

The corresponding impulse to ban and prohibit games or media in response is personally worrisome to me.

It strikes me that forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, and that repressing and bottling up things without discussing them might just lead to infernos of rage or strong emotion that people don’t know how to handle later, if they haven’t had prior practice, with smaller emotions, in make-believe.

I am not going to impose this view on anyone, or say that there’s only one way of doing things, or that things SHOULD be this way or no other, because reality doesn’t work like that.

There can be multiple solutions to a problem that all work, and plenty of people have grown up with all kinds of parenting and turned out perfectly healthy individuals.

But I do hope this post makes all of you think a little, and explore different perspectives, and decide for yourselves, rather than indulge in knee-jerk reactions or go along with what the mass media tells us.

I leave you with this adorable cute video of a father playing Dark Souls 2… with his admirably precocious three year daughter, who also plays Portal 2:

About these ads

5 thoughts on “On Fantasy and Reality (and Violence?)

  1. bhagpuss says:

    That was a fascinating read. I’m not sure how much you can extrapolate from personal experience about this stuff although everyone does it and of course it is notoriously difficult to set up any convincing type of scientific method testing that involves children for very sound ethical reasons. I’m not at all convinced that anyone really has much of a clue how any of this stuff works. In the same way that global weather patterns are too complex to be modeled accurately I suspect the potential range of interacting factors that make one person like this and another like that is just too vast and unknowable.

    I was a passably violent child. I didn’t shy away from physical confrontations and I had quite a few fights. I put one kid in hospital once, albeit only as a result of defending myself from an unprovoked attack. That in itself was an instructive experience because,not only did the kid I hit defend me when questioned and take his share of responsibility but he ended up being much more friendly with me afterwards.

    Still, my own temper made me nervous and as I grew into my teens I became quite a hardcore pacifist. I used to listen to Radio Caroline a lot in the days when they pushed a hippyish set of attitudes that went under the byline of “Loving Awareness” and I tried to follow that. I still used to get involved in fights at school only instead of starting them I used to try and stop them through use of calm, reasonable conversation. It worked sometimes, too.

    That attitude hung on to a degree right the way through until after I finished University, although I dropped the LA aspect when punk came along. Then one day when I was in my early twenties I got invited to play AD&D for the first time. Initially I found it really very uncomfortable, not just because of the embarrassing ham acting required but because my character had to be violent towards things. Kill them, in fact.

    It probbaly took about two or three sessions of D&D to reverse most of the self-conditioning that had taken a decade to build up. It happened that quickly and I am certain it was playing role-playing games that did it. It didn’t make me more violent in my personal life but it fundamentally changed my attitude towards using force to solve problems rather than reason. It legitimized it.

    Fortunately I grew up reading both DC and Marvel comics. I was drenched in Superman’s moral code (more specifically Superboy’s, more specifically still Jonathan and Martha Kent’s), Peter Parker’s “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, the X-Men’s dedication to diversity and equality and all the rest of the high moral tone that permeated super-hero comics back then.

    All I can really say for sure is that this stuff is complicated. Influences and motivations are tricky to pin down. There are probably kids out there right now being turned to the dark side by the very same entertainments that are providing clear moral instruction for other kids. Parents have to make their best guess based on their understanding of their children and we know how well that usually turns out.

    Anyway, thought provoking stuff, but Dragonbrand are on our borderlands and I have some killing to do.

  2. Rakuno says:

    This reminds me of a teacher I had in college. He believed that FPSes were pretty much “terrorist training” and he wouldn’t allow his young son to play any game that had any type of violence on it. That always made me shake my head. I guess partly because I, for some reason, expected a different opinion from him. I mean, he had enough education to become a teacher, a university teacher at that, and it was for a programming class. Surely, he would be more open-minded and enlightened than that?

    The other reason is because my brother does like FPSes and he never even talked about guns. I doubt he even thought about those. He never had much of a violent temper either, that was something that I however always had. But that is more due to my personality than any game preference I had. For instance, I don’t like FPSes and the type of games I like tend to be more towards the kind that gives interesting decisions, which skews things towards to be strategy or turn-based RPGs, hardly the usual scapegoats for violence. Although I guess it wouldn’t be all that much better for anyone who belives violent games can turn folks into violent people.

    But perhaps I am being too extremist in my views too by simply dismissing any worry about the violence of games and other medias and that perhaps things are a lot more complicated than that, just like Baghpuss said. It is certainly something to think about.

  3. Isey says:

    I have a 9 year old – I think when he was 5 he snuck around me and was watching me play Left 4 Dead and I immediately paused it and told him he couldn’t watch it. He challenged me on it because “its only make believe” and “not like there are real zombies out there dad” – so I did let him watch, but not too much, and we talked about what he saw after. The post ended up being kind of funny (he asked questions I didn’t think of – where were all the kids? What about the dogs and cats?) etc. etc. etc. Anyway, together, I have been pretty loose with video games and movies as long as I am there. He’s 9 now and we played through Diablo III together this year. Stopping evil is clearly a father/son job.

    Smart kid, little on the emotional/sensitive side, stays out of trouble and is real sweet and polite. So far so good. =)

  4. fireflyry says:

    I think anyone with any semblance of intelligence realizes that violence portrayed in mass-media is in an entirely different realm to violence played out in real life. Give our brains some credit, as they clearly compute the massive divide between the two.

    If people argue that there is a relevance they are seriously misguided at best, delusional at worst, and ignoring the fact that there are always underlying issues that are far more influential that ripping someones spine out in Mortal Kombat. Unless they wish to totally ignore the fact that violence was around far before things like the interwebby or mass-media even existed. Mass-media is now often portrayed as a scapegoat of influence, (it was Marilyn Mansons fault!!!, no GTA3’s fault, no wait it was that Sly Stallone movie!!!) whilst ignoring the fact that humanity is, by it’s very own nature, hugely violent. Pointing the finger at things like movies, games, tv, music, etc is just side-stepping the real issues, American gun culture for example being a far great issue….but lets blame GTA…lol.

    A Bill hicks quote sums it up perfectly, with slight editing for relevance:

    “No, I don’t play video games, use the interwebs, watch TV or listen to death metal anymore. But I’ll tell you something about mass-media. I used to enjoy it, but I’ll tell you something honestly about it, honestly, and I know it’s not a very popular idea, you don’t hear it very often anymore, but it is the truth: I had a great time. Sorry. Never murdered anyone, never robbed anyone, never raped anyone, never beat anyone, never lost a job, a car, a house, a wife or kids, laughed my ass off, and went about my day.”

  5. […] appropriate. Aggro Range looks at it from the different types of violence and the context it is in. Why I game gets all philosophical like only he could with weaving in psychological studies and principles […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s