“Every hero must learn to kill,” says the online invitation for Fable, the Xbox video game by Microsoft. “You can save those in peril and aid those in need. But you are also free to be as wicked, violent and dark as you wish.”
For me, this promo also describes the reality game being played across the globe by the USA. Send the tsunami relief supplies if you want, but you are free to drop bombs on Falluja. Like the game Fable, we are invited to choose the kind of hero we want to be. And we are buying an ideology that says in order to be heroes we must be ready to kill.
So I am pleased to get word via email that a group of activists in Chicago, while training to join Christian Peacemaker Teams, kicked off their new year by inspecting the video-game shelves at a local toy store.
According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), Fable earns a rating of ‘M’ for Mature, which means the game is not recommended for children under the age of 17. In addition, ESRB tags the game with descriptors for “Blood, Strong Language, Violence, and Sexual Themes.”
On a recent visit to the online video-game page at Toys “R” Us hosted by Amazon.Com, Fable was one of three headline games featured in a limited-time offer, along with Metal Gear Solid 3 and Ace Combat 5.
Like Fable, Metal Gear bears a Mature rating. The Playstation game by Konami Digital is described by ESRB as having “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, and Sexual Themes.” One review by an Amazon.Com user from South Carolina (does AFB mean the writer is also from an Air Force Base?) gushes that, “Awesome movies and great story that highlights America’s greatness make this mind-challenging game the ultimate must-have for serious Metal Gear fans.” More ideology in a box; along with the game you get a double shot of America’s greatness. Another reviewer recommends the game to “spy theorists” who will thrill to the intrigue between Cold War agents and double agents who vie for an enormous sum of covert money and control of a Soviet weapons genius who must be stopped from putting his “nightmarish weapon” into the wrong hands.
Although the ideologies are heavy handed, there is something eerily compelling to these games as you click your way into richly visualized landscapes of peril. You drive the story with your hand clinched, eyes locked, and floodgates of adrenaline at full rush. Open the leather-and-gold binding to the virtual book of Fables online, and a magic pen in blood-red ink warns you, “this is no fairy tale.”
“There once was a boy with a mind of his own. Alone in a dangerous world, his destiny, the paths of good and evil were his to follow.” The letters appear like invisible ink swabbed by an invisible hand. Tubular bells and violas invite you to turn the page. And there stands an old hag on a rickety ladder, raising her crook to an apple tree. With one tab you can fill her basket with apples and bake her a pie. With the other tab you can rock the old hag’s ladder until, yes, she falls to the ground dead, her blood draining into the page.
Delicious wickedness presents itself. Why sit still for a horror show directed by Hitchcock, when you can make it all happen yourself. You can shoot an arrow into a poet’s mouth, get a girl drunk until she pukes, and stab Tinkerbell to death, until there is no more room for war between good and evil. Finally, it’s just you and the dark side. And if this is the tease you get from the online promo, imagine what you could do with the real game at home.
“Toys ‘R’ Us is in the joy business,” says President John Barbour in an October press release posted at the website of the U.S. Marine Corps. One million dollars will be given to a charity, and the company will collect more donations to help get toys to children for Christmas. In September the company announces that it will assist adoption agencies in “helping children achieve the dream of finding forever families.”
On or about 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day, three pacifists in training for Christian Peacemaker Teams in Chicago walk into a Toys ‘R’ Us store and began removing the Mature games from the shelves.
“I was horrified to find so many ‘M’-rated video games for sale in a children’s toy store,” said Kimberly Prince in a press release posted at the CPT website. “Our inspection revealed that there is no system in the store to sort and display video games according to their classification. Adult-rated, violent video games, meant for those ages 17 years and over, are displayed on the same shelves as games for young children.”
Along with fellow peacemakers-in-training Noah Dillard and Jan Benvie, Prince then approached the store manager with the video games and a letter explaining why the CPT group had concerns. The manager “listened respectfully to the inspectors’ requests and accepted the letter, but explained that he did not have the authority to remove the games from the shelves,” says the press release. “However, he agreed to alert his supervisors to CPT’s concerns.”
“It seems like managers from local stores take orders from higher up,” explains Claire Evans, speaking by telephone from the CPT office in Chicago where she has worked for about six years. She helps to coordinate CPT delegations to trouble spots around the world; places like Iraq, Colombia, Hebron, and Grassy Narrows, Ontario. She attended the New Year witness, but did not go into the store.
“Store managers,” says Evans, “have limited decision-making capabilities.” She has just said a mouthful about free enterprise as we know it, with its top-down command and control structures. Recall if you will the final episode of the latest Apprentice, where the ex military guy gets hired by Donald Trump, partly because one of The Donald’s friends felt strongly that military service was a most excellent training ground for corporate culture.
Evans is a Lutheran, and she explains that folks who work with CPT come from many different denominations other than the Mennonite or Quaker peace churches which founded the organization in 1988. When I ask her if any atheists help out, she says that CPT asks participants to identify themselves as Christians.
“Toys ‘R’ Us was the first chain to stop carrying look-alike weapons,” says Evans, noting that the retailer has been responsive to some issues in the past. (I called the media relations department and left a message to see how this latest campaign might be going at corporate offices, but I have not yet received a reply. I also left contact info with CPT in case the actual participants might be available for comment, but no reply there yet, either. Stay tuned.)
The New Year’s Day activity appealed to me, because like millions of folks across the country this week, I am gearing up for the Spring semester. So I had syllabus on the brain when Simon Harak from the War Resisters League circulated the Jan. 8 CPT press release via email. As if in reply to Stan Goff’s recent call to begin a massive public education campaign, the CPT trainees had written the first lesson of the syllabus in the street, kicking off a Spring semester course about some fundamental issues in violence, mass media, and education.
The group that approached Toys ‘R’ Us was a temporary affiliation of folks brought together for training, so it is not clear that a follow-up campaign is planned. But there are millions of us looking for some alternative path to cut through the thicket of our day, and we could pick up the lesson where CPT leaves off.
I have from time to time indulged in these video games, so I don’t want to come off as holier than thou. War Craft has been my favorite weakness, sometimes for weeks in a row. I lost interest as soon I tried playing the game online, because it takes a 14-year-old kid about five minutes to exterminate my forces completely from the cyber field (yes, genocide), all the while sending me these little messages about how foolish I am to be challenging the master of the universe. Recently, I started playing America’s Army, but that’s going to go a little slower, because the Army is very particular about its training, and I have not yet qualified on the rifle range at virtual Ft. Benning, although I have tried a couple of times.
If we find genius in Poe, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Ridley Scott, then we know there is something sublime that stirs with images of the shadow side. But we also know from scholars such as Col. Dan Grossman of Killology.Com that these video games mimic precise techniques developed by expert military trainers who want to make effective killers out of High School recruits.
For the time being I want to set aside the meaning of these games for adult audiences, who may even belong to military occupations (an interesting pun that I’ll leave in place), and who certainly are able to make judgments about differences between combat, games, and other forms of life. I was a kid once at Ft. Benning. I know these soldiers when they come home at night as daddies, so I don’t want to say anything quick about these games under adult circumstances. Let’s deal with that issue another week.
But it does seem to me that the Christian Peacemakers have clear logic on their side when they express concern about these games, rated for blood and violence, promoted and displayed behind a logo that represents “toy joy” for children.
“Participants outside the store drew public attention to the direct connection between ongoing violence in the Middle East and the impact of violent toys on children,” says the CPT press release from Chicago. “The witness included a prayerful vigil in which CPTers read the names of U.S. soldiers from Illinois together with names of some of the thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died over the last two years in Iraq. As the names were called out, one participant pantomimed a child playing a violent video game, symbolically represented as a coffin.”
Last night I watched Citizen King on my local PBS affiliate and I can assure you that it is flatly untrue to claim, as Fable claims in its copy, and as the video industry echoes in chorus, that every hero must learn to kill. Every hero must certainly stake his or her life, which means that Christian Peacemakers and Martin Kings are heroes as big as they come. James Forman died this week. Dramatize the challenges that such heroes face, and there will be enough reason to grip your game controller as you dodge the Klan, the FBI, and who knows what else, as you do whatever is necessary to save the soul of America from demons that never really die.
With the sad and wasted 2004 fully buried in the past, a Spring syllabus is just the thing I’m looking for. And thanks to the Christian Peacemakers, a profound national syllabus is lifted up from the streets. It is a syllabus about the roots of violence that we nurture in our American life. Every hero must learn something. Learning about the roots of our own violence can help to make heroes of us all.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: email@example.com