The hypocrisy of my life is corroding my insides, and confession is the only cure. Outwardly — in dinner conversations, on social media, at girls’ nights — I go all frothy-mouthed about gun control, all soapbox-y on the nefarious NRA, all high-horsey over our nation’s sick obsession with firearms.
But in a dimly lit corner of my home, probably even as you read this, my sweet 12-year-old son who still orders off the kids’ menu is entertaining himself by assassinating animated strangers with a digital assault rifle — the very weapon now dominating public debate.
He’s playing Fortnite, the viral video game that 45+ million people are currently obsessed with. It’s a Hunger Games–style scenario: You drop into a dystopian landscape with 99 other players and try to be the last player alive at the end. An AR, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle help you accomplish this goal.
I’ve never allowed shooting games in my house before. “It’s not a shooting game,” my son insists. “It’s a survival game.” Well … you survive by shooting people.
So why now? Why suddenly relax my strict anti-violence entertainment standards? Mostly because this game is collaborative and he can play in real time with his equally obsessed and beloved brother, who’s at college 2,000 miles away. Apparently, the family that kills together chills together.
When I ask said older brother why we should allow his baby bro to execute people on our flat screen when our nation is suffering so acutely from too-many-damned-people-shooting-each-other, he assures me, “It’s not one of those games where the object is to mow down as many people as you can indiscriminately.” I’m supposed to feel relief. “I mean, you let him watch Looney Tunes when he was 5, where cartoon characters were beating the crap out of each other.” Well, yeah, but … come on, that’s … All right; point taken.
Recent studies find no links between violent video games and violent real-life behavior. But in a country where nearly 100 people are shot to death daily, why in Glock’s name would we give children rifles as toys? Why teach them via repetitive motion as their brains are quite literally developing that snuffing out other humans is satisfying — and bloodless? (Did I mention that you get more points in this game for a head shot than a body shot? And you can kill foes with your ax if you’d rather not waste bullets.)
I tell my kid to go outside and play with real friends. He visits a buddy’s house — where they shoot BB guns in the backyard before retiring indoors. To play Fortnite. I urge him to play a nice, old-fashioned board game instead. He and his snowflake Dad opt for Risk: “I’m attacking with cavalry. You’re all gonna die.” What is it with dudes and weapons of war?
I struggle to know whether the better parent defies the mob mentality and trusts her own pacifist instincts — or keeps her paranoia in check and instead trusts the instincts of her otherwise sage and moderately kind children. I struggle to know whether I truly fear for my son’s emotional development — or am just loath to watch my youngest slip out of innocent childhood and into toughened adolescence. (Fortnite is rated T for teen; my boy isn’t a teen. Damn it, not yet.)
I watch him play the game. I explain that taking things from abandoned houses — even to use as shields from flying bullets — is looting, and that looting is stealing. I ask how he could possibly carry all the tools he’s stealing in that tiny backpack. I inform him that “fortnight” means two weeks’ time. Turns out I’m not especially fun to have around when you’re playing a survival video game.
When he aims and fires at another player, who vanishes neatly from the screen, I ask how it feels. “I know he’s not actually dead. He’s going back to the beginning, and he’ll play again,” my son says. But he volunteers that he doesn’t like the way it sounds when he hears himself say, “I killed that guy.” You and me both, kid.
You and me both.
Starshine Roshell is a journalist, writing instructor and associate director of Media + Communications at Fielding Graduate University. She has been a beat news reporter, rock music and theater critic, travel writer and award-winning syndicated columnist. Her work has been published in The Hollywood Reporter, the New York Post, Westways magazine, and TheWeek. She has interviewed Gloria Steinem, Samantha Bee, George Clooney, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tom Hanks among others. Her writing courses are offered on lynda.com and LinkedIn Learning.