On a fall afternoon a few years ago, inside my dorm room at Deerfield Academy, I started hearing gunshots. I had been warned that in America people hunt with guns. I comforted myself with this thought at first, but the sounds went on and on and grew increasingly familiar. It can’t be hunting, I thought. Why would anyone be hunting on the grounds of a Massachusetts prep school?
One of literature’s enduring techniques is defamiliarization. Sometimes it’s used in historical fiction, such as in Naomi Williams’ “Snow Men“, an account of the Tlingit Indians’ first encounter with Europeans in the 18th century (her novel Landfalls, coming this summer, will expand on the story). Science fiction and fantasy makes heavy use of the technique as well; some of the most beloved Star Trek characters, such as Data and Mr. Spock, are fashioned as mirrors by which humanity can see itself (not that it seems to have helped much).
Irankunda is the mirror in this very personal essay (available online), reviewing his experience as a Burundi teen newly arrived at an American school. He holds the mirror up to our tendency towards violent recreation, specifically, first-person-shooter video games.
Irankunda knows a thing or two about first-person violence. He tells us about the war that filled his life for over a decade, as well as what we might see as lesser violence: Burundi-style school hazing. It’s in his exploration of the hazing that I truly felt pulled into this story, since he intimates that the bully needs his victim, even considers him a friend, and just doesn’t have the empathy to realize that it’s no fun being the target of this type of aggression.
I lived through 13 years of civil war. I know that violence can become almost a culture in itself, and that it twists not all but many of the people who are trapped in it. Of course, not all the children who grew up in the war became violent. How you responded to your own resentments, whether you seethed with thoughts of revenge, how your parents, neighbors, and friends responded to the bloodshed—all of these things helped determine your own taste for violence. I was lucky. Many others were not.
Violent video games have become a divisive point in American culture; it seems there are those who feel they cause real-time violence, and those who think that’s nonsense. I’ve never played a shooting video game, or any modern video game since PacMan, not even Angry Birds, since I don’t have a gizmo. While I’m very curious about Portal and puzzle-solving games, I have no desire to place myself in a combat or crime situation. It isn’t so much that violence bothers me (though my tolerance for tv and movie violence has decreased over the years); I’m just not that interested.
I can’t really say what the difference is between me and a player of war games, other than preference. If I had a kid who played shooters all day, I’d be a little concerned. I don’t know if I’d have reason to be; lots of people play them and don’t end up shooting up schools. I lean towards the “they’re attractive to those who are prone to violence” rather than the “they cause violence” side. But I have no real basis for that, other than a recent study that showed no correlation, let alone causation.
But there’s still this guy from Burundi wondering why we’re so obsessed with violence. Be honest: though video games are more participatory than spectator sports, we love our movies bloody as well. Boxing and football are big business, and the blood (and permanent neurological damage) is real, not pixels on a screen. Revolutionary and Civil War reenactments, though blood isn’t involved (except accidentally) are cultural heritage in some families. The news media’s dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” exists for a reason.
Game journalist Gus Mastrapa read Irakunda’s article, and considered something I’ve often thought about: “Part of me wonders if I haven’t come to appreciate games about a particular kind of struggle because I’ve found a somewhat comfortable place in my life.” I’m not sure that would hold up in an empirical study, but it’d be interesting to find out. Irankunda obviously doesn’t have a taste for video gore; he wonders (as do I) if Chrysostom, the bully, would. Then he thinks of the soldiers who turned his world into nonstop terror; would they like on-screen violence? I wonder: would a video game give them a safer outlet and remove them from real-life violence, or merely inflame them to more bloodshed?
I think back to the documentary film “The Act of Killing”, examining the present-day reaction of Anwar Congo to the participatory reenactment of his past: in the 1960’s he was a “gangster” responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent citizens at the behest of a corrupt government. He seemed to feel genuine remorse, both in the present and over the past. Was that a matter of maturity, of having seen more of the world and thus being less willing to destroy parts of it? Or is it a matter of personality, the nugget of repentance in him? Are other former mass slaughterers more sanguine about their role?
This simple essay raises multiple questions. If the answers existed already, we wouldn’t need to ask questions.
From Deerfield Academy, Irankunda went on to study psychology and political science at Williams College, and now works for educational and mental health services for Burundi; his essay won the Elie Wiesel Prize in ethics. He’s got his life’s work cut out for him; lots of human psychology could come out of the study our appetite for violence. Maybe, with his experiences in mind, he’ll discover something that will help keep us from turning violence against each other.