“But I Know It’s Not Real!” – Kids, Video Games and Guns

Samuel Sattin introduces a new generation to the latest in violent video games, and realizes that much has changed since the days of Zelda and Duck Hunt.

Originally appeared at The Weeklings

I can’t say I was happy when my wife’s friend brought over her seven-year-old terrorist of a child, Charlie, one summer afternoon in 2010, the same day I brought home a freshly cellophaned copy of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. All I’d wanted to do was pop it into my first edition PlayStation 3 (the one that looks like a Prometheus stage prop), sit on my ass, forget my name, and blow some shit up. The entire Uncharted franchise is basically a cross between the Indiana Jones movies (sans Crystal Skull) and every Die Hard ever made, and the truth is that when I surrender myself to such afternoons with my PlayStation, I’m partial to doing so with 16 grams of weed.

Charlie himself could be, as his mother was prone to say, ‘feral.’ His fundamental impulse was to savagely attack the male testicular region with whatever object turned convenient. It didn’t matter whose testicles they were. If a pair happened to enter his purview, he just lunged at them like a jaguar.

But when Charlie walked into my living room in a Captain Flapjack t-shirt, he was immediately intrigued by the Tibetan snow flurry conjured on my 27-inch flat screen. And truth be told, my heart just crumbled watching his lusty gaze. I felt … young again.

“Whoa … .” he said, bushy hair practically shocked awake. He knew exactly what he was looking at. Every child does, whether from Oakland or Macau.

“Can I play?” he asked.

A question I found all too familiar. I’d grown up in the era of Megaman, anyway. Contra. Castlevania. Zelda. Duck Hunt. The Silver Age of Nintendo Power, both as a magazine and an idea. I practically spent my entire childhood uttering those very words: “Can I play?” with murderous insistence. In the moment, my insouciant childhood was jarred to the forefront, and suddenly I knew that if I didn’t do the right thing here, I’d be exactly the type of person that, when I was seven, I liked to hate.

“Of course you can,” I said, with what I hoped was a cool-grownup smile. The safety of my nether regions were no longer of concern. This was going to blow Charlie’s mind.  Not only was he going to play a video game. He was going to play the title IGN rated 9.5 out of 10, and that caused PlayStation Magazine to extol, “Forget Game of The Year. This is one of the greatest games of all time!”

I handed over the controller, which Charlie proceeded to examine like an alien landmine. The kid knew squat about the medium.  Charlie’s father’s house was austere, moneyed, and mirthless, and the man himself, no different. Charlie’s mother’s, an upbeat woman with a background in modern dance and a love for the Goddess, though caring and attentive, had lodged video games in a category as foreign as Statistical Thermodynamics. In her walk-up apartment were mostly books on Native American basket looms, and other things you tend to find in Bay Area, feng shui domiciles.

Charlie nibbled his tongue as he thumbed the wrong controls, so I repositioned them, encouraging familiarity. For anyone who knows Uncharted 2, I’d just watched the opening cut scene and now come back to the present, where, wounded, Drake picks up his first weapon, and proceeds to wind his way from a train wreck.

Charlie’s eyes bulged as he shot that weapon. He became mesmerized at the cordite BOOMs on the screen. I had discovered a rehabilitation tool for budding ball-busters the world over.

But before he could finish the phrase, “This is soooooo cool,” the living room door creaked open.

“Whatcha two playing?” Charlie’s mother said with a fanciful hand flourish. Hers was a look of kind concern as she took in the images on the screen. Parenthood (especially when replete with a dubious partner) conjured a fair amount of trepidation.

“It’s okay, mom,” the seven-year-old whined, as if he’d anticipated what was to come.

His mother saw the gun on the screen. The bullets flying. The trains burning.

“No,” she said. He winced as his mother gently began to drag him from the screen and into the kitchen. “Swords are okay. But not guns. Way too violent.”

“But I know it’s not real,” Charlie said, his signature ferret-y grin returning as he struggled from his mother’s grip. At one point, he gave her a smack. “I know it’s not real!”

At the moment I’d failed to understand what sin I, Charlie, or poor Nathan Drake had just committed. Only after Charlie had been removed to the kitchen to recuperate did his mother came back to fill me in. With a mixture of sweet and stern, she thanked me for playing with him, appreciative of male guidance in his life other than his father’s.

“He’s just not old enough for guns,” she said. “You’ll understand when you’re a parent. For now, only swords.”

I nodded my head, a little embarrassed. As she left the room the reality set in that I’d been teaching her seven-year-old boy how to fire a virtual firearm. Uncharted’s variation on the Colt .45.

For a while afterwards I went between feeling culpable and self-righteous. When not indignant, I couldn’t keep from thinking, in retrospect, it had been my onus to protect Charlie from harm. We live in the age of Columbine, Springfield, Aurora. And I was the adult. The arbiter of good sense. I was, some might say, part of the village. And now, when I’d had my chance to impart some knowledge, as opposed to teaching an already volatile child how to play chess, I’d taught him how to gun down smugglers in the Tibetan frost in the aftermath of a train crash. What type of asshole was I?

In the wake of recent gun violence in the United States, a phenomenon taking on the dimensions of an epidemic, there’s been a lot of conversation about cause and effect. Who’s accountable when a Jared Loughner patrons his local Walmart to pick up ammo for his Glock? Or when a James Holmes dashes into a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, less than a mile from the house I grew up in, only to make you wish Batman really existed? Is it the fault of individualism? Rightwing extremism? The PlayStation, the X-BOX, and the Wii? In the morass of Second Amendment bombast and counter bombast—much of which this debate revolves around—I found myself looking at the sources of American fantasy, and whether or not they truly, in some form or another, could be looked upon for slaying the sanity of our youth.

As a thought experiment, I decided to compare the video game I played as a seven-year-old, Contra, for the original Nintendo, with the most violent video game I came across in the last three years: Sniper Elite V2, for the PlayStation 3.



CONTRA (NES, 1987):

Premise: Lance ‘Scorpion’ Bean and Bill “Mad Dog’ Rizer, are sent, side scroll, through what is practically Vietnam, to destroy the alien terrorist group Red Falcon.

Weapons:  Rifle, Spread Gun, Flame Torch, Rapid Fire Gun, and Barrier Gun.

Level of Violence: What made this game a challenge for me at seven (particularly until I found The Code) is that touching anything kills you instantly, an act depicted with aBrrrrzzzoowww sound, and a bloodless fade into oblivion.



SNIPER ELITE V2 (PS3, 2012):

Premise: OSS Officer Karl Fairburne fights through Nazi and Soviet operatives in the final days of WWII in attempt to destroy ballistic missiles.

Weapons: You have a variety of weapons to choose from, including sniper rifles. The game is stealth-based, which means most of it involves skulking about for your next target, and blowing it away from a distance.

Level of Violence: The most controversial feature of SEV2 is the X-Ray Kill Cam. When you fire your sniper rifle, the Cam activates, following the bullet’s trajectory in slow motion as it reaches its target, and then goes inside the target, tearing apart organs and bones.

Things had certainly changed since I was kid. If not in subject matter, then in the degree of reality rendered digital. Maybe I really had made a mistake with Charlie, not thinking to realize that the world had become a different place since 1987.


There’s something about narrative, however–perhaps in its inborn mendacity–that’s hard to twist out of focus. I’ve always thought people who try to demonize entertainment culture, especially modules that feature violence, even in the modern age, are lacking in crucial grey matter. Obviously guns are an issue in this country. Though I might be able to see the validity in owning a Beretta for self-defense after actual psychological testing (not the current NICS-touted bullshit), there is no reason anyone not defending a full-on land war should be handling an AK-47.

But at the same time, just because we should decrease our access to guns does not mean that art should be anesthetized from exploring, or even acting out, images of violence, as a vaccine for the daily news. Reality and representation aren’t mutually exclusive, even when they appear to be. And how important was it to eschew all references to firearms, or weapons in general, afraid of what exposure may bring?  Are swords really ‘okay’ for a seven-year-old, as opposed to semi-automatic weapons?  I’d heard such logic used before, and was bothered by it. Swords are antiquated weapons, sure, but sheared flays of steel nonetheless, designed to maim, gut, slit, and splay. Just read a page from A Song of Ice and Fire (the grotesque and popular basis for Game of Thrones) to get a feel for how grizzly blades can be.

Children, even feral ones, however, whether born in 1982 or 2005, are experts at make-believe. They’re also experts in knowing when someone crosses the line. If an injury occurs, a game is over. Adults are alerted. If negligence is at fault, someone gets in trouble. When I first began playing video games, no one had to tell me what was real and what wasn’t. I didn’t have a perfect home either, but I knew that only when you took a plastic cartridge with some sensational illustration, blew the dust away from the bottom, and inserted it in the electronic grey box, was an image was projected on a screen. If the power went out, the game was done. If you had no television, it never started. In some ways, I wonder if games with a high amount of interactivity served to strengthen my ability to distinguish the real world from pretend. In the digital world, you can defeat fire-breathing dragons. In reality, however, the place you call home could be a dragon itself, and you could never defeat it, no matter how hard you tried.

I’m not saying that I should have let Charlie play Uncharted 2 that day in my house. I might have considered that certain narratives appeal to children while others do not. And some subjects are premature.  I wouldn’t have dared show Charlie Grand Theft Auto, for instanceOr God of War I through III, for that matter, because someone’s head is ripped off pretty much every six and a half seconds. But isn’t it possible that a fear of new technology, and new modes of pretend, can also affect our youth?

I understood why Charlie’s mother fretted for her child, and I’ll never let anyone’s child but mine touch anything I own without ironclad legal protection (a symptom of the 21stcentury if there ever was one). But I also don’t know if Uncharted 2 would be capable of causing a young mind to snap.  I saw the glee in Charlie’s eyes that day.  He’d begun to detach himself from the discord surrounding him in his daily life, disappearing into a less concrete world. Sometimes I just worry that if children can’t decide on the boundaries between reality and fantasy for themselves once in a while, they’ll become convinced that dark urges are only fit for real life, where the realm of make-believe is rarely welcome. And that would be truly frightening in my opinion. A genuine cause for concern.


Read more on Guns.

About the author: Samuel Sattin, Mills College MFA, lives in Oakland, California.  His debut novel, The League of Somebodies, is being released by Dark Coast Press (www.darkcoastpress.com) in March of 2013.  A recipient of NYS and SLS Merit Fellowships, he has been published in The Cobalt Review, Cent Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, and Generations Literary Journal.





Feature image of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves courtesy of Jp Gary/Flickr

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  1. Nice article, very thought provoking and not at all what I was expecting.

  2. OirishM says:

    Given that this seems to be turning into a debate on gun ownership, I must say I find the current debate in the US interesting. One side is blaming games, the other guns.

    I’ve never shot a gun in my life (can’t in the UK, or at least not anything I’d be interested in learning to shoot) but I am a gamer, and it’s annoying seeing the media/antis describe an entire group on the basis of the insane outliers. It’s certainly made me a lot more sympathetic towards the majority of sensible gun owners in the US. Perhaps both sides could stand to trust each other a little better.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    Bravo for writing something that was so enjoyable to read, instead of what you often see written about video games: “vidya gamez RULEZ!!!!!!!!”

  4. This games are really intersting for every one

  5. Ok the last part of my comment sounded alittle crazy and anit government. I don’t like the fact that other people have fire arms but I like owning them myself is what I meant by that. Yeah I’m a selfish butthead I know.

  6. I usually don’t comment to discussions online but felt I probably should to this one. I don’t know why anyone would think swords are some how less violent. It’s alot more close and personal running steel through someones chest standing face to face and feeling them as you do it than shooting them through the chest with a .308 round at 1000 meters…. just sayin. As for rifles being weapons, yes rifles are weapons and so is a pair of scissors. Everyone knows rifles, pistols, and guns are weapons.
    Assault rifles are generally rifles with smaller caliber rounds than that of traditional rifles and usually have a high mag capacity (they hold more bullets in a magazine) some are fully automatic. They are designed to be lighter (smaller rifle caliber bullets weigh less and can carry more in a pack) and used in short to medium range settings i.e. urban combat (the first assault rifles were designed for urban combat by the germans, funny enough the ak-47 you all keep mentioning was designed by a russian tanker to counter the german rifle too bad it came out in 1947… alittle late :p).
    There are machineguns which are fully automatic guns designed for suppressing an enemy (think m60 aka Rambos’ machine gun) and sub machine guns which are machine guns with pistol caliber rounds (think a thompson aka tommy gun aka chicago typewriter lol). Now a full auto assault rifle is not that easy to fire and is probably significantly less effective at producing casualties because it’s harder to control for somebody not practiced in shooting it. What it seems you don’t realize is it’s hard to obtain a fully automatic weapon as you need a permit and it’s hard to obtain one (well not that hard, but hard enough) so don’t think all assualt rifles are automatic in fact ak-47 and ak variants in the US are usually semi-automatic.
    Dude letting a kid play a violent video game is not training them to go out and get in firefights with people. It takes alot of thought, time, and real training to be proficient and deadly in that but it might give the kid false ideas about what real violence is and make him take real violence alot lighter than he should. I don’t think he’ll run out and kill anyone though.
    So basically I don’t think kids should play anything more violent than minecraft (beating a frankenstein with a pixelated sword until it turns into a puff of smoke is violent enough), it scares me that there are stupid, untrained, and potentially crazy people running around with firearms but the second amendment was put there to protect private citizens from government, both foreign and our own, and I don’t want the government taking my guns away lol. It’s a catch 22 whats ya gunna do?

  7. Kirsten (in MT) says:

    “there is no reason anyone not defending a full-on land war should be handling an AK-47.”

    Sure there are. They can be fun to shoot, and because free individuals don’t need permission to exercise their rights peacefully.

    • Ahaha. No. While I won’t say that guns themselves should be banned, you do realize that such a device is a weapon, right? I’m all for fun unless someone gets hurt, but letting such a dangerous thing out in public with so little regulation is far too dangerous. Some guns are fine (although, really, regulation should be upped considerably), hand guns and rifles I can understand. A full on weapon of war? There are people who will kill people regardless of gun regulation and laws, but for no reason should we make it easier for them by letting people buy a war machine without precaution. If people really want to shoot one, automatic weapons they can be kept at the firing range, under lock and key. Your rights to own a weapon don’t trump the rights of peoples peace and security.

      • In what way does ownership of a automatic rifle infringe upon your peace and security? That is your own personal fear and it is not the responsibility of anyone else to make you feel at ease. I do not fear people owning automatic rifles because I know that people who own them are generally very careful and responsible (look up firearm related (accidental discharge) deaths vs. total deaths. I actually feel safer when a private citizen is free to bear arms in public, how often do you hear of one of those crazy people shooting up a gun show or any other place with a large gun carrying population?

        As to purchasing a war machine? Anyone can make a pipe bomb, a cannon. Mount that cannon to a car, it’s a war machine, but anyone can make it, are you going to regulate purchase of gunpowder? sulfur? steel pipes? Many times when people speak of these issues, the fail to think through the consequences if their point of view succeeds. What type of regulation should be imposed on firearm ownership? What constitutes a weapon of war? Where does it end? Can you trust that no one will ever abuse “reasonable” gun control to limit our personal freedoms?

        As you said, people who want to kill others will do so regardless of access, but you say we should limit one of the most important rights to make it slightly more difficult for crazy people? That type of thinking is what allows the TSA to violate our right to no unreasonable searches.

        The 2nd amendment is the last line of defense to protect against government oppression of its population, which is looking more and more likely as all branches of law enforcement becomes more militarized. It is like having insurance, you never want to use it, but you want to have it anyways.

        Yes, preventable deaths and crazy shootings are a tragedy, but the moment we begin to give up our personal freedoms for an illusion of safety, then what is the point?

        • So the government is going to suddenly choose to turn into a totalitarian state and come bursting down your doors? What a laugh! Sacrifice personal freedoms? There is limits to everything. With freedom of speech it is illegal to provoke violence or threaten someone. The same thing with the second amendment. Look at Canada, for instance: stricter gun regulation, even after having a conservative government in power, and there proportionally less murders and casualties compared to the United States free-for-all. People in Canada and other Western countries are scared of traveling to the US precicely because of the rampant guns and paranoia. Know what? In most Western countries, no fears the government. They may dislike individual parties, but no one is scared of it. This anti-government belief in the US is nothing but a remnant of Cold War paranoia. Yes, the amendments are important, but if there were no limit to freedom, there would be nothing but anarchy. Everything needs limits.

    • Christopher Montealegre says:

      just what i was thinkin’!!


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