If you have the time and the stomach to play the “campaign” portion of Call of Duty: Black Ops, you’re invited to take part in the torture of a bound and helpless captive.

This isn’t a “cut-away” scene where you watch digitally created characters in the game’s story arch perform feats that the play-action simply can’t accommodate. Call of Duty makes you an active participant.

Press “X” to break glass.

Press “O” to jam glass into suspect’s mouth.

Press “X” to punch suspect in the jaw.

I can’t say the process paralyzed  me with horror because my thumbs were pressing the buttons as commanded. For all intents and purposes, I had just tortured my first man. The game’s stunning graphic engine made the experience as vivid as real life.

As a youth, the most powerful graphic engine in video games was the user imagination. You had to accept that Dig Dug was human, that there truly was something energizing in Pac-Man’s power pellets, or that Bowser really had the intellect for kidnapping royalty. Filling in the blanks was part of the game play.

But graphics evolved. I remember the first time I witnessed Sub Zero freeze an opponent and break him into bloody pieces. The monsters that burst from the shadows of Doom used to make me jolt from my chair. Imagination was replaced bit by bit. I looked at my old shoe box of games – Missile Command, Castlevania, Legend of Zelda – with a smirk of amusement on my face. How was I ever entertained by such low-tech antiquities?

During the late-night-hours of the first couple weeks that followed the birth of my first son, I spent the time between feedings playing Grand Theft Auto. I was enchanted by becoming a citizen of an entirely computer-generated community which required nothing from me but violence. I participated in all manner of crimes, from simple theft to cold-blooded murder. Good times.

But I began to note alarming changes in my real-world thought processes. I found myself scanning rooftops for suitable sniping positions. A fire engine raced by, and I fondly recalled driving one in Grand Theft Auto – as if the digital experience was equitable to real life. I wondered what it would be like to stroll the sidewalk and attack a man with a baseball bat and relieve him of his wallet.

And I was an adult, supposedly capable of separating real life from the fantastic storyline of a video game. How do pre-teen minds – still under construction – cope with the too-real imagery of bursting craniums and sucking chest wounds?

After I tortured the suspect and received the information I was looking for, I switched off Call of Duty: Black Ops never to continue the campaign again. I didn’t have the stomach for torture. My son, who’s life began with my foray into Grand Theft Auto, is now a fourth grader who reacts with dismay whenever I deny him the opportunity to play a first-person shooter on the Playstation.

“My friends play them!” he indignantly exclaims.

But that’s what I’m afraid of.

On December 21, 2012, the NRA went on record to blame everything but their sponsorship of firearms as the perpetrator for gun violence in our schools. Video games was a culprit the stubborn spokesperson singled out. I’m not sure what role video games play in the shootings at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Columbine and Newton. But I do know that violence is more entertaining than ever – perhaps even more so than in the days of the gladiator.

The massacre of 26 people in real life is a calamity. In video games, it’s just a low score. 

 

 

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