Tuesday, July 31, 2007


During a lovely conversation with a group of students yesterday after my lecture on the Bronze Age Aegean, the subject of time arose. Not an unusual topic for a humanities class, but the context was the question of violence in video games, rather than time lines or conceptions of time throughout time, etc. Everyone at the table (a group whose task it is this quarter to conduct research on ancient Japan and to create a presentation based on what they learn) was anxious to defend their favorite video games and to supply reasons why reasonable people might want to play hyper-violent games like the subject of my previous rant, Bioshock.

I was pleasantly surprised at how cogent their reasoning was, even though most of their conclusions relied on somewhat limited notions of human “nature” and the role of violence and conflict in history. One chap even brought up a psychological study (that he’d heard about from, I seem to recall, his sister, who is a psychologist) about conflict and bonding to support the notion that tendencies toward violence are staple components of human behavior. The main problem with the whole conversation, however, stemmed from an all-too-common confusion of the is/ought question. Human beings have always encountered violence, goes the premise, and have, more often than not, solved problems through wars, etc. Human “nature” is violent; just look at the statistics, the news, and other evidence and one has to come to the inexorable conclusion that we’re a violent species. Everyone seems to have the same picture in their heads: the scene from the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which primates get started on the road to humanity when they not only discover tools, but discover how to beat the crap out of their fellow primates with these same tools. I kill; therefore I am.

But, I countered, do we really have to be this way? If we do, in fact, possess free will, is it not possible to learn how not to solve our problems by blowing each other up?

One difficulty seems to stem from the fact that this generation lacks the metaphors that were available even just a half-generation ago: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter and Arafat. Not only that, but what they have instead simply reinforces the presumed inevitability of conflict: Iraq, Darfur, Palestine–and their parents’ memory of Viet Nam. The present government in the U.S. refuses even to discuss matters with “rogue nations” lest conversation beget legitimacy, so the ability to solve problems through dialogue has diminished considerably. The ultra-violent video games, I suggested to my students, only add to the dilemma, because they reinforce the notion that brutality is necessary.

“But that’s the nature of video games,” they countered. “They have to be exciting. They’re entertainment.” Sitting around talking about problems, it seems, is boring. Or at least it’s not something you want to watch on the screen. Apparently, what I need to be able to do to save the world is to inspire a bunch of game designers to create an “exciting” game about nonviolent negotiation. Hmmm . . . .

As we sat around talking about the matter (which most of us seemed to find fairly stimulating, even if it didn’t raise our blood pressure significantly), I posed my concern about the issue of children raising children in the modern world, because I see this as a crucial element. “How many of you ever sit down to a meal with your parents?” I asked. None, as it turned out–but they’re all in college, living away from home, and probably only see their parents at holiday gatherings. “Okay,” I countered, “What about when you were still in high school and living with your parents? How much time did you spend with them?” “Seldom” and “little” were the answers. “Too busy” was the excuse.

“Doing what?” I asked, with mounting trepidation.

“Playing video games.” This got a laugh. In all seriousness, however, they each expressed some regret that their final years at home–what should have been the capstone of their education as a family–were woefully short on contact hours with Mom and Dad and the sibs. Everyone had his or her own “thing” to accomplish. Parents were working (in part to help put their kids through a pricey college), brothers and sisters were hanging out with their own friends (playing video games?), so there wasn’t much time for conversation. There might have been time for arguing and conflict, however, so I’ll have to pose that question later. How much of domestic conversation these days is devoted to sharing ideas, and how much to arguing about whether or not the kids need to have a curfew or wear baggy pants–or play video games?

Now, my childhood was far from idyllic–or so it seemed to me as I was growing up. Frequent moves meant that leave-taking and emotional upheaval were common events; my parents divorced in my mid-teens; two cousins were killed in violent accidents: the usual stuff of human comedy. So the fact that I can look back on it all with fondness and even (at times) awe, means that it went well, in the long run. And the memories that stand out are significant: being taught to cook by an Italian friend of my mother; leisurely Sunday afternoons in a boat on Green Lake in Taiwan, where my parents and their friends taught me to swim; trips to the beach with the parents and our dog Griso (in a headscarf and sunglasses) in a beat-up ‘48 Chevy convertible with a hole in the floor; the “Mission Rounds” in Wulai, where we met with priest-friends and Taiwanese Aborigines and brought back home-made salami and fresh veggies from the mission garden; lunch at the Friends of China Club or the Foreign Correspondents Club, where I met people like Roy Crane (Buzz Sawyer), who drew a little cartoon for me on a note pad. Some of this was extraordinary, to be sure, but some was everyday stuff. The common ingredient was this: my brother and I were raised around and by adults. We saw our peers at school (in small classes taught by very strict Dominican nuns), and occasionally one would spend the weekend, but generally our world was dominated by adults. Nowadays, the situation seems to be reversed, so that children spend far more time with other children than with parents.

Which brings me back to the question of time.

Time is a concept invented by human beings, and mediated by technology. The commodification of time in the post-industrial, capitalist world (“Time is money,” the old saw goes) means that whatever “time” is, it doesn’t “belong” to us any more. We are constantly at the mercy and dictate of the clock (my new computer has a cute “gadget”: an image of an analogue clock on my desktop, right under the “local weather” icon). A major modern metaphor consists of the clock (remember Modern Times?), and the sound of seconds, ticking away.

I can remember being astonished when my students started looking at their watches to see what day it was, and I’m not yet used to the idea that they don’t even wear watches anymore (except as accessories, like jewelry)–they simply look at their cell phones when I ask them what time it is (since I neither wear a watch nor own a cell phone). If I’m not at my computer, I only have a relative sense of time, and try to be aware of “when” according to habits, the position of the sun, whether or not the dogs are acting hungry. But so many of our technologies revolve around time (television, radio, kitchen ranges, microwaves, coffee machines, automobiles, computers–everything’s got a clock) that avoidance is really impossible. And since I’m paid to be in the classroom at a certain hour each day, and for a measured length of time, there’s really no escaping it: hence my need to ask students what time it is in the first place (although my ability to sense when a break is due is something of a legend among them; the first part of class is inevitably an hour and a half, usually within five minutes of being spot on).

So: time and video games? Two items.

One, playing video games (violent or not) suspends the sense of time. When I’m playing, I lose all notion of “when.” The world consists of me and whatever is happening on the screen, and I’m isolated from everything else. I’m pretty sure that this divorcement from the outside world is radically different from what happens when I read a book or work in the garden, even though these are also solitary activities. My students pointed out that gaming provides its own kind of community (I remember my son’s LAN parties, with huge CPUs strung out all over the house, connected with wires in the days before wireless systems existed), but that’s probably a topic for a later post. I’m pretty sure there are fundamental differences in the quality of the community experience between game-playing online (or even on separate units in the same room) and face-to-face interactions that don’t involve blowing things up.

Two, if families were to take time back from the corporations, the technologies, and whatever other phenomena compromise our ability form communities with our own children, it might be possible to help them imagine a future that is not dictated by violence and conflict. “That’s the way it’s always been” is not an argument. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and others have shown us that there are alternatives that can be made to work. But the political will has to exist for these alternatives to develop, and if people keep throwing up their hands and saying “it’s human nature” or whatever the excuse du jour is. William Morris himself, despite his ability to imagine a nonviolent future, thought that violent revolution was an inevitable precursor to utopia. But during Morris’s time, human beings did not yet have to power to eradicate life from the earth. We must find an alternative.

If we want to ensure the survival of our children (or at least our children’s children), taking time to help them learn from us, rather than from their peers or from those terribly exciting but morally dangerous games, is vital. Educators have a particular responsibility, because we form a sort of bridge between family and other, "external" communities. My recent encounter with my students showed me how hungry they all are for real conversation: for people to listen, and to share ideas, to argue, to affirm, to refute, to engage. For all our sakes, we really do need to take the time.

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