Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Grand Theft Irony

Okay, so when I was a teenager, back before roving bands of kids skulking around with water guns constituted a national-security threat, we played a game we called Assassins. We each had one target, we each were a target to one other player, and our goal was to take that target out--without being taken out ourselves--using water pistol, water balloon, or Super Soaker. It was a fun game and a great way to spend the summer, planning out strategy, staging ambushes, never knowing who the enemy was or when the icy stream of an assassin's attack would wind its way down our spine. And not one of us, not even my gun-crazy friend Newman, ever progressed from Super-Soaker attacks to the real thing or thought for a moment that actually killing someone was in any way an appropriate or acceptable response to a real-life problem.

Similarly, I have played, and enjoyed, the game Grand Theft Auto. I like driving around town and exploring what the game designers have created, and while I'm not crazy about the first-person shooter aspects of it, I'm kind of tickled to be able to steal someone's car and run them down with it. I do have to wait a couple of hours before actually getting behind the wheel of an actual car, because I'm an assertive enough driver anyway, but I recognize that it's a game and that running down old ladies and shooting up dry storefronts and beating up hookers isn't something that you're meant to do in real life. It's not okay.

So what in Dick Cheney's own hell is this kid's problem?

It's fun to do bad things! He just wanted to do hood rat stuff with his friends!

You can blame a lot of stuff on bad parenting, and I suspect that this kid might suffer from lack of supervision among other things, but you can bet he has never gotten the message that bad things are, y'know, bad to do. Despite being fun. Bad. He probably wasn't led by his mother to believe that doing "hood rat stuff" and running a stolen SUV into things is acceptable behavior.

So where's the disconnect? Where, in kids, is the line between "it's fun" and "but it's bad so I shouldn't do it"? What's the inherent difference between a kid who can make that distinction and a kid who can't?

I think kids these days lack a sense of irony. They don't get that Grand Theft Auto is funny because you don't actually win "health points" in real life by patronizing prostitutes. They don't understand that Road Runner cartoons are funny because coyotes don't actually make coyote-shaped holes when they fall off of cliffs (or flatten out into coyote-shaped pancakes) and then make a full recovery. They demand literalism in all things, and when they're presented with something that requires any appreciation of satire, it flies right over their little heads.

Humor and irony should be required subjects starting early in elementary education and carrying well into high school. Tom & Jerry through Jonathan Swift. Why is this funny? Why do we laugh at this? What does this tell us about our lives? Sure, funny things sometimes lose a bit of their humor on analysis, but when you're faced with a crisis, sometimes you have to sacrifice a bit of humor in the interest of public safety. I would much rather have a teen driver on the road who knows the difference between an entertaining video game and real life--or a kid in high school who knows the difference between a song lyric and a life strategy--than one who can watch a Simpsons episode with a chuckle and then go to set the cat on fire.

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