A Belated Response to Assorted Moral Criticisms of the NES

Author: Mike Craig

Of late, though not for any particular reason, I’ve been reminded of one of Dave Barry’s old columns. Around the turn of the decade, Barry leapt head first onto the bandwagon of ex-hippie parents and provincial congressmen who thought it necessary to deride, defame, and debase the NES. He called it “mindless”, and otherwise promoted the notion that it was an addictive, destructive agent that would wipe out the potential of an entire generation to make a difference.

Well, time has gone by. The NES has gone from the public’s pedestals to its closets, pawn shops, and, in the case of certain thoroughly misguided individuals, waste baskets. That in mind, a rebuttal of past moralistic attacks upon the system seems untimely. However, it troubles me that the “moral majority” has hitherto gone unchallenged on this issue. What they said may not have been acted upon by anybody of real influence, but it remains, in my view, a jutting thorn on the rosebush of NES-preservationism, nourished by the Miracle-Gro of critical misinformation (wow, I sure can milk a metaphor). I expect this sort of fabrication from partisan politicians, but it pains me to recall that a man I regard as our day’s greatest satirist has both bought into and defended these half-truths.

As a society, we have latched onto the notion of ascribing profoundness to a select group of mediums -- poetry, prose, drama, film, visual art (sketching, painting, sculpture, etching), and music. Frankly, this view resembles segregation to me. Moreover, as one who has been moved both to epiphany and emotion by television (assumed poster child for all things vapid and unintellectual) and video games, it strikes me as illogical. The only difference between television and print is that, in dealing with print, moralists see only classical literature, and in dealing with television, they see only daytime trash. For every Monica’s Story and topless lounge there is a Jerry Springer Show and a Tomb Raider; but likewise, for every Huck Finn and Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a Final Fantasy III and a Taxi (okay, so that comparison is a reach -- my point is that no medium is entirely genius or entirely crap). The creators of art (and yes, I am calling video games “art”) do not confine profundity to a fixed list of forms, powerful individuals with no self-originating comprehension of artistic meaning do, and the majority listens to the latter group because they are more prevalently audible. What Thoreau called our "wise minority" (in this case, the creators of profound video games/television programs) is content to produce its work for those who appreciate it, and let the backwards puritans dump on it all they like. This manner of discipline is commendable, but I’ve observed that complacency has allowed the dictatorial message to infiltrate the views of many gaming enthusiasts, including certain retro gamers (“It’s just a video game, man -- lighten up.”) Would we not be goaded to correct a person who saw Moby Dick as nothing more than a story about whaling? Well, I may be acting out of sheer arrogance (knowing me, that probably is the long and the short of it), but I feel obligated to defend classic videogaming against the many myths that, in its heyday, surrounded it.

Perhaps it is ironic that I -- a self-proclaimed opponent of contemporary gaming -- should defend the medium at this time. Maybe the points I will make can be plausibly used to defend the era I so dislike. But I don’t principally object to modern games on moral grounds; I object to them on aesthetic grounds. Thus, I’m not all that concerned with the possibility of people using this article as a defense of modern gaming. My impugn of that is reserved for another editorial. My intention here is to vindicate the NES from the dogmatists who called it corruptive (though I’ll probably just end up making an ass of myself.) If I seem to espouse modern gaming in the process, there’s nothing I can do about that.

Myth I: “Video games engender violent behavior”

Nobody denies that video games contain violence. Moreover, some, like Bryan Cord, have no qualms about proclaiming their love of “killing” digitized baddies (and to be frank, I’m one of them.) Of course, the people who propound the above “myth” aren’t concerned with people of Cord’s or my age. The question centers around what harmful effects might stem from the exposure of young children to this “brutality.”

However, one must recognize that the violence evident in video games (at least on the NES) exists for task purposes. The principle that spawned all shoot-em-up, beat-em-up, and other action games was the development of reflexes, not the destruction of “enemies.” But critics believed, even at the time of the NES, that the violence had escalated beyond that point -- that it was so real as to encourage children to settle all their problems with violence and only with violence.

Schoolyard fighting, however, is almost as old as elementary school. Young children may be impressionable, but, saliently in this case, they are undeveloped. (I do not mean to insult children or the beauty of childhood, but reason at that age is very fundamental.) Children have trouble differentiating between severe and slight injury, so they cry almost as much at a skinned knee as a broken one. By the same token, rage leads to violence -- be it violent screaming, a kick in the shin of an adult, or wrestling on the grass -- at this age. Some children react and aree inclined more in this way than others; many are not at all. This is simply a part of diverse emotional development -- adult reason may not be evident from birth, but individuality is.

Also, there is the age-old argument of NES violence not being “real.” Looking back upon my youth, I do not recall I or any of my friends being compelled to harm one another because Mega Man shot some yellow ellipses into a robotic frog that summarily blew up in a yellowish-white circle; because a bunch of words suggested that a sword had been thrust through a giant scorpion; because we blasted off and struck the evil Bydo Empire (sorry Bryan, I just love that so much); or because a walking mushroom was leapt upon. This is the main reason I so dislike modern gaming -- the action, like the rest of many such games, has lost its whimsy to realism. Take Mortal Kombat -- the game has virtually no setting, no fluidity, and no point other than mutilating the other guy in a thoroughly realistic (if exaggerated) fashion. I suspect that the above myth has become validated with the “evolution” of gaming -- that the violence has become an end in itself, and risen by way of its realism into the proverbial danger zone.

Anyway, after a time, the potential ramifications of violent behavior make themselves known to all but the deranged, and the concept of diplomacy enters the human repertoire of skills. The importance of this point is that it is here that NES violence becomes a personal release. Frustrated individuals can allow all their stresses to flow from their own minds and bodies into two red buttons and a game of Street Fighter 2010 or Kung Fu -- or whatever they prefer. (This may not wwork for everyone, but it’s been stated so often that I think it’s at least viable.) Childhood violence is, in most cases, transient -- and in those in which it’s not, the problem more likely stems from an inherent psychological/physiological dysfunction than the fact that the individual in question enjoyed beating the dickens out of Bald Bull in his/her youth.

It is also worth noting that several video game genres -- game show conversions, puzzles, certain RPGs (Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom is a good game, dammit), and most sports games -- contain, at the very least, no non-athletic violence. Thus, those who still aren’t convinced that NES combat is/was benign (and most probably aren’t -- I don’t think I was that persuasive) can always confine their children/themselves to these genres.

Myth II: “Video games kill imagination”

With the recent increase in the interactive capabilities of modern toys (“My Interactive Pooh”, etc.), many have come to question the state of creativity among the nation’s youth. Legos are championed as the last bastion of “incomplete”* entertainment -- toys that necessitate imagination, creattivity, and childlike idealism to complete the experience -- that can’t create a complete social world in and of themselves. This criticism, however, truly originated a while ago. The popularity of the NES concerned quite a few people. They feared that children were losing not only their imagination, but their intellectual capacity, to the gray box -- citing on some eighty thousand occasions a “mesmerized” look that came over children when they played. Fire-and-brimstone admonitions followed quickly behind (“Your children are becoming zombies! Repent and believe in the doll house!”) and the result was epidemic fear of the NES. To this day, purist parents refuse to have anything to do with the Nintendo Corporation (though with the N64, that’s starting to make a little more sense), as they worry it will rob young children of the imagination a bunch of peg-nippled pieces of plastic could supposedly better provide (I actually like Legos quite a lot, so don’t get the wrong idea.)

Reflecting upon my own experience, I just can’t see the logic behind that claim. In my youth (I don’t know what age group people are worried about, though), I and my friends would engage in that well-known practice of "playing pretend" -- but with a slightly less pedestrian, Brady Bunch-esque backstory than most (conjecture what you will of my attention span, or ability to accept reality, but I always found “house” simulations perfectly boring -- even before I had played the NES). We would create innumerable stories centering around both the worlds of established video games, and fantasy-like locales completely of our own origination (the stories weren’t all violent either, wise-ass.) In addition, I would, on my own time, create and act out elaborate character dialogues for action games, and bring RPG journeys into the third dimension, expanding many of the interchanges that took place (especially the “entering the inn” scenario -- that fascinated me for some reason). I did the same with my own stories -- not all of which were epics -- and depicted them, tapestry-style, in a series of notebooks. All of my friends did similar things, brimming with the idealism of childhood and fervently aware of the potential of all people for heroism. The NES didn’t destroy our creativity; if anything, it augmented it.

Now, it’s possible that contemporary games do too good a job of representing reality -- that they complete the picture without calling for any audience extrapolation. If that is the case, it’s a terrible shame, but I can still not justify the notion that all video games sap human creativity -- not so long as I am aware (at the risk of seeming sappy) of the contribution the NES has made to the individual I presently am (though considering the fact that we are talking about me here, Nintendo might not want to be associated with that. I still don’t see the NES as having produced any detriments to my imagination, though.)

*Contrary to the word’s connotation, this isn’t intended as a pejorative term.

Myth III: "Video games are mindless"

I’d like to know just what these critics mean by "mindless", and why, in the overdriven society of 1990s America, a bit of mental down time is such a horrible thing. We, as a culture, have become fixated on being at the zenith of civilization to the extreme that contentment is regarded as evidence that an individual has too little to do. Is happiness no longer of value? Must children meet with constant intellectual rigor in order to fulfill some vague ideal, whether they find it enjoyable or not? Where is the value of fun in all this?

It is not as though I’m suggesting that children run out and join gangs because they believe that would be “fun” -- I’m talking about video games here. Granting the premise that they are “mindless” (with which, obviously, I don’t agree), I still cannot see the grandeur of a child who never learns the importance of kicking back, relaxing, and enjoying him/herself in a manner reflective of his/her individuality. If the given person does not like video games, that is fine, but we cannot dismiss a viable and usually harmless medium of leisure simply because it doesn’t fit into this eugenic jigsaw puzzle that is all too loomingly evident (”Oh Dief, just take some Soma and shut up.”)*

If the NES truly does/did dissolve human intelligence, and make “zombies” of its patrons, though, that is another matter. However, a survey of the classic gaming webscene almost entirely disproves that theory. Witness, to name a few, Kurt Kalata, Bryan Cord, Nick Beckius, Tim Connolly, Jeff Nussbaum, Rob Strangman, and |tsr -- they are all thoroughly intelligent; they are all unique and versatile individuals; they are all marvelous company; and, this is the kicker, they all love to play classic video games, and have loved to do so from childhood -- even those of the “mindless” variety (shooters, beat-em-up, action, etc.) Obviously, these people have not been irreparably damaged by the NES, and there are countless more like them.

This entire issue truthfully boils down to a matter of semantics. Certain games do not employ a huge degree of high-level thought -- are, to generalize, “mindless”, even though a quota of reaction and intuition is necessary to complete them -- and that has come to be considered dangerously addictive. Yet, all great human interests can be technically categorized as “addictions.” If an individual spent much of his free time reading classic works, society would not call that person a “literature addict.” The difference lies in cultural agreement. To repeat myself, literature is considered by those in power an enriching and poignant medium (which I staunchly believe it is); NES games are not. Yet, while not all video games are poignant, many have the potential to be enriching -- whether as an agent of “unwinding”, through the possibility of observation, or, in the case of those with involving stories, in a manner markedly similar to the literary experience. The key, as with all other forms of entertainment, is to avoid becoming a passive or apathetic receiver (unless one is simply trying to relax and has no interest in being enriched, which, contrary to the way it sounds, is equally valid.) Acute viewer observation allows videogaming to transcend its “mindless” image. The experience is, in some cases, quite unlike other forms of entertainment, but not wholly inferior.

* Okay, so we do have a long way to go before we become that dehumanized.

(Not Really A) Myth IV: “Video games cause eye strain”

Any attempt to disprove this would make a liar of me. I guess not even bureaucrats are wrong all the time, though some of them exaggerate this.

But let’s have a little fun twisting philosophical logic and getting completely off the subject. After all that posturing rebuttal, even I’m bored.

Existence is, in itself, straining on the eyes (except for the blind). Every time we look, we exert our vision, and all art other than music demands to be looked at. So, by seeing too much art, we put ourselves at the risk of blindness. In other words, being pedantic for a long period of time ruins our ability to truly see. After all, when we interpret many things for an imposed duration, most of us eventually start coming back to the same conclusions, and put ourselves on the rack of redundancy. At this point, art loses its meaning to our weary heads -- and the necessity of rest comes into play. The only trouble is that this sort of eye/mind strain builds exponentially over time, and can’t be alleviated with one night’s rest (even if taken at one of the inns in Dragon Warrior.) So the civilized interpretation of art becomes a self-repeating endeavor. But then, this comes back to the malady of seeing too much -- after all, “civilized” life consists mostly of universal truths of our own silliness, which, if we delve successfully into what we call “profoundness”, we humble ourselves by discovering. The result, in most cases, is that we find out something we didn’t especially want to know.

“All art is quite useless.” -Oscar Wilde

Now how was that for pointless chatter?

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