The Observer recently caved at the parental negotiation table and agreed to buy Junior one of those fancy-schmantzy gaming consoles — the ones with all the bells and whistles that can link to the Internet, pinpoint your location from space, and presumably find and terminate Sarah Conner if we ever spring for the Legs-and-Machine-Gun Expansion Pack.
It is the terminal human condition, we suppose, to eventually feel like Doc Brown just dropped you off here in his time-travelling DeLorean, setting you down in a world you don't really understand.
Watching The Kid play his game (and, okay, wrestling the controller out of his hands a time or three) makes us feel like that. Just a blink ago, we were marveling over the side-scrolling action of Super Mario Bros. in our pal Roger Hall's doublewide out in the sticks, getting cheesed every time his dog tripped over the cord to the controller and yanked the whole mess off the top of the console TV. The next blink, we're watching our own offspring play near-photorealistic games that operate on something approaching artificial intelligence. It is, as they say, a brave new world.
One of the things the new game console came with was a free one-month subscription to the maker's live Internet channel, where folks from all over the world can come together and play in the spirit of friendship.
Did we say "friendship?" We mean: animosity. Not to be an old fart, but The Observer has been on this earth for 36 years, and within the first five minutes of listening in on what the anonymous players were saying to one another, we knew: we've never heard human beings talk to one another with such casual cruelty.
Here were kids with American accents engaging in blatant mockery solely because they could and because they knew they were wholly anonymous. Taunting. Vile name-calling. Racism. Homophobia. Trying — consciously trying their damndest — to get the other players angry enough to shout. We're no prude, but it was finally enough that we turned it off and sat there considering where our receipt was and how fast we could get the infernal machine back in the box.
Even after a bit of calming down, The Observer was depressed enough about the whole thing and its implications that we decided to call our much smarter younger brother, D, and talk to him about it. He's a gamer from way back, a computer guy at a major company, and knows the pixelated world much better than we do.
The Internet, D said, is a world where everyone is wearing Gyges' Ring.
For those who don't remember their college philosophy and Plato's "Republic," the story of Gyges is that of a poor shepherd who found a ring that made him invisible. The problem, our bro reminded us, was that being invisible and thus totally without consequences does something to a human being. For Gyges, it destroyed his sense of morality. Within a few days, he had killed the king, raped the queen, and taken over, Yeah, The Observer opined, the anonymous digital world is a lot like that: a place where it's apparently easy to forget that you're dealing with other human beings — or at least easy to forget that you should care.
We know we're waaaay out of the demographic that online gaming appeals to, but The Observer is swift enough to know a cesspool when we see one, and we know that no matter how well you swim there, you wind up covered in excrement.
We told Junior as much that night as we put him to bed, telling him the story of ol' Gyges after letting him know that he'd just have to settle for playing against dumb old robots in his games, not the cruelty that is man.
Only a blink ago, he was a babe in arms. Now he's taller than his mother. He is big enough, we reasoned, to hear what our own father taught us, way back in the dim days of 8-bit gaming pre-history: Son, a soul isn't all the hocus-pocus mumbo-jumbo they talk about in church. It's a thing made of caring for others, even those you've never met. You lose that, and you've got less than nothing.