Susan's Blog

Friday, May 23, 2014


Here is my latest column on NPR/WBUR’s Cognoscenti Column, written about 9 year old Benj and how his empathy button got flipped on by a video game character:

It’s easy to associate video games with violence. I used to worry constantly about this connection, especially when my youngest became a dedicated gamer. But even before his affinity with technology began, I worried about his seeming lack of compassion, and how he angered so easily.

Finally we decided to have Ben evaluated at Children’s Hospital. The official diagnosis was, “Normal but stubborn,” which seemed exactly right — but was no help at all. Ben did seem to have a problem with hardheadedness — or perhaps even hardheartedness. My own heart was rubbed raw by this. How could it be that he didn’t get it after all his dad and I did to model empathetic behavior?

But if someone is not ready for a developmental phase, they just aren’t. You can’t hurry love, I guess. Still, I was scared for him; how was he going to get through the vicious years of middle school if he showed so much prickliness and anger so easily?

And indeed, when along came the tween years, we did end up with days upon days of little boys huddled indoors with consoles yelling at blocky figures running up and down the screen. Our house was filled with the breathy flutes of Zelda and the high-pitched screams of Kirby. And then there was the carnival-like music of Super Mario, the plumber-turned-superhero, who moved through pipes trying to catch or escape bad guys, the worst of whom was a character known as the Goomba.

Ben loved the game, and played and discussed it nonstop. I could not tune into the intricacies of the different levels or plots, but I did listen as attentively as a tired and confused mother can. The whole kill-or-be-killed mentality bothered me. But still, Mario seemed benign enough, so I let it go. My mother agreed, and so for Chanukah she presented Ben with a stuffed Goomba. That night, Ben slept with his new toy, which he named “Webster Goomez.”

A day or so later, Ben remarked that Webster was “kind of adorable.”

Adorable? Did I hear that right? Never had such a word come out of Ben before. I quickly recovered my cool and tried not to make too big a deal out of it, so as not to embarrass him. But inside, I cradled that word, longed to hear it again, hoping I hadn’t imagined it. But no, this was for real. A few days later, I heard Ben describing a different character as “cute.”

Had this mean little mushroom cracked open a tiny chink in Ben’s armor? Had the undistilled peevish nature of the Goomba given Ben someone angry to relate to? Maybe it was that loving Webster Goomez didn’t present a threat to Ben’s own tough guy persona. He was free to appreciate his simplistic nasty — but cute — ways.

The Goomba had flipped a switch, and now Ben’s open adoration just kept flowing. The words “adorable” and “cute” became frequent words in his vocabulary. Other evil stuffed characters made their way into Ben’s bed. And, on Ben’s 10th birthday, we felt encouraged enough to get him a game called “Drawn to Life” for his Nintendo DS. Why? Because it too teemed with tiny adorable creatures. Ben showed me the game and how it was played, pointing out these sweet little round blue guys. “You have to step on them, though, you know, to kill them,” he said to me.

“You do?” I asked, dismayed. Why did it always have to end in death?

It turned out Ben agreed. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s too bad. They shouldn’t make them so cute! It’s cruel!”

“Maybe you don’t have to kill them?” I suggested, but halfheartedly, because this was a video game, after all, and even in my day (the days of Ms. Pacman), cute little things had to get eaten or exploded in order to win.

But the next day Ben casually informed me that he was no longer killing the cute blue guys. He had also told his friend not to kill them.

“Wow!” I said, a fullness in my heart, so much pride at this new moral strength. “So, Ben, what will happen, do you think, if everyone stopped killing those blue guys?”

“They’d get to live!” he shouted happily.

Game over?

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