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Let's Get Real about Fatherhood and Video Games

When video games invoke the experience of being a father it is usually in the role of protector. But being a dad is more work than war and the consequences of conflating masculinity and violence are bad for my daughter.

The Last of Us has, as any serious video game should, attracted its share of critique concerning the representation of women. I'm not going to try to adjudicate that conversation--while I admire much of what the game does I am loath to be one of those horrible dudes who shuts down difficult conversations about gender--but it touches on a parallel topic I can talk about. The central relationship in The Last of Us of is not romantic but paternal, casting the video game mechanic of "shoot a guy before he shoots you" within the father-daughter relationship. While there are perspectives on this discussion I am not equipped to discuss, I can tell you about the part I am: what it's like to be a father to a little girl. 

My daughter--our first child--is six weeks old. I am insanely in love with her. I, like most dads, would do anything for her. I would kill for her. Or die for her. I'd drink my urine so she could have the last of our water. Whatever--I'd do anything for her. Realistically, I have to do something much worse. I go to work and don't see her enough. At the end of the day I have to remember how precious our time together is when I'm already tired and irritable and painfully aware of the conversion rate between my mortality and her access to healthcare and education. There are difficult things that a dad does but they are more grueling than gruesome.

 Poetry is a perennial companion of humans because it gives us a medium for expressing the intensity of love, a thing that defies everyday language. Fatherly love is like that too. But the trend of serious video games--well, a trend of Western culture over the last few thousand years--has been to communicate intensity of feeling and the failure of language through metaphors of violence. When we try to complete the sentence, "I love you so much that--" we don't have to land on an expression of violence. That is a habit, one that is both cause and effect of the violence we do outside of metaphor. Maybe you would walk five hundred miles, and then walk five hundred more, to express your love. Maybe you'd change a bunch of diapers or stay awake all night to make sure she's breathing in her sleep. Maybe you'd suffer the break between language and love without striking out to prove that it exists. 

This is the beachhead on which stories--told through video games or other means--break one way or the other: do they require that men express love as violence? Blockbuster video games are so monoculturally dedicated to first person shooters that it is easy for an observer to conflate "video games" and "shooters," but there are already millions of other ways to engage players that don't boil down to putting a dot at the right place at the right time. Even Day Z, a brutally realistic zombie survival game, subverts its shooter origins by placing survival so unflinchingly at its core that you can never merrily blast your way out of your problems. Do that and you're low on precious ammo: a new problem. There is no pre-existing narrative there to catch you, and so you return to the kind of slow, patient, anxious work that is the real expression of care.

It's not that I don't enjoy shooters with dad themes. No, I really like the feeling these games give me. I loved the first two Bioshock games in which you rescue afflicted little girls and either save them or harvest them for resources. When I annihilated the bad guys attacking my little sisters it felt great. That feeling is intoxicating. I can understand why violence is so seductive as a shorthand for paternal love. But, like, come on dude. You don't want your kid living in a world where everyone else is waiting to express their love of family by killing yours. (And here I can't help thinking of the murder of Trayvon Martin). It's fun as hell to mow down splicers in Bioshock but that pleasure is completely unrelated to the actual joys of being a parent.

Everything I've said so far applies equally to a child of any gender. At the point where the imagination turns back into reality--where, for example, the fantasy of honorable defense becomes the killing of an unfamiliar youth--gender and race matter again. Zombies aren't going to attack my daughter, but statistics show that it is frighteningly possible a man will. So I am wary of enjoying too much the pleasure of righteous violence when I know that there is another side to it, and that women have historically--and currently--been on the side opposite me. 

I don't want to play a dad sim, and I'm not attributing to video games the kind of sorcerous power that animate pig's bladder Wayne LaPierre thinks they have. Video games are part of culture. They don't exercise demonic mind control but they also aren't separate from the reproduction of ideology (I'm looking at you, gun culture). As both a game developer and a dad all I'm asking is that fatherhood--or if we want to get crazy, masculinity--not be cast as the ability to kill a guy on the tv. Dadding is not that simple or easy. It, unlike most shooters, is not a game for teen boys. I believe in video games as a medium capable of examining complex experiences like parenthood. I think we have nailed down the part about wanting to defend our kids. Now I'd like to see us represent the experiences that dads really get to enjoy.

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