Jake Stephens, a senior in my AP English class at T.C. Williams High School, is hooked. "The narrative is so exciting you lose all track of time," he said to me last week. "Three hours can go by and it seems like 15 minutes. Once I'm into it, it's hard to think of anything else; all my focus is on finishing the story line."
Was Jake talking about "All the Pretty Horses," the novel I'm currently having my students read? I wish. Personally, I find Cormac McCarthy's coming-of-age cowboy tale enthralling, with its tragic love story, graphic violence and lyrical writing. But Jake probably thinks it's pretty tame. He's seduced by a different kind of narrative -- the car-stealing frenzy of one of his favorite video games, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
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I've known for a long time that a lot of the boys in my English classes are more interested in connecting with their Xboxes in the evening than with the next three chapters of Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon." But ever since I observed their mounting hysteria over last month's "premiere" of Halo 2, the new combat game from Microsoft, I've been trying to find out what's behind the lure of video games. As the boys I teach have endeavored to enlighten me, I haven't known whether to laugh, cry, or go find a new job. What they told me has me wondering how what I teach can possibly compete with the fast-paced razzle-dazzle of this ever-evolving entertainment form and worrying about the young guys who spend so much time divorced from reality and the life of the mind as they zap away the hours before their video screens.
I had to chuckle at the image of otherwise reasonable boys keeping a vigil outside the Best Buy store in Potomac Yards until the doors opened at midnight on Nov. 9, when they could charge in to be the first to snap up Halo 2, which added $125 million to Bill Gates's company fortune on its debut day alone. But I didn't think it was so funny when some guys skipped school that day to stay home and try to beat the game. Senior Steve Penn (who wasn't one of the skippers) told me that the following weekend, he played for six hours straight (minus bathroom breaks) at a friend's house. When he got home at 1 a.m. on Sunday, he went at it for two more hours, fell asleep, got up at 7 and fired up the game again. "My mother had to remind me to change my clothes and take a shower," he said.
Steve, like Jake, is a good student; he even finished "All the Pretty Horses" (which he said he appreciated because it "wasn't sappy") a week before it was due. I'm not especially worried about the boys who manage to balance their passion for video games with their responsibilities to school and to themselves. But I have to wonder what effect this widespread, intense obsession with the games is bound to have on the boys who can't, or don't, manage that balance, the boys whose time and concentration the games suck away. And suck them away they do.
I'm not the only one to see it happening. T.C. girls have told me that at parties they are often totally ignored as the guys gather around TV screens, entranced by one video game or another. "Girls sit around watching the guys play until they get fed up and drive off looking for something else to do," says junior Sarah Kell, for whom the games range from "stupid and boring" to "disgusting." (Most girls tell me they find the games silly.) "We try to tell them they're wasting their time, but they just keep going. Some guys stay up playing until 3 in the morning on school nights, and then they try to do their homework."
I figured I would finally discover what all the excitement was about when I went to a Halo 2 party at a friend's Internet company recently. But as I wandered among the four offices where teams of three to four guys -- bright, highly educated guys in their mid-twenties and early thirties -- were competing, I kept asking myself: "Is this all there is to it?" I'm not sure what I was expecting, but certainly it was something more than a game where you shoot at moving objects until you get 50 "kills."
I know that Halo 2 aficionados will say that's a gross oversimplification. And as one who gave up video games after several failed attempts at Pac-Man in the early '70s, I may be the last person who should be commenting on them. Like many others, though, I find the rampant violence, misogyny and sexual and racial stereotyping of some games beyond offensive, and wonder about the negative messages they're sending to young people.
But my more immediate concern is how to get books back on the playing field. I became an English teacher because I love literature and wanted to share it with students. Literature, however, demands that we enter into an imaginative world slowly, through the written word. It forces us to re-create this world in our minds, through the power of our imaginations. When my students finish "All the Pretty Horses," I'll show them some scenes from the 2000 movie. I know that the students who really got into the reading will say, as kids in previous years have said, that the world the movie creates -- even enhanced by the star power of Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz -- can in no way compare to the richness of the world the book allows them to evoke for themselves.
But I also know that many of the boys won't care one way or the other. They won't have engaged with the novel on the level that really makes an imagined story come alive. Entering the fictional world of a novel takes a different set of skills from getting to the "next level" in a video game -- as I found out during my pathetic attempt to steal a car when I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas last week.