[The following blog contains mentions of bullying and child abuse.]
I have a “that’s not funny” reaction to a lot of viral videos and memes, simply because they display deep-rooted problems in our broader culture that need to be addressed seriously. There are certainly boatloads of funny videos out there on the Internet, but a lot of the stuff people laugh at on YouTube is of people with deep psychological issues. Not only do I find it cruel for people to laugh at those kinds of things, but the fact that these videos garner millions of views is a testament to our broader failure to get people the assistance they need to lead healthy lives, and also to create and nurture a healthy culture that doesn’t systematically derive mean-spirited joy out of the suffering of others.
Videos of ragequitting — video gamers whose frustration at being unable to perform well on a game causes them to become physically violent towards their controllers and keyboards and everything else in their vicinity — are a particular sore spot for me, and I think that stems from the fact that I used to do a lot of ragequitting when I was younger. I still have some of the controllers I tore apart with my bare hands when I kept getting stymied in various games (at least I was able to salvage spare parts from a couple of them when the need arose), and my copy of Tecmo Super Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System has a giant crack on its front from when I put my foot through it in one really bad spell. At least no video exists of my fits of rage back then, because they’d probably make me look even stupider than I was at that time of my life, which is saying a heck of a lot.
I should explain the Tecmo Super Bowl thing a little more. There’s an issue with the game where computer-controlled defensive players will almost always catch you when you’re trying to run the ball down an open field, but when their offencive players get in the clear, your defencive players will run up to them, pause, then dive and just barely miss the ball-carrier — over and over and over again — until the computer scores a touchdown. I can recognize this as bad game design now (and I have no idea why the game is considered a “classic” by so many when this flaw completely ruined the game for me and many others), but at the time, having Tecmo Super Bowl do this to me repeatedly just made me, in a very literal sense, go insane.
Looking back, I can now see why I was such a huge ragequitter during that time of my life. The amount of bullying and child abuse that I was enduring at the time normalized violence to me (and how I was socialized back then, especially during that time in American history, should go without saying), and they also drove a lot of bad messages into my head. Every time I failed at something — whether a quiz at school or a video game — I couldn’t stop hearing a chorus of voices in my head telling me that I sucked, and I was the world’s biggest failure, and I was always going to fail at everything because I was such a loser. So many of my classmates were laughing at all my problems back then that I probably felt like Tecmo Super Bowl was making fun of me when I tried to play it, the computer catching my runners but never letting me catch theirs.
The worst part was that I couldn’t just quit quietly, because the same people who were giving me all those other problems had also instilled this idea in my head that quitting anything was the ultimate sign of failure, and that I couldn’t give up or else that would show the world that I was even worse than they already said I was. The only way I could let myself quit was when I became a shaking, screaming, sobbing wreck of a teenager, because quitting at any time before then felt like I was just admitting to all of my abusers that they were right: I was a hopeless failure at everything. (Even when I somehow managed to succeed in these moments of pure rage, I could hear the same people telling me that I just got lucky, or the video game decided to show mercy on me, so even those successes felt empty and meaningless.)
I don’t know if I was the best video game player at my high school, but this was a time when video games still had next to no “cool factor” to them (at least at my school), so most of my classmates probably didn’t even play video games (at least not to the extent that I did), which means I was probably one of the better players. Because I kept hearing “you can’t do anything right” so much at school and at home, though, it wasn’t enough for me to be the best video gamer at my school; every lost life in a video game felt like I was proving all my abusers right about me being a total failure as a human being. This is why I couldn’t pass a piano in high school without giving everyone around me a thirty-minute concert, because I was so tired of those negative messages that I felt compelled to prove to everyone around me that there were some things that even they couldn’t deny that I was good at. Even when I was alone in my bedroom with my video games, though, that urge to constantly be perfect, and to never mess up, made video gaming more of an ordeal than entertainment for me back then.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been playing video games these past few months more regularly than I’ve played them for about twenty years, and I’m noticing that some of those old impulses, even if I don’t act on them, are still buried deep inside of me, and I can feel them when I have trouble getting past certain points of video games today. My reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and I’m broadly unfamiliar with most of the last fifteen years of video game development, and I obviously don’t have the same time to devote to getting better at video games that I did when I was in high school, but I can still feel my frustration level shoot way up when I get stuck in a video game. I’m still learning that walking away from a video game before it gets the better of me is, in its way, a victory for me, because I’m not allowing something so insignificant to derail me from the things I need to be doing here. Video games are supposed to be fun, and if I’m not having fun with a game then I shouldn’t be playing it. Period.
More than that, though, a lot of the research I’ve been doing for my next book has reminded me of how the same things that messed me up so much when I was younger are now being inflicted on children at a mass scale. Even when today’s young people aren’t being overtly bullied and abused in the same ways that I was, a lot of them are having to endure the same forces in their lives from the “Tiger Mom” style of parenting, where children are condemned as failures if they aren’t at the top of their class (meaning that everyone except the valedictorian is a failure), and so-called “no excuses” charter schools where the adults are always right (they get all the excuses in the world), and the school-to-prison pipeline becomes redundant because the schools basically treat their students like convicts in a prison. The parallels aren’t hard to find, and thinking about them only makes me even more upset while I’m working on this book.
America has normalized trauma to a sickening extent, and maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that we now live in an era where open cruelty towards the least fortunate is not only permitted, but often celebrated. Many of us, if we’re not directly suffering from these forces ourselves, are forced to watch our family members and friends endure a constant barrage of cruelty and gleeful sadism, and our anger over these consequential issues — often meeting the literal definition of “life or death” — is derided and scorned and laughed at, sometimes by the very same people we’re told we have to support. We’ve turned the display of serious mental problems into a daily dose of comedy, so it’s no wonder that the world is getting more and more insane.