I was minding my own business, which is a good practice in such a hyper-critical society. I recommend it, whenever possible. But, sometimes the business of others intrudes on our own, as happened a little while ago, when I was walking in my neighborhood, listening on earbuds to an audiobook. As I passed a well-kept house on a nearby corner, I smiled at a group of young kids playing in the street. The oldest among them was a girl, maybe eleven, twelve years old. They were tossing a football, and it brought back good memories of a bygone era.
I saw one of them waving out of the corner of my eye. I looked in the direction of the voice. It turned out to be the oldest girl, a head taller than the boys with her. She was hailing me. She called again. I took the earbud out of my right ear.
The way she was waving, I thought she wanted me to go long — maybe run a corner pattern.
“Do you play Fortnite?” she yelled.
She rolled her eyes. “Geez, mister. For the third time, do you play Fortnite?”
I’m sure I looked puzzled, because I was, not being familiar with any game that takes longer than a rainy afternoon to play. “What is ‘fortnight’?”
She looked at her friends, and then back at me. They laughed. “It’s a game.”
Not at all sure where this was going, nevertheless I bit. “What kind of game?”
“It’s a video game. Where you kill people.”
“Oh, a video game. No, I don’t know about that. How do you kill them?”
“With a gun.”
“Oh. How many people have you killed?”
She shrugged. “Twenty thousand or so. Maybe.”
My eyebrows must have raised a bit. The other kids around her tried to impress me with their own body counts.
“Wow. Is that fun?”
“Yeah. It’s a blast.” The girl tossed the football up in the air and watched it come back down.
“I see. What do your mom and dad think about that?”
She shrugged again. “They don’t care.”
“Maybe they should.” I was a little anxious to think the parents might be watching me through the windows of the house, wondering why this strange, bearded man was talking to their children.
Discretion being the better part of valor, and wanting to keep peace with my neighbors, I smiled and waved, then returned to my walk, plugging my earbud back in. I’d probably missed at least a paragraph in the book that I was listening to, subtitled “An Antidote to Chaos.” As it so happened, I had just started Chapter Five, “Don’t Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.”
I started the chapter over and turned up the volume, resolved to go home and find out more about this (I hate to use the term) game. Turns out, to my dismay, Fortnite is a very popular survival game in which the player tries to be the last one standing, after killing off everyone else in sight with an assault rifle.
The times they are a-changing, as young Bobby Zimmerman used to sing when I was a kid. (Names change, too, along with the times.) Back then, my friends and I loved to play football anywhere, anytime — in a field, in the street, wherever. My sisters didn’t. In the fifty years since, something remarkable has changed. And it’s not just that today more little girls enjoy tossing a football with friends.
When I was not much older than those kids, my father bought me a gun. It was a .22 rifle. He taught me never to point it at anyone. Never even to pretend to shoot someone else. Never. Because that’s how bad things happen. My friends had guns, too. Their fathers told them the same thing.
We didn’t have video games, though. And we never had school shootings. Never.
These days, it seems that there’s hardly a fortnight between such awful events as mass shootings in our schools and in our streets. Perhaps it wouldn’t take us that long to figure out why, if we set aside the remote or the mouse and really thought about it.