My youngest brother is a gamer in the loosest sense of the term. He really enjoys watching others play games, almost as much as he enjoys telling others how to play games. He especially likes completely dictating every gaming action to another person and then celebrating the outcome as his own success. He’s six (five at the time of this “interview”). He experiences death in games as an extreme annoyance and little else. Even when pushed on the matter he considers a character’s death to be only a failing on the part of the player (either my father or myself in those cases; if we win it’s all him though). So I decided to talk to him a bit more about what death means, and how games are different from real life.
This is particularly important to me because of the kinds of video games he tends to watch being played online. He does not have access to Call of Duty or Halo in his home, but through voice navigation on the computer he can pull up playthrough videos on YouTube. YouTube is my brother’s favorite website. It has taught him all sorts of bizarre phrases and has allowed him to watch things that he is not allowed to play at all. If it were up to me he wouldn’t even be watching these videos. His only contact with Rated M games would be the game trailers that sometimes show on television. Alas, I do not make these decisions.
Part of the idea behind allowing him to watch CoD gameplay is the fact that both of his parents are military veterans. My father is still in the National Guard and my stepmother was at some point. My father served in one of the wars CoD is sort of portraying. How better to know that your father is a hero than to see that action on the screen in front of you, right? Again, I don’t get to make the parenting decisions.
So, it was with all of this in mind that I attempted to explain the difference between the death in Mario Galaxy 2, the more graphic deaths available for his eyes through YouTube in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and the deaths that have affected my father as a member of the United States National Guard. For further context: I do not see my brother, who I will call ‘K,’ very often. There is a substantial age gap between us, he’s young enough that he could plausibly be my son. I already had my life established thousands of miles away from my parents when K was born. So now I call and chat every once in a while. I send him gifts for birthdays and cards just because. But our IRL interactions are limited. A few days a year at most. I hope there comes a time when we can game online together, but not yet. Someday.
We sat playing Super Mario Galaxy 2, his skinny legs draped over my lap, his hands ready to snatch the controls out of mine if I didn’t obey fast enough. His huge eyes in his tiny face fixed on the screen, willing me to beat this level my father could not best. K loves and dreads my visits. I am much stricter than my parents. Our childhoods are absolute opposites. Where I cowered in fear of my parents’ wrath, my brother is openly defiant and almost never punished. Decades passed between my birth and his and much has changed. He’s a complete brat, and I love him madly.
He also anxiously awaits my time at his home because I am The Gamer. My parents will play a game or two with him, but I will play for hours. I can beat all those tricky levels that have caused him grief, that even the walkthrough guides haven’t helped him with. I might even bring a new game with me, and that’s best of all.
I throw Mario off the side of the world to begin this conversation. “Too Bad!” the screen tells us. K is less than pleased, “No!” He’s instantly enraged. How dare I, The Gamer, already be failing? Even he wouldn’t have died this quickly. “Now he’s dead and we have to start over!”
“What does that mean, K? What does it mean when Mario dies?” My onscreen avatar has already regenerated and we’re sliding through the level, everything back where it should be.
“There’s a lot of blood! And then it’s really hard to get back to where you were and people get really mad and say bad words. Then you spawn again.”
“It means we have to start over.” He’s picking at a loose string on my sweater, eyes fixed on the tiny Italian.
“Is that it? Where does Mario go when he dies?”
“Back to the beginning! You saw. The beginning!” He’s irritated that I’m not focusing entirely on the task at hand.
“What about in Call of Duty? What happens with the soldiers who die there?”
“There’s a lot of blood! And then it’s really hard to get back to where you were and people get really mad and say bad words. Then you spawn again.” He says ‘blood’ in a way that disturbs me and I decide I’ll speak with my parents again about what kinds of videos I think he should be watching. After a moment of admonishing me for not getting the “flower that makes you control fire,” he continues his thought. “In Modern Warfare they dress just like Daddy. And that’s what Daddy does too, he shoots people.”
This is not true. Or if it is, I have been lied to my whole life. My father does a lot of desk work. He trains people about weapons. He was deployed for large swaths of my childhood. But if he has shot people, we’ve never spoken of it. I don’t necessarily want my brother growing up thinking my father shoots people so I attempt to dissuade him of this opinion, but he’s too invested in it to care.
“K, you know, people die too, in real life.” I say it as casually as possible. This is tricky territory. Often I find myself wanting to explain things to him in a way that my parents would be displeased with if they heard. We don’t agree on much still. He remains silent in response, his eyes busy with my careful jumping across dangerous terrain. We’re almost at the end of the level, but I’m looking for a secret star that he’s been unable to find. This is what my visit is for, surely, to find this single missing star. I decide to push just a bit more, “K, where do you think real people go when they die?”
This question is definitely crossing a line. I am Jewish, which, for me, means that I have few thoughts about the afterlife. Maybe it exists. Probably not. This life is what is important. However, my parents are both Born Again Christians, and K is being raised in that church. The Born Again church and I have very different opinions on how to live, and on what death means. Yet his response is all his own.
“Back to the beginning,” he says. “Like Mario.”
I nod solemnly. Perhaps, small child. Perhaps that is true.