I begin an online game of cards. The card game, Canasta, I have grown up with and have enjoyed most of my life.
It’s the kind of game that you play with an old friend over a glass of iced tea on a hot day in the summer, under a big shady tree or on a screened back porch. It’s a gentle, conversational game, the kind that allows time for laughing, gossip and memory building.
This game, however, is different. After logging in and wishing my opponent gl for good luck, and having nothing sent back in return, the cards magically appear on our screens and the play begins. After playing the first round in cyber-silence, I win handily.
My opponent then begins a barrage of insults and accusations that are not only rude but impossibly irrational. She—and I only say she because her avatar was a female—accuses Yahoo, our game server, of cheating by putting too many wild cards in my hand. She rants, throughout each hand and afterward, that the game is rigged, that I am, in some bizarre way, fixing the cards and that I should be grateful I am being handed a win—and on and on.
At first I laugh, or more appropriately LOL, as I think, “She must be kidding.”
But, no. She is serious. After the first five minutes or so, I become aware that my heart is beating faster and I am actually concentrating on this blather more than on my cards.
I try to reason with her. “Are you serious? Do you know that these are randomly computer-generated hands?”
I try to understand her motivation: “Why do you play this game if you’re going to become so upset?”
I try to figure out if there is some reaction she is trying to get from me: “What do other players say when you go on like this?”
No response. Just continued anger, continued spite.
Even after she accumulates all four red threes—scoring 800 points in the process for the feat—she continues, pausing for only a moment to say, “I guess Yahoo must have felt sorry for me.”
What bothers me most about this encounter was the anonymity of it. This person, hiding behind a cartoon image, felt free to say things that were aggressive enough, crazy enough, to affect me physically.
Now, I’m not a 13-year-old girl being bullied by others online, nor am I a zealous sports fan raging back and forth with different-thinking bloggers. I’m just an average person who sat down for a pleasant distraction and ended up with palpitations and sweaty palms.
Is it because we feel free to vent and spew and churl insults and hate-speak to others when we can’t be blamed for this horrid behavior? Is it because we simply don’t have anywhere else to express our feelings appropriately? Is it because we have lost the ability to express ourselves in ways that are clear, precise, and assertive while remaining civil and considerate?
Some people have said that violent films and television shows influence children to become violent.
I don’t believe that’s true.
I believe they anesthetize us to some degree. Violence doesn’t upset us the way it used to before these images were flashed in front of our eyes hundreds of times every week. I believe that they sometimes create heroes out of monsters while lessening our concern for the repercussions of violence—the survivors, the lost loved-ones, the years of healing.
But I don’t believe they cause children to act out more violently. I do, however, believe that our cyber-world is causing more violence. It is one thing to watch someone else being violent, to shake our heads and cover our eyes or click our tongues at the mayhem. It is another thing altogether to hold the trigger of a gun in our own hands, even when it’s in the form of a remote control, and pull the trigger.
It is not the same thing to watch an act of cruelty as it is to move a character across a screen, make him jump in a car, drive through a wall, then get out and kick a perfect stranger to death. We are controlling that action. We are making the decisions to be cruel.
Apple pulled a disturbing application from its iPhone store in April 2009. It was called Baby Shaker.
This application allowed a user to see how long he or she could tolerate the sound of an infant crying before shaking his phone hard enough and long enough to kill the child. The initial image of a happy infant was replaced with a picture of a baby with two Xs over its eyes when the crying stopped.
Someone, sitting in an office on a computer somewhere, thought this was a good idea.
Someone thought this was funny.
Someone at Apple thought it was a good enough idea to offer it for sale on their exclusive application site.
Many someones bought it.
Who do you suppose those people are?
I am not naïve enough to assert that we should treat everyone with care and generosity and unthinking warmth. There are people who act in evil ways and who intend to do harm to others. They, in my opinion, do not deserve the compassion of others. However, those people do not make up the majority of us.
We must take a step back from the mind-numbing white noise of television, film, video games, computer applications and all of the stimuli that attack us daily and impact us in ways that we do not consider. We need to think about what we’re being sold. We need to consider the implications of these intrusions.
Because we have become highly technical does not mean that we are progressing. In many ways we have taken a giant leap backward. Not only do we give little thought to how our neighbors are doing, most of us don’t even know who our neighbors are. Comment is often made about how kind and considerate people become in the face of a natural disaster. Why must we wait for one to practice those skills?
Should it take a tornado to bring us out to our porches? Must those around us be suffering before we offer our hand?
An avatar is nothing more than a representation of the person who controls it. It contains the skills, the intelligence, the humanity and the character of the person with the remote control or the joystick in his hand. Avatars were never intended to be things that we hide behind to behave in ways that would shame us in public.
The next time you choose to act unlike your public self simply because you can get away with it by using the anonymity of technology, stop for a moment. Perhaps turning the power off until you remember who you are is a better idea.
Laura Leyrer is a ninth grade English teacher in a small rural community northwest of Detroit. She is married to a retired teacher and is a proud mother of five children and grandmother of three grandsons (another baby on the way in June). She is an aspiring writer and who looks forward to retirement and traveling with her husband.
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