Youth and the Gathering Gloom

The saddest story in the May 4 New York Times was not the one about the death of John Cardinal O'Connor, who, after all, lived a long, full life serving his God and his Church. Actually, that morning's most depressing articles were in the arts and high-tech sections of the paper. Each offered a disturbing glimpse at what "entertainment" has become for a large segment of today's youth.

One article addressed "a new school of hard-edged rock bands." At or near the head of the class is Slipknot, which according to Times critic Neil Strauss specializes in songs "about fenced-in people pushed to a breaking point" - which plenty of teens think describes them perfectly.

Strauss reports that prior to one Slipknot show, the group was backstage in its concert attire of "mask[s] prison coveralls...A musician in a grotesque clown mask menacingly swung a large PVC pipe as he choked a rag clown doll in his other hand...Others brandished wooden planks [or] punched walls." After the performance began, writes Strauss, "two teenagers had already been treated for injuries before Slipknot had even finished thrashing, banging and raging through its first song about exploding angst."

"I am on a world-domination mission," the group's founder tells Strauss. "Slipknot is...a way of life and it's the real way of life...When we've reached everyone and everyone understands, I'm gone." They've already reached the fifteen-year-old whom Strauss quotes as saying, "Slipknot is the future of music."

You might prefer that your teenagers listen to Slipknot rather than play Soldier of Fortune, a new computer game which Peter Olafson reviewed for the Times. SOF, according to Olafson, "does not simply push the envelope for computer-game violence. It seals the envelope, stamps it and posts it."

The innovation in SOF is that players "can inflict wounds with unprecedented specificity." When Olafson played, "guts poked out of the hole I had drilled in an enemy's midsection...I liberated some heads from their bodies and reduced others to something resembling partially eaten apples...When I finished a level, I was provided with a checklist of carnage performed, including 'throat shots,' 'head shots' and... 'nether region shots.'"

That's appalling. In a different sense, so too is a good deal of Olafson's analysis. He wonders, "Does the game go too far? Initially, I would have said yes...But it turns out that once you've seen one screaming soldier with his leg shot off, you've seen them all. The effects are shocking the first few times around, and then they begin to recede into the body of the game." Wait a minute. A game's desensitizing effect proves that it doesn't go too far? It's hard to get it more backwards than that.

Olafson is equally muddleheaded when he makes it sound like a player deserves the cyber-equivalent of a merit badge for reaching the next level of computer gore: "There is something to be said for a game that offers enduring evidence of the player's passage through the game world. Details like bullet holes and bloodstains on walls helped make Duke Nukem 3D a huge hit in the mid-'90s, and it might be argued that Soldier of Fortune represents the next bloody footstep in this trend."

SOF, Olafson superfluously mentions, "is not suited for children." But anyone with a grain of common sense knows, however, that children are the natural market for these games. Two large store chains, Sears and Montgomery Ward, know this. Applause, applause: They have announced they will no longer sell games like SOF that carry an M (for Mature) rating.

While boys may thrill to computer-game barbarity, girls may confide in Daria's Sick, Sad Life Planner. It's the computer software named for MTV's dour cartoon teenager. Fortunately, Times reviewer Alice Keim's critique, unlike Olafson's, recognizes that reinforcing teens' natural inclinations, whether they're toward violence, melancholy, or something else, isn't always desirable. Keim notes that given Daria's "sardonic, angst-ridden" persona, "it becomes nearly impossible to write anything overly enthusiastic or optimistic in this journal."

Moreover, "the program includes an address book, but when you add a buddy, the somber Daria comments, 'Great, another person who pretends they like you.' For a teenager predisposed to thinking this way, the Daria journal offers encouragement - maybe too much."

Five years ago, Michael Medved commented in a lecture that "our children stand to lose a great deal from prolonged exposure to the dysfunctional elements in our current culture. They lose faith. They lose confidence. And they lose resistance to the most deadly epidemic menacing our youth...the plague of pessimism."

To argue that today the situation is even worse isn't being pessimistic. It's simply being realistic.