Killing Monsters

Author: Gerard Jones

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence

Published: 2002

I read it: December 2017

killing monsters

The first character that my son made me portray while running around the backyard was Captain Hook. I chased him around with my finger-hook on many afternoons, snarling in a cartoonish pirate voice. In the following months, the specificity fell away and my preschooler realized that pointing at me and gleefully shouting “You’re the bad guy!” was all that was needed to get the chase going.

While the shows that my kids watch are still quite innocent, it’s clear that my older son is eager to separate characters into “good” and “bad” and that it’s only a matter of time until he’s into more intense entertainment. That’s why I was happy to stumble upon Gerard Jones’ 2002 book in which he analyzes the consumption of imaginary violence and what it all might mean for the kids these days.

A key lesson in the book is that while children thrive on, and plainly need, fantasy and make-believe, and that yes, very young kids have trouble distinguishing play from reality, it’s up to adults to not further confuse the issue. Our job is to emphasize what is real and what is not, because kids crave clear distinctions. This strategy allows for unbounded play but also guides young minds toward thinking about the real world. This paragraph about how adults often get this wrong is essential:

When a child is joyfully killing a friend who loves to be killed, we don’t make things clearer for them by responding with an anxious, “You shouldn’t shoot people!” Instead we blur the very boundaries that they’re trying to establish. We teach them that pretend shooting makes adults feel threatened in reality, and therefore their own fantasies must be more powerful and more dangerous than they thought. The result for the child is more anxiety and self-doubt, more concern over the power of violent thoughts, less sense of power over their own feelings, and less practice expressing their fantasies.

It is also crucial to play with life’s scariest reality: death. Children’s “most potent fantasies are unkind and unreasonable, because even as children they gather that the world’s fundamental realities are neither reasonable nor kind.” Facing these facts is tough as a parent. One of Jones’ core arguments is that people use play violence not to express that they wish to do violence, but instead to process real-world violence that they have been exposed to or simply heard about.

The standard pushback at this point is the scariness around “desensitization.” According to Jones, there is not much evidence to support that exposure to media violence creates indifference to real violence. In yet another example of an old psychological story slowly losing its power in retrospect (has someone written a book yet about how these old case studies and experiments don’t hold up, yet persist as folk wisdom?), he recounts the dramatic murder of Kitty Genovese. But he suggests that this instance was a fluke and not a trend, and more tellingly, that “what Kitty Genovese needed was not more sensitized neighbors but calmer and more confident ones.” The neighbors were scared, not callous. And in fact, a certain desensitization is what could make a police officer effective in scary and violent situations.

What many people already agree on is that multiple factors complicate the cause and effects of what kids may or may not do, and that violent media alone is hard to isolate as an independent factor. Jones states that “the likelihood of a child from a decent home with decent economic prospects perpetrating any serious violence is infinitesimal.” Decent economic prospects. As with so many other highly charged issues (race, gender… well, mostly race and gender) that people claim rule everything from the tiniest brain cells to the largest societal changes, the issue of media violence and its effect on families pales in comparison when set up against that great decider: money.

For those parents who are lucky enough to have good relationships with their children and the time to talk through complicated ideas, there is a piece of advice from Jib Fowles of the University of Houston, “parents need to discuss only two aspects of TV content with their children: commercials and the news, because they both claim to represent reality but often distort it.” He says to be careful about being too proactive with discussing shows and movies that are obviously fictional: “A parent-led discussion may be only another anxiety-provoking intrusion of reality.” This seems counterintuitive to me as a parent, but it’s a good reminder. And yes, surely we can all agree that commercials are inherently evil.

The book inevitably gets around to guns, a depressing and confusing topic in America. (I struggled with where I stood on Stephen King’s essay on the topic.) But as it relates to playtime, Jones again offers reassurance. He writes that childhood gun play may be universal, and in other cultures “kids play similar games with bows and arrows or spears.” A gun is a magic wand, something made literal by the Harry Potter series, which uses its “guns” on the regular. A finger shaped like a gun “shoots discrete little bullets of magic that focus a child’s imaginary power into a single, flashing point.” Picturing a gun as just another form of magic wand is a fascinating concept. And I’m sure there are many responsible gun owners who would emphasize and re-emphasize the importance of kids knowing that a real gun is not a toy gun in any way.

As we grow up into adults who have to deal with our often shitty world, Jones challenges our sense of anxiety around kids and guns: “How much of that anxiety is about any real anticipation that our kids will grow up to be shooters, and how much is merely about our own, very adult discomfort at being reminded of the more realistic violence in some entertainment—and thus of the horrors of real violence?” I see the point, but still, there’s something comforting about my toddler instead wielding a pirate sword, an orcish blade, or a lightsaber. Swords are awesome.

The book has an amazing structure, as it leads the reader from one thorny issue to the next in an ever-escalating series of topics. Right when I was convinced of one chapter-length argument, my mind would start the “but what about…?” game. What about females in fiction? That’s the next chapter. Very good, but what about first-person shooter games? That chapter immediately follows. There are so many illuminating ideas throughout, such as “[adolescents] usually need their entertainment to be cartoony, intense, and unreal” or a bold statement about the medium of video games (in comparison to movies, TV, and music):

Because games are so obviously artificial, so completely the player’s tool, they are the medium least capable of inspiring any powerful emotion beyond the thrills of playing itself. If they condition children to do anything, it’s only to play more—which may be their one real pitfall.

Throughout this instructive book, Jones poses a challenging question for society at large: “What is the place of imaginary violence in a world that denounces violence in reality?” What is the effect on our individual and collective psychologies? Is there anything to Aristotle’s katharsis? Can pretend violence be a method to work through its horrific real-life implications? Society sweeps us along as it changes us, and we try to stay afloat.

As I was reading this book, my wife was playing Pokémon on an old Gameboy next to me. And Pokémon is featured heavily in Jones’ book. It is used in his opening and closing statements, and what was once a worldwide craze that had some parents on edge because it’s about monsters battling each other at the direction of young protagonists, the game is now viewed as a quaint adventure that features cuddly creatures, something that we could expose to even the youngest children with no worries whatsoever. It’s interesting what we get used to over time. Above everything, we know that Pokémon are not real, and that battling in a cartoon is not battling in the real world.

I haven’t been Captain Hook for a while now. The favorite bad guy around the house now is the Bergen from the movie Trolls. My younger son has picked up on how to initiate a play time, and has a habit of pointing and saying “A Bergen! A Bergen!” The boys then become the trolls and run away to hide. I have to pound around like an idiot and pretend to be a troll-eating Bergen. And I say I’m going to catch them and eat them, and sometimes the kids know how to stop me with special moves or magical totems. Or they just wait to be found and attacked, while squealing in delight. All in a day’s work.


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