Shooting Dinosaurs–Peter Grandbois


Yesterday, I took my nine-year-old son to the video arcade at the local mall.  He wanted to play any game that involved shooting someone or something.  I hadn’t been to the video arcade since I was a teenager, so I was shocked to find so many realistic video games where the goal is to kill another human being. Fathers and sons fed their electronic game cards to the machines (they no longer accept quarters), shooting away, bonding as each looked to the other and smiled before wasting a “terrorist” or two or twenty in a bloody shootout.  My son wanted to play, but I was appalled.  I tried to get him interested in shooting dinosaurs instead.  It worked for a short time, but in the end, he wanted to play the “real” games.  I gave in and soon felt the kick of the machine gun recoil in my chest as I mowed down the terrorists (each bearded and colored just enough to look Muslim).  My son was killed pretty quickly, but beamed at me, proud that I was able to survive a little longer.


For Christmas two weeks ago, my son wanted a Nerf Diatron. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a gun that shoots two Nerf discs at once.  The latest technology in Nerf warfare.  My son already has the other guns in the Nerf arsenal: the Vortex, the Nitron, the Vigilon, and (best of all) the Pyragon.  Nerf gun wars erupt in our house spontaneously, causing our two German Shepherds to bark uncontrollably and the two kittens to run for cover.  The only rule is no shooting in the face.  Unfortunately, that’s what inevitably happens.  I get very uncomfortable when my son aims his gun at my face.  I tell him in no uncertain terms to put it down.  I tell him the game is over.  And yet, when I sneak up on him defenseless, hiding behind the couch, I unleash my bullets at point blank range with a glee I haven’t felt since childhood.   In those moments, he looks at me as if I’ve betrayed him.


My son joined Karate about four months ago.  He loves it.  When not in practice, he spends a good part of his time running around the house, kicking and karate chopping everything.  The day they broke boards in his dojo may have been the high point of his life.  That’s the day they tested for their belts.  I had to hold back my judgment as I watched each student work through routines designed to beat the hell out of another living person.  Some of the candidates for the higher belts were deadly serious as they performed their Katas.  At the end, they had open sparring.  The students wore headgear and gloves as they punched and kicked each other.  My son is convinced he’s going to be the next Bruce Lee.  I told myself it wasn’t so bad that he tried to kick another kid in the face.  I forced myself to smile and clap when he performed actions designed to hurt or maim his opponent.


Because I’ve been an avid fencer most of my life, I tried to get my son involved in the sport of fencing about a year ago.  He was interested in sabre at first, and I would drive him once a week to the club in Columbus where he could practice with kids his age.   I remember the first time he suited up.  I took a picture of him.  I still have that picture.  I look at it often, and each time it gives me a thrill.  To see him posing with his mask and sword.  He has since moved on to Karate, but I still hope to get him back into fencing.  I dream of the day when he and I can travel to a fencing tournament together, when I can watch him fight another kid, trying to hit that kid in the head with his sword.  Fencers scream when they hit, as do people in the other martial arts.  I’ve often wondered what my son’s scream would be like.  Would it be relatively tame?  Or would it let slip the killer inside?


Why is it I abhor the violence in one scenario and encourage it in another?  What makes the simulated act of shooting “terrorists” in a video game any different than the simulated act of shooting each other with Nerf guns?  Is hitting someone with your fist really more violent than hitting someone with a sword?  One could easily argue it’s the other way around.  The sword a grim symbol of our barbaric past.  And yet I frown upon one behavior and encourage another.  Talk about sending mixed signals!  I consider myself a passive person.  I believe violence is a last resort, what happens when all other options fail.  Contrary to the evidence given above, my wife and I raised our son without TV, video games, or violent toys.  We gave in a few years ago only when the mounting evidence became clear that none of what we did mattered.  Regardless of our “guidance,” he spent the vast majority of his day creating games where he killed someone or was killed by someone.  The boy should be given an academy award for the complexity of his death scenes, drawn out in slow motion as he careens about the living room.  My fear is that some day he’ll enlist in the military, that he’ll become something I’m fundamentally against.  My greater fear is that in doing so he’ll become more like me than he ever was before.


I thought this essay was going to be about the ways in which our children are not like us, the ways in which the apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.  I started with that experience at the video arcade, sure of my horror over how easily my son lapped up the violence, and my revulsion at how many other fathers and sons stood beside us, smilingly shooting away.  But as I started writing, I realized something else was going on.  The essay shaped itself around the complicated ways in which as fathers we both indoctrinate our sons into male violence and simultaneously teach them that same violence is wrong.  More disturbing to this author was the further discovery that the essay wanted to move into how those parts we most abhor in our children are really the things we fear in ourselves.  I say this now only because as writers our essays, our stories, our books are also our children.  We want them to be certain things, to behave certain ways.  How rarely they do.  Yet we seldom talk about what this means.  Instead, we make vague statements like: “I followed where the story went,” or “I let he character lead me” as if the story, the character are really separate entities from us.  They are not.  And the twisting turns they take, the conflicted messages they reveal say more about our own messy lives than we’d like to think.


16 thoughts on “Shooting Dinosaurs–Peter Grandbois

  1. I grew up watching tons of television depicting westerns and there was so much killing they did not give guys names. Then there was the Untouchables which gave a new meaning of Mafia. People got mowed down by machine guns. But I knew that it was television.

  2. If you go on a violence fast (or just a negativity one) and avoid–REALLY avoid–all exposure to it for a month, which means news, commercials, emails, certain people (you know the ones), situations, video games, movies, shows, internet sites, conversational topics, thoughts, the whole shebang, you will come out of your temporary little peace bubble with better health, sharper wits, and you will be absolutely appalled at how much violence saturates your world to the point of jadedness. It will suddenly stand out to you like a fresh blood stain on the couch.

    I moved into that bubble permanently about a decade ago. It was easy to do: free rent, utterly portable, a little tricky at times but totally worth the effort considering the pay offs. It’s rendered me sensitive to the point of being accused of being psychic when it comes to sidestepping the bullshit of life. I can see it coming now, I’m not jaded. I have plenty of time and space to make the smarter decisions. I barely noticed the economic recession..

    Recently, I was enjoying a phone call with a woman who seemed to be, at first glace, a kindred spirit. She had all the symptoms of inner peace and outer awareness, including the strange, childlike happiness that comes along with peace of mind. Then, she mentioned how proud she was of her gentle, artistic, home-schooled son that he had reached an extremely high level in World of Warcraft. I asked her what that entailed. She told me. My whole body went cold.

    I hung up and watched some old stand up comedy on You Tube until the feeling came back into my laugh.

  3. Boys growing up go through phases. I believe as a parent it is important to expose children to different experiences, even different from our own comfort zones. What happened to simply playing outside?

  4. I always have to ask myself, what if all those first person shooter games had only black or only female humans are targets?

    That would be bad! We would instantly talk about how dangerous it was for people to have FUN shooting people of a particular kind.

    But, when we do it indiscriminately, it’s okay? It’s all right to mindlessly mow down fake humans … but if you mindlessly mow down fake humans of a particular sort, suddenly it’s a bad influence.

    I’m sorry, but the older I get, the less I’m willing to accept all those bullshit reasons why violent gaming isn’t damaging. Yes, it’s a bad thing. Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, it is ramping up the stimulation of what appears to be an unfortunately basic human drive to the saturation level, and that’s just not healthy. Ever. I don’t give a crap for morality or whatever the trendy reason for disapproving of this garbage is. It’s the psychological equivalent of shoving six liters of coke and seventeen bags of chips down his throat for supper.

    And of course your kid is still making up stories where he’s killing or being killed. Surely you don’t think that the entire world is not having an effect on him outside of your house. There will be many less than stellar influences on him outside of his home; are you okay with bringing all of them indoors as well? This is starting to sound disturbingly like the canned excuse that everyone uses: “He’s going to get it (violent play) from someplace anyway!”

    And if you enjoy it, then well … that’s not an excuse. Part of being a parent is maybe examining yourself to see the influences you’re having on your kid and changing in order to give him a decent example. You are rationalizing giving him something that’s inappropriate because I don’t care, I want it!

    I’m also sick and tired of the “I can tell the difference between pretend and reality” argument. It’s garbage. Show a typical person an endless stream of TV shows and movies where anyone gay is evil, where the woman does nothing but say, “Honey you’re home!” and bake roasts, and where the black guy is always the pimp and the thug, and suddenly everyone starts yelling over how damaging these poisonous images are.

    Sorry. The more middle-aged I get and the further I go into the back nine of life’s golf course, the less patient I am with this navel-gazing nonsense. This violence-as-fun bullshit is exactly that, bullshit. I’m tired of the excuses. Buy him a fucking cello or something.

  5. This has been going on for generations. From sparring with wooden swords and sticks, to playing cowboys and Indians with cap guns and bows with suction arrows, right through to modern day computer games. Boys will be boys!
    If anything though, I think that Karate or Fencing are a better outlet for this, as martial arts are not just about how to injure and maim, they have philosophies surrounding discipline, constraint, respect and fitness.

  6. Just terrific. And great ending, about how essays and other children take on a life of their own because they both are and are not independent from us. The “messy” aggressiveness in us–it takes a different form in girls and women, I think) is part and parcel of living things–even plants can try to push competing plants out of the way. It needs to be and can be prevented from becoming extreme, but I don’t think I would want it to disappear.

  7. I think shooting each other with nerf guns is an important bonding experience. As for Karate, I agree with Greg that martial arts taught properly is more about self-restraint and discipline than “I just whacked that guy in the face.”

    I think the line is between friendly competition, like sports, and actual violence and hurting each other. The nerf gun war is friendly competition, until you’re shot in the face.

  8. Pingback: Nouns of the Week II | Meghan McClure

  9. Nice essay! I wonder if you’ve read the Umberto Ecco essay on why he would rather give his son toy guns than model trains…

  10. I’m not saying pong was originally developed for killers, but video games have been used to train military since the beginning and currently we are training soldiers to use joy sticks, rather than put troops on the ground. When the toy factories were closed down and used to make bombs and weapons during the rationed times of world war there was an interesting connection between war verses play and how we raise (alternate word choices: train, condition) our sons. Being that the history of the world has been a history of wars, I don’t see how we will escape thrill-repulsion that violence produces in the human animal. Your awareness in the post of your feelings and discussing them with your son as he grows might be the ongoing empathy lesson you are looking for. Learning why people want to shoot, kick, and maim rather than talk might be an interesting question for him to think about. It sounds like he likes to be physical and is looking for ways to be strong in a world he is already picking up as threatening. Superheroes have powers kids admire because kids know what being small means. And I agree that the basic principle in martial arts is that you do not go around picking fights just because you know karate. Hopefully your son will be gentle on the wood planks in your home and come to learn the value of learning forms as self control.

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