Lancer Letter


#407 Beowulf, Rudolph and Video Games

What do the epic poem, Beowulf, the Christmas classic TV show, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and video games have in common?

Beowulf is an epic poem from the Anglo Saxon culture. Many of us studied it in our senior year of high school as General McLane students continue to do. The poem was originally part of the Anglo Saxon oral tradition beginning sometime in the 5th century and then finally written down in the 11th century. The story is about the epic hero Beowulf and his noble exploits. In the oral tradition, the story was told as a way of passing down values to future generations through a moral lesson. Some of those values extolled by Beowulf’s life were bravery, truth, honor, loyalty and duty, hospitality and perseverance.

Every year at this time, we begin a ritual of holiday traditions which include listening to the same music we hear every year and watching some of the same seasonal television specials. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is on of those television specials which airs every year on CBS as it did last week. The show first premiered in 1964 as a stop motion animated film. The basic process of stop motion animation involves taking a photograph of your objects or characters, moving them slightly, and taking another photograph. When you play back the images consecutively, the objects or characters appear to move on their own.

Stop motion animation is very primitive compared to the amazing Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) produced for today’s television shows and movies. Yet, the Rudolph special has continued to appeal to audiences for 44 years. I would contend that its message is one of the reasons for its long appeal. We become enamored with Rudolph’s plight of being different and feeling rejected but then, it becomes apparent that even reindeer who are different have something to contribute. This new understanding is then applied to the occupants of the Island of Misfit Toys who are then also embraced.

Rudolph is about the underdog, about those who are different. The moral lesson is that even those who are different can contribute and should be embraced. It is a values lesson, just like Beowulf, transmitting important moral lessons to our children and reminding adults of the same.

(Note: I am aware of the recent assertion on social media that Rudolph is about bullying and exploitation, but I will not honor such idiocy by addressing it.)

That brings us to video games. I’ve asked a number of students to tell me what video games they play and when they tell me, I ask what is the moral lesson of the game. Most say there is not one. (Do this with your children and grandchildren.) They are usually about acquiring weapons, wealth and status and require some type of skill in playing the game. Most do not have a moral lesson. I know that some video games can be helpful for developing certain skills and for teaching. In fact, “gamification” is a term in education now and refers to using video games to teach students. We use one such game called ST Math which is unparalleled in its ability to help young students gain conceptual skills in math.

So, back to my original question. The thing that Beowulf, Rudolph and video games have in common is that they are entertainment for the people of the era in which they exist or existed. They are something that are engaged with in leisure time. The big difference, however, is whether these leisure activities carry a moral lesson or teach, explicitly or indirectly, other things.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman travels the country speaking about school mass shootings or as he calls them, massacres. He has harsh words for video games. He references the highest grossing game, Grand Theft Auto for which “the ultimate objective is to reach a target number of points, which is typically achieved by performing tasks for the city’s local crime syndicate.” He notes that in the game you can spend money on a prostitute but get it back by murdering her. Points are also awarded for killing police. Though the game is rated for age 18 and above, he noted that in Michigan, 30% or second graders play the game.

My point in all this is that I fear that the children of today spend a significant amount of time engaged in leisure activities which teach no moral lesson compared to the time spent in the past. I worry that this is impacting student attitudes and behavior. I’m not saying all video games are bad and that they should be avoided; but, as you shop for the video game user in your life this Christmas season, give consideration to the amount of time that will be spent with that game and what ultimate positive outcomes will be achieved.

What goes into a mind, comes out in a life.