Guest Column: Loss of learning at the library–violent video games take precedent over books

By Tim Hughes

There’s something civilizing about taking a book in your hand, be it a children’s book, a science text, or a volume of history. There’s something civilizing to the touch. But what’s civilizing about watching someone being smashed in the face over and over with a blunt object as a video screen throbs with large letters proclaiming K.O., K.O., K.O.? That’s the essence of a story line in a video game kids can play at the new Rockford public video arcade, formerly known as the Rockford Public Library.

After recently writing about this matter, I received a letter from a District 205 high school teacher who wrote: “What a waste of personnel and resources at a time when library resources are depleted. And really, how much more do we have to appeal to such a base and degenerate youth culture in the futile hope that it will hook them into reading and learning? The same people who design these video games are the same people who designed video simulations for the Marines, the purpose of which is to desensitize the trainee to violence. Basically, their purpose is to break down the human mind’s natural resistance to killing another human. I can’t believe that that is what they’re now doing in the Young Adult Zone at our local public library. Libraries are a pillar of our society going back to Ben Franklin. I think that playing these games strays from that mission.”

How right that teacher is! When time spent playing video games has been directly linked to the steep decline in adolescent literacy, and our public library has been compelled to reduce traditional library services but is nonetheless able to come up with violent, often viciously-nuanced video games for adolescents, you really have to wonder where the library’s mind is at on this issue. The mentality behind the library’s reasoning smacks of perverse Orwellian logic!

A trip to the local library ought to be a journey into the larger world of literacy leading to knowledge and learning. These games are an assault on learning. They give the power of the senses sway over the powers of the mind and foster a brutal insensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. With these games, the Rockford Public Library is contributing to the normalization of the violence that permeates our youth culture. After all, there are certain things you associate with a library and its role in being, as the letter writer says, a pillar of society and through it, civilization. But what are you to associate with the library when the first thing you encounter upon entering it are the flashing, banging images of terrified video characters being shot, beaten, run down by speeding vehicles, stomped on, and shoved off roof tops?

And that raises a troubling question: What does the library know about the kids who come there to watch these games? Are there epileptics among them who might have a seizure watching all the flashing lights and hearing all the wild, thundering noise these games wallow in? It’s been known to happen. Are adolescents who have been forbidden by their parents from playing violent video games finding a way around their parents’ instructions by going to the library, where Mom and Dad may think they’re doing school work, while in reality, they’re absorbing themselves in shoot ‘em dead video games? There’s a long history of institutions that have been sued by parents claiming that exposure to these games has caused overly-aggressive behavior in their children, leading in some cases to criminal activities. Is that a liability risk the library is willing to assume?

On a recent night I observed, as is often the case, long lines of patrons at the checkout counter as library staff scrambled to move things along. A few feet away, a library staffer sat with arms folded while watching over a group of teens absorbed in watching a sickening orgy of violence pounding away on the Playstation video screen. Just then, I noticed a library trustee passing by, quickly averting his eyes at the scene in the Young Adult Zone, no doubt aware that there was no way he could possibly reconcile the showing of such games with the library’s guiding principle, which states, and I quote, “responsible stewardship of the library’s resources.”

Long before budget cuts, I would hear library staff lament the need for more books and reading materials, especially in the branch libraries. Depending on the subject matter, a teen, or anyone going to our public libraries to look up a topic, might find the collections on that topic lacking. That’s also true with the main library, where recently I saw some teens trying to find books and other reading material for a school project. They weren’t having much luck, and what they were looking for was pretty basic. On my way out, I passed the Young Adult Zone, where a video game was thundering away. A group of teens were sitting around the large screen in a zombie-like trance as a video character was running about shooting at everything in sight. The two situations made me think of Pulitzer Prize author Chris Hedges’ new book’s subtitle: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

I can’t think of a more apt description of what’s going on at the Rockford Public Library.

Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.

From the April 14-20, 2010 issue

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