Guest Column: Violent video games at library promote an education nightmare

July 7, 2010

By Tim Hughes

There he was, a cute little guy, 10 or 11 years old, standing between the bookshelves at the Rockford Public Library. He could easily have been a poster child for Library Awareness Week. There was just one problem. He was apparently skipping school and hiding out amid the library’s bookshelves while waiting to be first in line for that day’s round of head-kicking, body-slamming, shoot ’em, stab ’em violent video games that the public library has become fond of recently.

“The only good thing that can be said about these video games is that they keep kids off the street,” a library staffer told me. Apparently, it also keeps them out of school, as well. I wonder how the Morrissey-appointed library trustees square that with Mayor Morrissey’s campaign to reduce school truancy?

It is hard to understand why a library unable to keep its doors open full time should assign itself social engineering tasks having nothing to do with providing library services but having a lot to do with selling adolescents short with the faulty and prejudicial assumption that “a certain grade of kid” can only be lured into the library by feeding them violent video games. Does the library really think that as soon as their video game time, filled with endlessly violent images, is over, they are going to ask library staff where the books of English romantic poetry are located, or any other books, for that matter?

This is pandering, pure and simple, pandering to the most base and degrading elements in the popular culture and puts the library on the streets along with the thug culture it is presumably trying to combat. No pun intended!

I’ve only had one opportunity to speak with Mr. Frank Novak, the library’s executive director, and I went away from that conversation highly impressed with his obvious enthusiasm for our public library and its future prospects. He and his staff also deserve credit for making the best of a bad situation not of the library’s making by managing to make sure at least some library services are available to the public somewhere in the city every day of the week. But video games that have been condemned by both the left and the right for their violence and sexism? That I simply don’t understand.

I’m accustomed to seeing librarians going about carrying stacks of books in their arms, but it took some explaining by a library staffer for me to understand why I was seeing a librarian carrying a baby in arms around the Young Adult Zone. Although the zone is intended for teens 13 and up, teens can bring younger siblings to the area, as well as infants in arms, if the infants are their own, of course. So while the “young adults” are taking in their daily dose of gratuitous violence and mayhem, our financially-strapped library will provide nursery services for them. What’s that old saying about the tail wagging the dog? Literacy, especially among the young, has been going out of style.

The public library should not be contributing to its downfall. Last year, the library’s Web site didn’t announce that we were going to love the new East State Branch Library. No, the Web site proclaimed that we were “Gonna Love It.” Not long after that, a teacher who had marked “gonna” as a spelling error on a student composition she had handed back was indignantly informed by the student, “That’s the way they spell it at the public library!” Now we have video games that have been repeatedly cited as a cause of illiteracy among adolescents.

If the library sees itself as under some compulsion to “get a certain grade of kid” off the streets, why not offer other types of video games, such as sport video games? With summer upon us, why not let those who can’t find jobs or are too young for the job market, spend a summer afternoon watching a baseball game on the video screen instead of “fighting games”? A baseball game would keep them off the streets for the better part of three hours or more, at least twice as long as the one-hour time allotment for video games, if that’s the library’s goal, but I suspect that watching a baseball game may be too tame for the urban sociology whiz kids behind all of this.

And so we continue along our self-destructive path. Someone who saw an earlier guest column I wrote on this subject asked if I really meant what I said about the library’s video game policy amounting to a betrayal of Dr. King’s legacy. Yes, I do! Not intentionally, of course, but the result is the same, nonetheless. Stroll through the library on any school night and look at the number of white kids doing schoolwork at library tables, and then look at the number of minority kids absorbed in violent, in-your-face video games, and what other conclusion can you draw?

Perhaps we should update a certain speech and tack it up at the entrance to the Young Adult Zone. We could call it: “I Have a Nightmare: Yes, I have a nightmare today. I have a nightmare that one day, little black children and little white children went to the Rockford Public Library, and little white children were given books and other reading materials to empower their minds over their senses, so they can envision all that is possible in their lives, and little black children were given violent video games that keep their minds in thumb-sucking submission to their senses and seal their membership in a permanent underclass. Yes! I have a nightmare today!”

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 July 7-13, 2010 issue

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