On Christmas Day in 2006, I received my first Mature-rated videogame. As a 14 year-old boy, the most violent games I played were atypically age-appropriate, considering most parents let their children consume gratuitously violent content at young ages out of apathy or negligence. Teen-rated affairs like Jak II and Call of Duty: Finest Hour were the most violent my gaming experiences got until that day, when my father gifted me with Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent. The effect still rings.
My dad was and still is a huge Tom Clancy fan. I don’t know if it’s his conservative roots that affected his taste in literature, but he loves espionage tales, and Clancy is famous for them. And my guess is that, knowing his teenage son loved games, he saw this on store shelves and thought, “I love Tom Clancy, and my boy loves games. Maybe he’ll love this.” The man was right.
In retrospect, I can see how this was the perfect entry into M-rated gaming for me, and really many people. It was a cerebral spy thriller whose violence was necessary, but never over the top. It forced players to be patient and to identify the right tools at hand, and when to use them. It taught me that I can’t always please everyone, as the meter showing my allegiance between the government agency, Third Echelon, and the domestic terrorism group, John Brown’s Army, often skewed to one side due to my unwillingness to sacrifice hundreds of civilians, or my lack of sympathy for mercenaries with valuable intel for my suit-wearing bureaucratic bosses. It was a game with a morally ambiguous protagonist who fell into a pool of despair after a family tragedy, and then decided the best way to repair his life was to risk it in a more extreme way than ever.
All were heady ideas that I wasn’t expecting to explore as a 14 year-old, but loved to, regardless. It really was the perfect gift for a burgeoning cynic who thinks everyone is awful in some ways. Since then, the stories I’ve loved the most, in games and out, have been about morally compromised characters, and complex issues. I don’t know if my dad hoped or expected this to be the case, but it’s what happened.