"Proceed to briefing, proceed to briefing," says a recorded voice-perhaps the same one that says stuff on Star Tours-as automated doors open and we're herded into a small, cold, dark room with seats and a screen. The same minuscule snotty sergeant appears on the screen to explain our mission, which is of "utmost national importance": to "annihilate two hostile targets." He's like a poorly written movie character. He wants us to "blast" a bridge and oil refinery "to smithereens." He wants us to "get rude." He wants us "to go out there and rock & roll." I'm surprised he doesn't say, "It's go time."
I write a couple of these gems down in my notebook, but I begin to feel uncomfortable as the woman on my right stares at me, dumbfounded. She thinks I'm a goober. I can feel it.
After a detailed tutorial on what all the throttles and controls do, we're told, as the music swells, "Good luck and fly safe. . . . And remember, the safety and security of this grateful nation is resting in your brave and capable hands-now let's go do it."
My hands are neither brave nor capable, though, and I crash into the ocean, crash into mountains, spin around, and find myself unable not to be upside down. I can't even find the oil refinery, let alone bomb it. I can't remember which throttle does what, and I can't tell if I'm moving at maximum or minimum speed. I'm a competitive person, though, so I'm not having fun.
"Here, I'll help you," says a voice from out of nowhere. An officer crouches down next to me and takes the throttle in his hand. I watch the screen. "Shoot, shoot, shoot!" he says. I look around nervously, wondering what he's getting so worked up over and thinking he's saying, basically, "damn it, damn it, damn it!" I finally realize that he's instructing me to shoot because we're hovering above the targets. I do shoot, and we blow up the oil refinery. I know this not from what the screen shows but from the officer's pleased reaction.
"You're a natural-you're really good. You could fly a real one. We could have you shipped off by Monday," he says as I crash in the desert. I want to believe him. I want to believe that I'm a "natural," but I can't get past the fact that I spun around, couldn't right myself, couldn't find the targets, crashed into the mountains and the ocean, didn't know if I was going forward or backward, and didn't understand what he meant when he told me to shoot. I was horrible. I should be nowhere near a jet. I'm a threat to national safety. Let's not pretend otherwise.
I look to the left to watch my roommate pull onto what looks like a freeway but is actually the runway. She has flown her jet perfectly and hit all her targets. It makes sense because she loves-and is very good at-video games. She plays them constantly. I, on the other hand, used to enjoy a rousing game of Pole Position in the days before I had my driver's license.
The argument against video games is that they turn kids into bloodthirsty killers by desensitizing them to violence. I'm never compelled by this argument, but somehow it's different today. I feel weird, and it's a weirdness that stays with me as I climb out of the darkened flight simulator and back out into daylight, as I walk away from the tent past the kids lining up and the officers joking with them, and as I walk to my car. My roommate points out that all that oil would have spilled into the ocean. I hadn't even thought about that. I feel weird because I wanted to blow things up and weird because it didn't feel real-it felt like a video game. Of course, it was only a video game.