The Last of Us

Devolution.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Devolution. Photo by Callen Harty.

The trailer for a new video game, “The Last of Us”, starts with the following: “The world’s been hard on us, hard on him. Joel’s done some terrible things. He tells me that on this journey you either hang on to your morals to die or do whatever it takes to survive.” The ad has been running several times a day and each time I hear it I am chilled by the message.

Understand that I am not one of those who blames video games or movies for the violence in our world. I don’t believe that the violence of The Three Stooges or Bugs Bunny or the Roadrunner made me want to go out and hurt people. I don’t believe that playing cops and robbers and playing with toy guns when I was a kid made me a more violent person. In fact, I’ve been a pacifist since I was a boy of about thirteen even though I shot and killed many a childhood friend with my finger, cap guns, plastic guns, and others. And I think that those toys of my youth and the video games of today are probably more a reflection of the violent culture in which we live than the creators of that violence.

Still, the messaging bothers me. When we got toy guns as kids they didn’t come with advertising that said things like, “Kill anyone who gets in your way,” “Kill or be killed,” etc. Instead we created our own scenarios where we all wanted to be the good guys, and that’s probably not much different than the current spate of video games. Of course, our cultural upbringing taught us that cops were always good and the robbers were always bad and cowboys were always good and Indians were always bad. There was no room for gray and no understanding that sometimes the cops are not on the right side and just as often the cowboys were bad guys who slaughtered Native Americans. And I guess whether you were the good guys or the bad guys the inherent messaging was exactly the message of “The Last of Us”–kill or be killed.

I’m trying to figure out why this is bothering me so much. Maybe it’s just that it’s so blatant, and maybe it’s that I have always believed that there are ethical considerations to everything that we do. As a pacifist I don’t want to believe that I would sacrifice my morals for a little more time on this earth. What value is there in that extra bit of life without my soul, without everything in which I believe? For me physical survival would be meaningless if I lost my moral compass in the exchange. My morality is what gives me purpose in this life and to throw away everything I believe in for a few more hours, days, or even months does not make sense to me. I am not willing to do whatever it takes to survive. I’ll be okay when my time is done as long as I die knowing that I did what I could while I was alive to make this world a better place and to always do what I believe to be the right thing (this, of course, does not mean that I have never failed my own moral code).

I think it also bothers me that the messaging of “The Last of Us” has been incredibly successful. It is the biggest launch of a video game so far this year, selling over one and a quarter million copies in just over a week. It may very well be a great game. In fact, it is getting rave reviews in all aspects, including its emotional depth. Maybe there is a higher purpose for the characters’ survival. Maybe they are truly good guys in an evil world. Maybe it’s just Madison Avenue finding a message that somehow resonates with the public. And maybe that’s my greatest fear about it, that if it is a resonant message our society is in a lot more trouble than I ever thought before. For me, as I’ve said before, I’d rather die for peace than live in violence.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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