Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Games Go To Hollywood—we examine the terror prevalent in classic TV episodes about gaming. Previous entries covered ’90s Friday-night mainstay Full House, Nickelodeon spook show Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, second-rate ’80s family sitcom Mr. Belvedere, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In this final installment, we look at Bart Simpson’s struggle to resist the allure of the ultra-violent game Bonestorm.
Bad kids don’t know they’re bad. At least, that’s been my experience as a former camp counselor and as a current volunteer creative-writing teacher. Little kids can lack the self-awareness to know how their actions affect those around them. The world is a haunted house of stimuli, and they can’t help but laugh. It can be frustrating, especially when my agenda is “teach you to write” and my more nebulous, overarching concern is “keep all the kids safe.”
I was recently humbled by a boy in one of the toughest classes I ever taught. It was up in the Bronx and full of troublemakers. Nobody would listen, and kids would regularly get up and punch each other for no apparent reason. This particular boy, a kindergartener, had zero attention span, and when I say that, I mean he didn’t even respond to his own name. He would make us chase him around the room to calm him down. One day, a teacher came by the classroom on her way out, and this boy gave her a big hug and fell asleep on her lap. She stroked his head as she explained the situation: He took three buses to get to school every day, lived a troubled home life full of brothers and sisters, and his family didn’t have much money. After that, the troublemaker seemed more human.
Bart Simpson is the quintessential bad kid. He talks back to his teachers, picks on his sister, and (at least in early seasons of The Simpsons) he’s quick to tell any figure of authority, “Don’t have a cow, man.” He pours hours of his life into plenty of things other than homework—throwing water balloons off the bridge above the highway and watching copious amounts of The Itchy & Scratchy Show. But he’s not an especially malicious kid—most of his hijinks are relatively harmless.
A video game changes all that. In “Marge Be Not Proud,” Bart attempts to steal a game, Bonestorm, from the Try ’N’ Save store. A tough-talking security guard (played by Lawrence Tierney) puts the scare in Bart and bans him from the store. It’s a slap on the wrist for Bart, not much different than staying after school to write, “I will not steal” all over the chalkboard.
Bart craves Bonestorm—a new violent fighting game akin to Mortal Kombat in which six-armed guys bash each other as bloody limbs rain from the heavens for no real reason. It promises a mindless outlet for his inexplicable angst. It’s so paramount to his psyche that his desire for a copy borders on primal. Bart scares even himself, and for the first time he considers that he might really be a bad kid after all.
No one is more surprised than his mom. Marge spends the episode as a slave to childish routine. She puts the marshmallows in her childrens’ hot cocoa for them, and spearheads a family snowman-building initiative. Every night, she sings a makeshift lullaby to her children while tucking them in, and the tradition of “The Tuck-In Express” is starting to wear on Bart. He says as much to Marge, that he’s getting a little old to be treated like a little boy.
Bart’s mom still thinks of him as her “special little guy,” an impressionable child who ought to be protected from Bonestorm’s gratuitous bazooka-Santa violence. She refuses to get the game for him—even as a Christmas present—and Bart bristles at her parenting. It’s at this moment he runs into town malcontents Jimbo and Nelson, demonstrating their shoplifting prowess. It’s something Bart never considered doing. After all, he’s not really that bad a guy, just a tame hooligan. Jimbo convinces him otherwise: “Shoplifting is a victimless crime—like punching someone in the dark.”
It’s fitting that a video game is Bart’s gateway into darkness. It’s seductive enough to worm its way into Bart’s child brain, but not scary in the way that drugs or sex might be. Those vices seem remote to him, anyway: A wild sugar rush from an all-syrup Squishee is the most powerful high he can imagine, and given that he’s afraid of even articulating his crush on his badass babysitter, his hormones aren’t a major influence yet. But a video game? He knows what this does to his brain; he’s an old pro. And he knows it’s exactly what his mom does not like—perfect for getting out from under her thumb. He can do this.
There’s a moment—after the bad-influence spirits of Mario and Sonic whisper larcenous encouragement in Bart’s ear, and after Bart slips the game into his never-before-seen purple hoodie—that he thinks he got away with it. For that split second, he feels relief. In this moment, the possibilities of the new game are pure. It’s a vice capable of serving as a time dump, filling hours where he doesn’t have to acknowledge that his dad’s kind of an idiot, his sister’s a little know-it-all, that the only people who dare to be Bart’s friend are those who slightly fear him. When he plays the game, he won’t be a bad kid.
But Bart is caught—and as the title of the episode suggests, Marge be not proud—and it’s a fitting last hurrah to his childhood. He’s reached the point in his life where the world is no longer the kaleidoscope of good a boy might see; there is some evil, too. And that’s scary. Bart realizes that he’s capable of stealing—capable of carrying out a bad act. And of all the things to take, he chooses a video game. He’s using his newfound nefarious powers to grasp desperately for an escape. The powers work, but the escape doesn’t happen. For a minute, this bad kid realizes he’s bad.
That is, until he owns up to his mistake. Floored by his maturity, Marge buys him a video game herself, and Bart seems content with her choice: Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge. It’s no Bonestorm, but Bart no longer needs the escape offered by that sensory overload. That’s the retreat of a child, and he’s now a man, one who may, at some point, have a cow.