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Mister Rogers teaching us about video games 35 years ago comes at a good time today

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Special guest Keith David shows us the inside of the machine

Here’s Mister Rogers talking about video games. It made some rounds on social media this week, and it came at a rather good time.

This program, No. 1514 of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, aired Feb. 10, 1983. So, yeah, we missed the 35th anniversary of this broadcast by a month. But there has been a celebration of Fred Rogers’ life and work going on since February, centering around the 50th anniversary of his show’s premiere (Feb. 19, 1968), the 15th anniversary of his death (Feb. 27, 2003), the airing of a PBS special this week, and a postage stamp — a kind of ultimate enshrinement into Americana — coming later in March.

And here we’re reminded of Mister Rogers in a week in which, as usual, we talked about video games as the pretext for something else that was really bothering us. Thirty-five years ago, Mister Rogers had a segment about video games, at the apogee of the arcade craze, and true to the goodness of his character — character, as in his personal makeup, not someone to be portrayed — he wanted to understand video games and help us understand them too.

So here is Mister Rogers with young Brandon Margulies understanding Donkey Kong and how the game is played. Sure, it’s primitive in terms of what modern video games today serve to their audiences, the camaraderie they now build in enormous communities spanning the world, and the feelings — Mister Rogers wanted us to talk about our feelings more than anything else — that they summon. But Donkey Kong is also the progenitor of probably the greatest canon and collection of characters in video gaming, ones any parent feels good about welcoming to the living room.

And then, in an all-time whopper of a cameo, Keith David comes in to empty the coin box. That’s right, Capt. Anderson, the Arbiter. David was involved in the greatest fistfight in movie history, but before that, he was on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, showing us the inside of the machine, and how it all works. He turns over the control panel, showing the switches and the wiring.

We really could have used Mister Rogers this week. Leaving aside my views about firearms violence in the United States, it was hard to read about this week’s White House conference on video game violence and consider it an intellectually honest exercise. If you’re gonna talk about pop culture as an influence on kids and young adults, you need Mister Rogers in the room. He wasn’t some pass-through who defended a medium because it was his livelihood, or praised a piece of entertainment because a child liked it. He had deeply personal concerns about violence on television and the way it could shape kids — not necessarily as a direct motivator of their behavior, but of their expectations of themselves and the world.

The difference is he earned our attention to that concern by caring rather than lecturing. He was interested in the things that interested children, and not in a patronizing way. He respected and reciprocated their curiosity. It didn’t matter to him that Donkey Kong was a game played with a joystick and buttons on a TV as opposed to dice and markers on a cardboard surface. His approach was, OK, since this is something kids really enjoy, let’s understand it. Here’s where the money goes, and here are the controls and how they work.

Sure, video games are a lot more sophisticated now, and I doubt Fred Rogers would be impressed by the worldly intrigues of an M-rated game, or go to bat for a survival-of-the-fittest shooter. But the man worked in television and believed in it as a positive thing, despite excesses and shortcomings that have gone on far longer than the ones in our corner of pop culture.

And he had a keen eye for what was really on someone’s mind. If you told him something was bothering you, yes, he would definitely want to talk about that. Mister Rogers wanted us to talk about our feelings, not just what we felt but why; to open the door to the machine and turn over the controls and understand what’s really going on when the buttons are pushed. And if we do that a little more honestly, we might realize that, in all the varied, passionate disputes that involve them, a video game isn’t what’s really bothering us. It probably never was.