12/19/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Alone in the Light of the Screen

By now we all know him, that boy in front of the computer. He's lost in a world. Whole hours pass, and his eyes stay fixed on the screen.

If only we could see those eyes. The constantly shifting focus as he surveys the landscape. Back, forth, up, down. His enemy is everywhere.

For years, I have been his teacher. He has come to class exhausted after a long night of studying and playing Halo. In the corner of his room last night, in fact, he couldn't resist staying up late in front of his computer. He was outnumbered by aliens, they were swarming down on him. But with the aid of his scoped rifle and the judicious use of grenade launchers and melee weapons, he was able to defeat them. He upped his score. His was the superior arsenal, and he'd used it ruthlessly.

The game was his dystopian future world of choice, and he could enter it and leave it at will. Later in the week, he would ask a girl to meet him for coffee. Later still, he'd start working on the paper I'd assigned him.

Not all young men have such willpower, as we know. Not all young men are able to slide away from the game and leave their dystopia behind. And so we are in mourning now. Again.

But I'm here to tell you that even the smartest and healthiest young people have a sense that we're all on the edge of dystopia -- a dysfunctional world where down equals up and right equals wrong and nothing is altogether reliable anymore. Perhaps it goes back to the image of those rogue passenger jets slamming into buildings. (For several years, my students wrote vivid essays about those jets.)

Or perhaps it's the film footage of a city underwater, of people stuffed like rats in a superdome without food. A giant tsunami, with people floating by. Haiti in a years-long aftershock. The disappearance of the Jersey shore. Subway tunnels filled with seawater, lower Manhattan in the dark.

Or perhaps it's our budding understanding that nothing about our lives is private anymore: our location and what we ate last night, our taste in music, food, clothing. The medicines we take, the alcohol we drink or don't drink, the bumper stickers we place on our car, the number of times we visit the ATM. Our heart rate and blood pressure, our past surgeries and visits to the therapist. Our beliefs, our political affiliations, the clubs we join. Shoot -- our very face is digitized and stored in some form of memory somewhere. Not our own memory, though. Rather, we exist in the collective memory of the cloud. We are, in other words, automatons to be. Catalogued, categorized, digitized, memorized.

As I said, we aren't far from dystopia, and young people sense it.

So when I teach my students in writing class, I'm no longer surprised that they write stories about people who stumble around in the dark looking for food. Their characters exist in a future where people have odd-sounding names and bear identifying tattoos. Or else students compose pure fantasy. Their characters live in castles and stage epic battles out on the plain. Fantastic creatures arrive. Characters swoon from fear, and they die bloody deaths.

In America -- and worldwide, really -- we are immersed in a high period of fantasy and science fiction, of violent online gaming and weird webcomics inhabited by aliens. Young people are steeped in the imagery of dystopia by varying degrees. Boys, especially.

Alone in the light of the screen, they fight. The scene before them is gory; there is mass destruction everywhere. After months of gaming they know all they need to know about attack strategy and survival. They know about firepower, weapons, and ammo. They've witnessed mutilating kills, blood spewing everywhere. And they have plotted surprise attacks, creeping around corners and shooting their enemies at close range.

I am not making this up.

While we are all talking about why we keep enduring mass killings, consider this: We are in a different age now. Young people have seen horrible things in their short lives that other generations, apart from witnessing the horrors of war itself, could not fathom. Much of it is real, like hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist attacks. But much of it is entirely invented, sold at the store nearest you. It's vivid, 3-D gory fiction, like a bad movie. It's perfectly imagined horror.

Until one sick and angry young man, sitting in the dark hole of his bedroom, decides it's not imagined at all, it's really real. And he can prove it.