Playing at Violence

Having grown up amid the horrors of Burundi’s civil war, a young man is bewildered by the American lust for warlike video games

Ghost Recon Future Soldier (Ubisoft)
Ghost Recon Future Soldier (Ubisoft)


On a fall afternoon a few years ago, inside my dorm room at Deerfield Academy, I started hearing gunshots. I had been warned that in America people hunt with guns. I comforted myself with this thought at first, but the sounds went on and on and grew increasingly familiar. It can’t be hunting, I thought. Why would anyone be hunting on the grounds of a Massachusetts prep school?

I threw my door open and rushed outside the building, but I couldn’t hear the sounds anymore. I saw students chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. Was I just dreaming? I went back inside the dorm. Walking down the hallway, I heard the sounds again. Oh, it must be a student watching a movie! I thought and returned to my room, closing the door. Idiot! I laughed at myself—where was I going to go anyway? I had just come to America, and I could hardly find my way around the campus. Even if the gunfire had been real, I would have had no idea where to run.

As I sat at my desk, the sounds brought back images from my home village in Burundi. This disturbed me. Finally, I covered my ears. From time to time, I would uncover them, hoping the movie had ended, but the sounds went on and on. A movie of gunshots and nothing else? I wondered. What type of movie is that?

As dinnertime approached, students started emerging from their rooms, and I joined them in the hallway. “Were you just watching a movie?” I asked one of my dorm mates.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Was it loud?” he said.

“No, no!” I said. “I just was curious to know what movie you were watching.”

“It wasn’t actually a movie,” he said. “I was playing video games.”

Huh, I thought. I did not ask for an explanation. At the time, I didn’t know what video games were, only that they made noises that sounded like gunfire.

There was a time when silence reigned all over my village. Rivers were loud, but their rhythmic sounds were part of the silence. People worked in their fields with hoes. There were no cars, no factories. I imagine that to Westerners that time and place would have resembled the Stone Age. Planes flew over the village, but never more than once a week. There was another season that broke this silence. It was the time of crops growing. From the early stage of the seeds’ sprouting, parents would send their kids into the fields to make noise and chase away the birds that ate the seedlings. This went on for a month, and after that the silence would come again. I enjoyed the quiet, but it did not last. Another season erupted and broke all the silence. It was the season of war. It came in the fall when I was four, and it lasted for more than a decade.

In this new season, just as in any other, some things died and others were born. Everything was transformed. When the militia attacked a village, it left behind the remains of the dead—people and animals—and the houses in ruin. People moved from their houses to live in the forests. New words appeared—ibinywamaraso (“the blood drinkers”) and ivyamfurambi (“deeds of the wrong first born”)—and new expressions: kamwe kamwe ku ruyeye ku rwembe (“one after another, gently on a razor”). This slogan and others like it said not to worry if you did not kill many people. The secret was to keep killing.

This new season made children my age wish they had been born blind and deaf so they couldn’t see their houses being burned and their mothers being raped before being killed, or hear the sounds of bombs or their parents screaming and crying. But at other times, you wished you had the eyes of a hawk and the ears of a deer, so that you could distinguish, in the dark, a black stump with branches from a man dressed in black pointing a gun, or a thin string tied to a mine from a long blade of grass lying across your path. These were times when you needed to know that the sound of raindrops falling on leaves wasn’t that of militiamen approaching on tiptoes. For a while you wished for something, and after another while you wished for the opposite. You learned to cover your eyes in the day; you learned to see in the dark.

In the hallway at Deerfield, the boy, whom I’ll call Luke, went on talking about video games, as we waited for our classmates to join us for dinner. Almost everything Luke said was so confusing that I asked him: “What do you mean by saying you killed so-and-so?”

“Well, my enemies. Paci, how often do you play video games?”

“Actually, what are they?”

The other students looked at each other and smiled.

“Come on, Paci!” Luke led me to his room. He took up a little device in his hands and turned on his computer. He pointed at the computer screen, at images of people with guns. “Once you press this button, they start moving and you hunt them, see?” Out of the computer’s speakers came the sound of shooting, the sound of war.

“You’ll have to play with us, Paci!”

I faced the computer but lowered my eyes. I didn’t want to offend him, but I didn’t want to watch what was happening on the screen. Instead, I watched his fingers moving, handling the device.

“What are you doing with this thing?” I asked, pointing  at the little device in his hands.

“I’m playing! That’s how you play!”

“So you’re actually doing the shooting?”

“Yeah! Here, you try it.”

“No, no. Thanks. Let’s go to dinner.”


In the seventh year of war in Burundi, I went to a public boarding school by the shore of Lake Tanganyika. At that school and many others, returning students hazed incoming ones. Although the rigor and form of hazing differed from one school to another, the objective of hazing was the same everywhere: to embarrass new students. Usually a group of returning boys and girls would gather in a circle around a new student, ordering him or her to tell vulgar jokes. This worked best with girls, who would often start crying halfway through a joke and be doubly embarrassed. Some new boys enjoyed telling dirty jokes, but all boys were embarrassed if they were made to cry in public, and if you were a boy, no matter how tough you were, you were unlikely to leave the center of the circle without wiping your eyes. Every word—every gesture—was treated as an insult by the hazers, and the penalty was for one of them to rap his knuckles on your head. If you were a girl, you often had to do more than tell a dirty joke. You might also be commanded by one of the boys, “Date me until I fall in love with you!” The hazers would tell you to caress the boy who had said those words. And then that boy would scream and call out, “She is harrassing me! Please stop! Stop! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” Other times the boy would make noises as if he were having sex and say things like, “What a whore!”

A person was assigned especially to haze me. His name was Chrysostom. Most of the hazers wanted to inflict only psychological pain. Chrysostom was different. If, for example, you saw a new girl cradling her breasts in pain, you knew that she had been hazed by Chrysostom.

I met him on my first day at that school. He came up to me and yelled, “Kinyuzu!” The name designated a new student who, according to the rules of hazing, did not deserve a proper name.

I did not reply.

“Why don’t you open your mouth and say, ‘Yes!’ ”

I kept quiet.

Chrysostom looked puzzled, as if I had done something not only incomprehensible but absolutely stupid. He then laughed ironically and called me by my proper name. “All right, Pacifique.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you surprised I know your name?” he asked.

“Well, yes, because we just met,” I replied.

“Do you know my name?”

“No,” I said.

“Because mine is too unimportant to know, but yours … You’re a big shot, huh?”

Chrysostom was short but strong. He had a thick, muscular neck, and when he laughed, the muscles around his neck would get bigger and bigger as if air were being pumped into them. He was the boy who could get away with offending anyone, no matter how strong the other person was. Students would tell you: “Unless you intend to kill him, you should not try to fight Chrysostom.” Whether you started the fight or he started it, it was for you to end it. You had to accept humiliation and ask for mercy. Otherwise the fight would never end. He would never quit.

From the moment we met until the end of the year, Chrysostom never let a day go by without spending some time with me. He made me his closest friend, in his special way of companionship. He always wanted me to tell him jokes, but he also made sure I did not go to sleep without being beaten up. Unlike others who often were not interested in jokes but only in inflicting humiliation, Chrysostom would listen to my jokes and would laugh when they amused him. If someone else had beaten me up, he did not need to beat me again. I only needed to go see him and tell him I had already been beaten, and then tell him jokes.

There was a particularly vulgar joke that hazers found funny, so new students told it often. The joke went like this: two children are playing outside their house on a sunny afternoon. It is a hot day, and their parents are napping—windows wide open. All of a sudden, funny noises come out of their parents’ room; they are making love. One child runs over, looks through the window, and calls to his sister: “Mom and Dad are fighting!” The other child joins the first at the window. After a while, the children begin to cry. As they cry, the sister watches Mommy grabbing Daddy’s shoulder, and then she shouts, “Go, Mummy, go!” The brother grabs his sister, and a real fight begins—the kids are taking sides. After the parents have “come to peace,” they hear their children fighting outside. They rush out and separate them and angrily question them, and the kids reply, “But you were also fighting!” This was the punch line.

When I told this idiotic joke to Chrysostom, he didn’t laugh. After a moment of awkwardness, he asked me, “Were the kids seriously fighting?”

“The story goes that they fought to their bleeding,” I said. Then he broke into laughter. If there was anything related to violence in a joke, Chrysostom always wanted to hear more about it.

Another interesting thing about Chrysostom was that he wanted to tell me stories, too. He told me he lived in Bujumbura Rural, a province where a group of militia called the FNL (Forces nationales de liberation) camped. He would tell me how he enjoyed watching the FNL combatants—whom he called friends—fighting with government soldiers. Though he never said that he himself killed or had fought for the FNL, in his stories he sometimes used “we.” He would imitate the sounds of different guns and would keep doing it for such a long time that his voice would get hoarse. He repeated one story often. He never seemed to remember that I had already heard it. He laughed while telling it as if it were new every time.

“Back home, my friends, the FNL,” he would start. “You know the FNL, right?”

I would nod.

“When we catch people … oh it is so funny … the soldiers … those for the government … oh dear! Ntakintu kiryoshe nkico, wohora uraraba! Nothing else on earth could be more amusing! You know how a cat, when he catches a mouse, you know how he can play with the mouse knowing that the mouse won’t go anywhere? It is just like that. Oh, boy!” Then he would laugh and laugh. The muscles around his neck would swell. When he stopped laughing, he would go on: “We ask them questions, you know, and when they hesitate … You know, in the eyes!” He would stretch out his arm and point his long fingernails at my eyes. “And then after …” He would interrupt himself with laughter again. “The FNL would never waste their bullets, you know, they would use a rope, you know, even a shoelace, and put it around their neck, and …” Saying this, he would grab my neck and squeeze it. “And … strangle the idiots!” Then, as if hit by an electric shock, he would release my neck and fall backward onto his bed, and laugh so hard that tears came from his eyes. “I miss home! I very much look forward to vacation.”

I could see he was absorbed by his story, as if he were right back there strangling someone. He did not realize that I was shivering the whole time.

“What do you do on vacation?” he would ask me. For me, going on vacation did not mean going to my family’s house, but rather joining my mother and brother in the forest, where we hid from Chrysostom’s friends, the militiamen he always told me about. I could not tell him this, of course. I would change the subject.

I tried to please Chrysostom, hoping he would stop abusing me, but he was not aware of what I felt. I would take him to a restaurant, buy him soda and cookies, but it was like caressing a stone. He would often put his arm around my shoulders, and we would walk around while I told him jokes. He would listen very carefully and would laugh and even give me a high five. Students who saw us walking side by side thought we were the best of friends. In fact, Chrysostom himself seemed to think I was his best friend. When he learned I was going to another school for my remaining years of high school, he told me: “I will miss you! You are very sweet. I do not feel I will have someone else to spend time with and have fun.” And I could see in his face that he actually meant it.

It was an interesting friendship, but I am glad that it ended.

That evening at Deerfield, on the way back from dinner, Luke asked me to go play war video games with him. “No,” I said. “I have a lot of work to do.” I did have work to do. But I had other reasons for staying away. I thought that the boys who played the video games probably took drugs, that they were gangsters who pretended to be innocent.

One evening, I was having trouble with my computer, and I went to Luke’s room to ask him for help. I found him in the midst of shooting imaginary people. After he fixed my computer, he asked me if I wanted to watch him play for a little bit. I said I did not and tried to explain: “You know, I’ve seen the real thing. So I’m not really interested. I’m sorry.”

“Wait, you … How?” He stopped playing.

“There was a war back in my country,” I told him. “I was little when it started, and I grew up in it. So I saw a lot of that.”

“Wow!” he said. He asked me to tell him more. There was excitement in his face, which surprised me, and frightened me a little. When I first came to school in America, I assumed that I would never talk about the war in Burundi. Doing so might refresh my bad memories. And wouldn’t the other students think that I was violent myself? Besides, who would want to hear about such horrible things?

He wanted me to tell him about the war. I said I would tell him some other day, knowing that day would never come. It would have been like telling jokes to Chrysostom. Was this boy like Chrysostom? Was he addicted to violence, too? “And thanks so much for fixing my computer,” I said and quietly left his room.

Over the next few months, I realized I was wrong about Luke. He and my other dorm mates who liked playing violent video games weren’t gangsters at all. They were just young, inexperienced, innocent. It took me some time to realize that the shooting wasn’t real to them. They were just playing. For them the games were “mindless,” as one friend told me. Many kids at the school played the same kinds of games. So there was nothing unusual about Luke. He was just doing what many American kids did. I felt relieved, but I was also puzzled by what seemed to me like an odd sort of entertainment. How could violence so easily be turned into a game? How could companies invent such games in the first place? And how could parents buy them for their children?


I lived through 13 years of civil war. I know that violence can become almost a culture in itself, and that it twists not all but many of the people who are trapped in it. Of course, not all the children who grew up in the war became violent. How you responded to your own resentments, whether you seethed with thoughts of revenge, how your parents, neighbors, and friends responded to the bloodshed—all of these things helped determine your own taste for violence. I was lucky. Many others were not. Maybe Chrysostom was a particularly sadistic case. I don’t really know. Maybe he would have been a bad guy wherever he grew up. But he was not born violent, and certainly the war helped shape him. I don’t know what happened to him as a child, but I imagine that since he himself grew up in that season of war in Burundi, he probably underwent a transformation and adapted the way a plant adapts. Violence in my country and in neighboring Rwanda and Congo had a similar effect on soldiers and militiamen, and especially on children drafted into armies or rebel militias. I remember how Nyandwi, a schoolmate and a neighbor who had joined one of the militias, hunted my family. When we escaped from him, he killed his own sister, apparently out of nothing more than frustration. I recall how Nyandwi, when he was no longer a militiaman, would proudly tell stories of how he killed 30 children with machetes in a single night. It was how his militia colleagues had initiated him, he explained.

I remember how Gilbert, a neighbor and Nyandwi’s friend, enjoyed telling similar stories of when he was in the militia. How every one of his reactions, when he was back in the village, was violent and how he always laughed after he had done something violent. How he would heat a nail and stab the feet of his sisters to find out the truth if he suspected they had told him lies. To many young people, violence became easy and fun. It became one of their hobbies, as it seemed to have become Chrysostom’s hobby. It is hard to allow yourself to imagine that you could become one of those young people, but you have to admit that you could, when you remind yourself that the children who are twisted by war were once lovely three-year-olds who smiled and charmed with their innocence.

I think back to the season of war and remember how we fled deep into the jungle, far from any people. That was how we managed to survive, by hiding, by turning our backs on the rest of humanity. Those parents who sent their children into the jungle to protect them from the bloodshed—they would have envied the peace that Luke and others like him took for granted. Most of all, they would have envied the fact that these lucky children did not know the true devastation of war. That they only played at violence.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Pacifique Irankunda , who moved to the United States from Burundi, graduated from Deerfield Academy and, recently, from Williams College, where he double-majored in political science and psychology.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up