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A Kill Room Is Harmless

When did what we play define who we are?

Jackson W. Ryan
Aug 27, 2013 · Unlisted

On an average day, I’ll only slaughter three living, breathing animals. On a bad one, that number usually triples.

There’s something miserable about a “kill day.” The train to my laboratory, usually so full people have to climb through and over other bodies to find an inch of standing room, seems emptier. The ticket machine seems to scowl at me as I place my plastic pass in its mouth. The tinny, scratching sound of Eminem through a smartphone speaker system is drowned out by thought. By the time I arrive at station, I’ve already thought about the kill in its entirety, plotted my pathway through the sterile, isoflurane-scented halls of the Animal House and made that first incision down the sternum of a mouse only 6 months old. It feels so easy when it’s all in your head, when you’re a mile from your laboratory and you can still feel the sting of the sun.

The uneasiness builds as I enter the kill room. If you were only given a single word to describe a kill room, it’d be difficult to choose between “lifeless,” “empty,” or “dark.” I’d probably choose “foreboding.” You might choose “blue.” I glove up, snapping the yellow latex around my wrist and over the sky blue apron that, rules and regulations say, I must wear. I tuck my hair into a mesh net as I look over at Death Row — cages aligned in racks against a wall. The mice scurry around the confines of a 0.5mx0.2m transparent box, oblivious to their own futures (but are they oblivious? I don’t know — perhaps they are well aware that this is The End. Indeed, the fact they dart across the detritus and waste to hide underneath frayed pieces of Kleenex makes me think otherwise. It matters not, for they don’t have the power to change anything).

I grab one of the mice by the tail, the approved method for this sort of thing, and place it in another transparent box, slightly smaller — I think it’s only 30cmx10cm. This box is a little different. It has tubes running across its back, to the wall. The tubes are connected to small tanks of gas that render the mice unconscious within seconds. This is where the uneasiness has built to the point where it manifests itself as sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate. A similar thing happens to the mouse in the box, until it passes out. I pull it out, still unconscious, weigh it, tape its hands to a dental bib (to catch any moisture from bodily fluids) and place a small gas mask over its nose. Then I pause.

I pause every time.

In less than a minute, I will have ended a life. Maybe it isn’t a life that you consider important — a lab rat, destined to die — but Life, all the same. Its heart still beats, though it respires slowly, as it lays splayed on the table like a captive in a medieval torture device. I make the simple incision down the sternum with very plain, somewhat-dull chrome scissors. Then I cut the ribcage open, where the heart still beats. It’s a harrowing feeling seeing a tiny heart, as big as a fingernail, pulsing in front of you. I nick it with the scalpel blade and capture as much of the blood as I can. Some of it spills onto the dental bib, propelled by the decelerating heart. It’s over.

It’s only then you notice you haven’t taken a breath since the ribs split like an egg under the weight of the cold chrome scissors and the heart came into view.

I harvest the relevant organs — in my case, liver, kidney, intestine, femur, tibia, spine and skull — and discard the remains of the carcass into a plastic zip-lock bag, the kind I usually keep my days lunch in. Then I do it all again. Maybe only twice more if I am lucky, maybe triple that if I’m not.

At the end of a kill day I am almost completely exhausted, no matter the number of animals that end up as carrion. I trudge toward the station. The train feels even emptier on the return, though the fact my chest is pressed against a stranger’s back suggests differently. I think “It was hard enough to breathe steadily all day, and now this.” I play Bruce Springsteen on the drive from the station back home — a short drive, enough for only one or two songs (No Surrender and Bobby Jean, usually). Home. Recharge.

I put my feet up on the edge of my bed and relax. The kill day is done. I turn on my Xbox. I put Grand Theft Auto IV in the disc tray. It too, is a kill room. It is violent, far more violent than a day in the lab’s sterile, cold kill room. But it isn’t real. It certainly didn’t help me get through a day of real world, heart-rate-increasing life-taking.

Then, I kill virtual humans again, and again, and again. My kill count reaches figures perhaps a thousand times higher than an entire years worth of research-animal-slaughter. My palms aren’t sweaty, my heart beats steady. I breathe easy.

Then I remember, tomorrow is another kill day. The uneasiness slithers its way back in.

And I wonder.

I wonder if, had I shot somebody out here, in the real world, what the headlines would read? What would the police investigators say about me? What stories would the journalists tell?

Would they quantify a harmless hobby in the confines of my own bedroom as a detrimental character trait? As something that leads me to murder another human being? What if I’d have played Pikmin instead? What about the sacrifice of mice for my job, my passion — for science? Would the headlines have said anything about that?

Video games are a frightening, glamorous scapegoat when we are searching for answers to senseless murder. But even more frightening? The people that play those video games.

Hell, some of them only slaughter three living, breathing animals a day. Sometimes, triple that.


Jackson W. Ryan

Written by

Science Editor @CNET. Not a very good tweeter.

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