It was, apropos nothing, as we walked to his school together the other day, that my son looked up at me and said: “By the way, the Pope plays Undertale.” The clue was in the verb. He was talking about a game, and further questioning revealed that, sure enough, it’s a game he plays on his computer.
Any parent of children born in the last 30 years or so will be familiar with the dilemma that these wretched devices force us to wrestle on a daily basis. Obviously too much time wasted racking up points on some daft virtual assault course will rot the brain, damage eyesight and relegate homework to the status of an irksome distraction, while access to the wrong material can traumatise a young mind and warp its conscience beyond repair.
On the other hand, dexterity with the keyboard is an essential modern skill, the youngsters need a bit of R&R in amongst the Latin and physics, and a total ban on down-time electronics will render them outcasts among their peers.
But let’s put it this way: any father who finds himself encouraging his little boy to spend more time with his laptop must be harbouring an angel in disguise. Most of us are constantly having to enforce boundaries, urge scepticism and moderation, and for this we often adduce role models in our support, albeit in speculative form, as in “Where would Thor be if he spent all his spare time playing Fortnite?” and “Do you really think Iron Man would blow all his pocket-money on Minecraft?”
To be told that the Holy Father himself is addicted to battling pixellated monsters was a devastating blow. What next? Will it be revealed that Francis never tidies his room, forgets to brush his teeth and is often spotted wearing odd socks? Does the pontiff leave his hockey stick and water bottle in the changing room, and come home wearing someone else’s blazer? But then, grasping at the straw that small boys can be prone to exaggeration, I did a bit of research, and the news isn’t so bad. Francis was given a copy of the game by a popular YouTuber in 2016, and more recently heard a rendition of some of its music.
Or as the video game blogger Malcolm Poole has it: “If I had a nickel for every time the Pope has interacted with Undertale, I’d have two nickels.” In other words, there is no evidence that Francis has even installed the thing, if install is still the mot juste, let alone played it. So that’s a relief.
Nevertheless, I pressed my original source for more details, even though his reputation for balance and accuracy is now up there with the New York Times. It seems that the player of this pastime has to find his way out of some kind of inferno inside a mountain, not just confronting the monsters who get in his way, but befriending them and taking them with him.
That sounds all right. A bit of Orpheus, a bit of Magic Flute, even a bit of St Francis. But I’m still not going to chisel any time out of my schedule to sit down and play the thing, and I don’t even have a global religion to lead. Of course these things weren’t around when I was a lad, but I never subsequently envied the childhood experience of the microchip generations, as many men (always men) seem to have done, and mastered the intricacies of the console and the Xbox for my own entertainment. Why would anyone do anything so pointless? I’d rather make a Jenga tower out of my shoes or watch a soap opera.
Another pope story catches my eye. Francis popped into a record shop, and blessed it following its recent renovation. After exchanging pleasantries with its owner, he left bearing the gift of a vinyl LP, reportedly of some classical piece, but wrapped in plain paper!
Now, I’m not suggesting that His Holiness should get himself booked on Desert Island Discs, but I do want to know what that particular record was. Because then I can recommend it to the little boy with an imprimatur I know he respects – even if he does just look at me in puzzlement and say, “Daddy, what’s a record?”
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