I Let My Kid Play Violent Video Games
What Xbox teaches children about the offline world.
by Andrew Leonard
March 11, 2010
My 12-year-old son, Eli, is an avid gamer. The TV no longer interests him. Cartoons are relics of a vanished civilization. When his daily allotment of screen time rolls around, he makes a beeline to the computer (or the Xbox 360, or his handheld Nintendo DS, or his new phone) and starts blasting away at his legions of enemies.
On a normal weekday, after homework is done, he is permitted about an hour to an hour and a half of gaming. It’s usually around the time I’m making dinner, so I’ve become accustomed to hearing ghastly sounds bursting out of the computer speakers while I chop garlic or debone a chicken thigh. My son gets bored quickly, so a typical gaming stint will include demonic cackles from his Level 65 “World of Warcraft” Death Knight alternating with the drawn out howls of pain from battling soldiers in “Team Fortress II” – along with the assorted explosions, machine gun fusillades, shrieks and screams that make up the rest of the soundtrack of modern gaming violence.
My son is not unusual. Boys under 17 years old account for 18 percent of the overall market for videogames (more than double the market share of girls the same age), according to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry group. 12-13 year-olds are the peak of that demographic – hours spent gaming decline for older teens, presumably because the opposite sex has become more interesting. Boys are especially drawn to violent games – far more so than girls. Ratings systems designed to shield minors from “adult” games are a joke. Most big game retailers have a policy against selling games rated “M” (for Mature) to children under 17, but at least one parent of your child’s friend will blithely ignore recommendations. It’s much easier to play a violent video game than get into an R-rated movie. It’s possible that my home town, Berkeley, Calif., is more free-and-easy than other regions, but one study published in The Journal of Adolescent Health found that in a sample of over 1000 children, 68 percent of the boys reported that they played at least one mature-rated game regularly.
Among my son’s peer group, there is no more popular way to pass the time than to gather in front of a console and start piling up the blood and gore.
The Case for Critical Thinking
Why does Eli love first-person shooter games where it’s kill or be killed, where your outlook on the world is framed by whatever weapon you happen to be wielding? Because, he says, it’s “fun!” Because it’s “exciting!” Because : and he imitates a paranoid, hopped-up combat fighter’s body language – muscles tensed, eyes flitting from side-to-side, anticipating danger from every angle – and leaves the rest unsaid: The virtual world gets the adrenaline going.
Dating back to their earliest toddler days, when my children – I have a 15-year-old daughter – first started reaching for the remote control and the mouse, I’ve been concerned about how good parenting and modern entertainment media intersect. I’ve generally taken a pretty liberal approach – likely due to a combination of factors. My parents never banned anything – my father was a television critic and I have always been a voracious consumer of media of all kinds. Censoring my children’s media consumption felt hypocritical from day one. With the one major exception of sexually explicit material, and within the constraints of regularly enforced screen time limits (TV, games, Facebook all fitting under that one category), I’ve mostly let my children watch and play what they want, although I do make sure to keep an eye on whatever it is they are checking out. Even if I believed it was possible to successfully cordon off the forbidden (which I don’t), my basic position has been that I’d rather raise my kids to critically engage the world than attempt to shelter them from it.
In general, I’m not unhappy with the results. My daughter may have ended up watching more episodes of America’s Next Top Model than I am comfortable with, but she is also a third generation feminist and is able to balance that contradiction. And my son may leave a trail of virtual corpses (human, alien, and magical) behind him everywhere he games, he may devote an inordinate amount of brain power to the question of what type of battle-axe his latest barbarian giant should be packing, and he can talk your ears off discussing the varying merits of the newest handheld gaming devices (“I know my lore,” he once told me, when I expressed surprise at how far back his encyclopedic knowledge of the gaming industry went), but he is in general a sociable, friendly, enthusiastic kid, fully engaged with school. He likes to roughhouse with his friends but he’s never been in a fight. He’s just your typical sweetheart who has slaughtered millions.
When Videogames Become Too Realistic
So I think I’m doing something right. My sample of one declares that obsessive gaming, properly regulated, doesn’t lead immediately to social dysfunction – at least not yet. But even so, I feel a sense of disquiet at just how much his entire generation is drawn to the killing fields. Too much of their interaction with the world is mediated, too much of it is high-intensity adrenaline-revving virtual combat, too much of the real world seems boring and uneventful, compared to the gaming life. What happens when my boy leaves the nest? Will he disappear into a videogame vortex? I wonder where this is all headed, for the simple reason that games are just getting too compelling.
Computer gaming has been a part of growing up for at least 35 years now, dating back to Pong and PacMan. But we have never seen anything like the complexity, aesthetic power, narrative depth, realism, immersiveness and addictive potential of today’s games. In the game “Spore,” you can evolve your own life form from scratch into a space-faring civilization (and choose whether to be warlike or peaceful.) One of 2009’s hits, “Assassin’s Creed 2,” places you on the canals of Renaissance era Venice – in a world as lush as any painted by Titian or Tintoretto. “World of Warcraft” draws you into a fantasy landscape so rich and deep and interactive that reading J. R. R. Tolkien feels like a pale simulacrum, a bowl of cold oatmeal that can’t compete with a 12-course banquet.
And then there’s the blockbuster smash of 2009, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” which grossed $550 million in revenue just five days after its November release, putting it on a par with the biggest hit Hollywood productions. “Modern Warfare 2” delivers a hyper-realistic commando-fighting experience merging amazing movie production values with a narrative of terrorism, global warfare and constant peril ripped directly from the latest headlines in Afghanistan, Moscow and Washington. Watching kids play it is not unlike imagining yourself inhabiting the Fox TV series “24.” That much realism gives me pause.
The real world has a harder and harder time competing with these marvels of simulation. If I didn’t impose screen-time limits, my son would play these games until he keeled over.
Handling the Skeptics
My ex-sister-in-law, a mother of three young boys, views violent games as an evil distillation of 10,000 years of male war-mongering and brutality; she is convinced, like many pundits and psychologists, that such games desensitize kids to violence. Almost every parent I know worries about this to some extent, even if they don’t go quite so far as to denounce all of human civilization. At the other end of the spectrum stand eloquent gaming advocates like Steven Johnson, who provocatively argues that hours spent in virtual distraction can positively prepare kids to excel in an ADHD, relentlessly multitasking world. I can’t subscribe to either view. The data, to say the least, are inconclusive. Untangling cause and effect from socioeconomic status, family dynamics, and genetic predisposition is no easy task.
But it seems undeniable that there are consequences to so many hours spent in immersive, interactive environments. So in the absence of knowing anything for sure, what are we supposed to do?
Teaching Real World Lessons Through Gaming
When my kids first started watching television, rather than try to avoid commercials, I asked them to ask themselves one question whenever an ad came on: What do they want me to buy? It became a game even kindergarteners could play: Deconstruct the media! And I tried, when possible, to experience the world with them, rather than from afar. A critical stance, I hoped, would arm them against media propaganda better than placing them in an isolation ward. But what this requires is active engagement on the part of the parent, too. You can’t just let the TV be a babysitter. So I didn’t stop my preteen daughter from watching America’s Next Top Model, but you can be sure there were plenty of conversations about how pop culture treats women’s bodies. The real world has a harder and harder time competing with these marvels of simulation. If I didn’t impose screen-time limits, my son would play these games until he keeled over.
I’ve tried to continue the same policy of engagement with gaming. When my son spends an hour talking about an escapade in “World of Warcraft” or “Team Fortress II,” I try to draw connections between virtual war and real war, without being heavy-handed. I check in on him while he’s playing – his computer is in the dining room between our kitchen and family room, so he is always part of the house dynamic, rather than squirreled away behind closed doors. If he is playing a game I’ve never seen before – because you can find almost anything on the Web – I want to know what he likes about it. And I’m not shy to tell him when I find something objectionable. Once I was alarmed to discover him playing a Web-accessible game that featured street-fighting hobos beating up on each other in a darkened alley. He thought it was funny; I thought it was disgusting. But rather than ban it, I wanted to make sure he understood why I thought it was mean. We launched into a mini discussion of why poverty and homelessness weren’t all giggles.
How much of it stuck? I have no idea. I never saw him play the game again. But I’m betting that this strategy will have a more effective long-term impact than a command-and-control approach.
One recent attempt to exert some level of editorial responsibility over gaming turned out to be an almost comic failure. I decided not to buy him “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” for his birthday last November because I was suspicious of its rah-rah nationalistic politics and disturbed by just how closely it looked like footage from Iraq or Chechnya. I didn’t want to be personally responsible for bringing it into the house. A few months later, half of his best friends had the game, and his opportunities to play it seem unlimited.
Having the Videogame Conversation
Eli doesn’t particularly like it when I express my distaste for some aspect of his gaming life. I’m sure he isn’t looking forward to having his Modern Warfare gaming accompanied by my kibitzing on the ineffectiveness of torture or how U.S. policy in the Mideast helps to breed terrorism. But he does appreciate it when I take his world seriously. He enjoys the give and take. And he’s getting a big dose of my values, without my bashing them into his brain with a sledgehammer.
A few months ago, my ears perked up when I heard the voices of young men spewing out a wide range of homophobic, racist, and misogynistic comments from the computer speakers. Eli was playing a game called “Team Fortress 2,” another first-person shooter, but one in which you could hear the live comments of other human players currently logged in and playing on the same server.
My first impulse was to tell him he shouldn’t be playing a game frequented by such cretins. But I knew a teenager who lives at his mother’s house played the game regularly, and I could not control his exposure over there. One way or another, he was going to hear this crap. So I kept to my usual path. I asked him if he understood why I found their comments so objectionable. I made fun of the intelligence of his fellow gamers, suggesting, uncharitably, that they hadn’t been brought up very well. He got a sour look on his face, but eventually he admitted he didn’t particularly like hearing a lot of the commentary either. He couldn’t tell me exactly why, but I’d like to believe it was because he recognized at some level that this kind of crudity just wasn’t cool. We ultimately found out there was a way to mute individual players if you wanted to.
He still plays the game, but I’m pretty sure that when he’s out of my sight, when he’s older or when there is no one around to enforce any rules, he won’t go over to that dark side — or at least not too far. All the engagement, all the conversation, has, I think, helped him tell the difference between the gaming reality and how to behave in the offline world, how to treat people with respect.
I believe all this, even if one can never be totally sure what is going on in the inner recesses of your child’s heart and mind. And I know I’m taking a gamble, but all our bets on how to raise our children are gambles. There are no hard-and-fast rules guaranteeing success, especially in a world that changes as quickly as ours does. The best we can do is make it up as we go along, keep asking questions, keep watching, and keep listening. If we stay in the game, we have a better chance of influencing how it all plays out.
- The Littlest Gamer: I turned my toddler into a videogame addict.
- Best Videogames for Kids: 15 games for all ages and stages.
- Tough Luck, Kid: Why I never let my four-year-old win at games.
This article was written by Andrew Leonard for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.