Violent games as presents for kids: some thoughts

Do the massacres in the US change what you are willing to give your child for Christmas?

This question has been rolling around many of the areas of the internet that I frequent, and not just the obvious geeky ones. It probably goes further than just video games, we know one family that has cancelled a Nerf War get-together for a group of ten-year-olds because it feels inappropriate so close to the school killings. All this has led to me doing some thinking about my own position given I’ve been historically fairly tolerant of my kids playing computer games that involve violence.

My first thought was that I feel I’m bringing my kids up to tell the difference between a game and reality – in the same way I can. There’s a life-skill in knowing when it’s appropriate to do a thing and when not and in many ways games are a good environment to explore those things. I played cowboys and indians and soldiers as a kid and didn’t turn out to be violent or gun-obsessed. While I still broadly subscribe to that point of view, I’ve come to the conclusion that my own position is not as simple as that.

You see I found a whole pile of threads on the web on people trying to find a way to partially clean up one of the popular games of the moment. Far Cry 3 is a violent game. But, more than that, it has nudity, sex, drug taking, expletive-ridden language, implied rape, the list goes on.  Many pre-teens and young-teens are asking for a way to remove the language and nudity to make the game acceptable to their parents. Which, of course, leads to the question: exposed breast or swearing is unacceptable but graphic killing is OK? Is that a remotely consistent position?

Thinking about this I realised I can live with my kids seeing violence but there are definitely other elements I have a problem with. For example, I’m not even close to comfortable with them playing first-person drug-taking scenes. Why is that – given I really don’t believe playing a game will change their likelihood to do a thing portrayed in the game?

First, I think it all comes down to context. I wont have my kids playing a game which aggrandises torture, gratuitous violence, or rape. I wouldn’t have them watch movies or read books in the same vein. I just don’t think that’s a healthy approach. So if the game has you taking the role of a gangster torturing people my kids are not going to be playing it while they are still young enough for it to be my decision. But if they are playing a soldier fighting in World War 2, or a spaceman fighting off an alien horde I honestly don’t have much of a problem with that even though clearly it involves violence.

Just saying a game, or other media, has violence, or swearing, or nudity in it is a completely blunt approach to determining its acceptability. Any of those things can have an entirely different impact depending on their context. As a pertinent analogy, I shot real guns at the age my kids are now because I lived on a farm – that context made it acceptable in a way that cannot be justified in an urban environment. Put any action in a different context and it will have a different meaning.

The second element is about proximity to reality. I’m not so worried about elements that are foreign to situations the kids are likely to find themselves in. I don’t see many scenarios where they will be aiming rocket-launchers or light-sabers at people and so don’t have much of a problem with them playing with one in a game. I see many scenarios where being unable to complete a sentence without swearing, or casually taking drugs, or treating a girl appropriately will be issues they will confront either now or in not too many years. Part of my job as a parent is to provide them with positive examples of how to react in situations they are likely to confront.

So how do I think I’m judging games and other materials?

  1. What is the overall context? Is the action put in a context that I find acceptable? For me, playing a drug-dealer is ‘bad’. Defending humanity against invading aliens is a generally ‘good’ context.
  2. More specifically are there themes that run counter to the way I’m trying to bring up my children?
  3. How close to reality is what is being portrayed? That’s not about the graphics quality it’s about how likely the kids are to encounter the issues in real-life.

Now I recognise that this position may not be entirely consistent. It’s an imperfect world that we are blindly groping our way through struggling to find the right path. The path will be different for each family and community. But ultimately, like in everything, it will benefit from a reasoned and thoughtful approach.

So would I give my kids a violent computer game for Christmas given the Newtown school massacre? Yes I would as long as it was within my criteria. I think the only thing that the US experiences would change for me, if it’s a change at all, is that I wouldn’t let them play something that had a plot that was in any way parallel to what happened in the US.

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