From D&D to Call of Duty, Parents Are The Gatekeepers

Lifetime gamer Zach Rosenberg finds that the responsibility for video game violence, like so many other things, falls at the doorstep of parents

Do you remember when people thought that kids playing Dungeons & Dragons would turn them into satanic devil-worshippers? Some kids got so into Dungeons & Dragons that they preferred to mentally live in that world than ours.

The same effect can happen with video games; if we let our kids dip too far unchecked into the world of any video game (it doesn’t have to be a violent one), they’ll lose touch with real-world cause and effect. The difference is how us parents understand the severity of our roles.

There are plenty of games that are okay to invest time and personality in. While pop culture laughs at the Live Action Role Players – the guys who dress like wizards and battle in the park – those guys have a public hobby that their parents know about. They’re not the problem. The problem are the kids who bury themselves in their rooms and never talk to their parents about the games they play.

I grew up with games, and went from being a child of involved parents to an involved parent to my child.

Twenty years ago, I was playing the Nazi shoot-em-up Wolfenstein 3D on my dad’s PC. It was regarded as the pioneering first-person shooting game (though it technically wasn’t the first), and set forth simple formulas by which the whole FPS genre still operates today. I remember the rush of excitement when I’d shoot someone. I remember the terrifying feeling inside of me as I crept through the hallways of the Castle Wolfenstein, anticipating someone jumping out at me. I remember shooting the attack dogs in the game. All of these things were raw and exciting to me because it just hadn’t been done in a game before. And the fact that the perspective was set so that you felt like you, yourself were behind the gun…well, that was unfathomable up until that point. Some nights I’d lay in bed, afraid of the dark, thinking that at any moment, Nazis could storm in and kill us all. But my father and I played Wolfenstein 3D together, which is what made the difference. My father reassured me that this game wasn’t a depiction of reality, and was for entertainment only.

image from dosgamesarchive.com

Ten years ago, I was reviewing video games for a couple of print magazines and a couple of websites. I was swimming in games. I had played everything on the market – violent shooters, fighting games, war games, sports games and adventure games.  None of it kept me up at night. None of it was shocking anymore; I’d seen it all – and seen a video game industry go from pixels to polygons. I thought it was funny, even then, that eventually my child would grow up and remember Super Mario Bros. as a three-dimensional game, not a pixely two-dimensional one.

Two years ago, while my wife and son were asleep in their rooms, I played through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level. In it, you play as a member of a Russian terrorist ring and walk through an airport, gunning down every civilian you can. And, spoiler alert, at the end of the mission, you’re found to be a traitor and shot in the face. It’s a disturbing scene, and even I winced as I was shot. It’d be crazy to expect someone to play that and not be affected. But it was “normal” in the game’s narrative and story (though developers made the level able to be skipped).

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Yesterday, my four-year-old son and I sat down and played games on our Wii. Though I prefer him to play Animal Crossing – a casual game where you collect furniture, go fishing, and help villagers with day-to-day tasks – my son likes to play more action-oriented games as well. He likes LEGO Star Wars games, and anything with Batman in it. Together, we also play Super Smash Bros. Brawl. For parents and kids, this is a great game. It’s a fighting game where you get to use a pantheon of Nintendo characters, old and new, in four-player battles. So in a way, it bridges his generation and mine. Even my father, who played Nintendo games with me when I was little, was able to identify characters in the game. Three generations of men, sharing one (violent) game.

When I play games with my son, there’s a lot behind it. There’s a deep universe of experience that I bring with me, and it’s one that needs to be packed into the gaming experience by parents. Our generation grew up with games looking laughably fake. But as we went from controlling blocky bits to fluidly-animated characters, we still carried with us the knowledge of a disconnect between the gaming world and reality. Kids these days jump directly into a hyper-realistic world of games, where things look real and people beg for their lives before you kill them. They look more like simulations than games. A kid could disappear into that universe and come out as a different person.

Parents – not the video game developers – are the gatekeepers. We’ve been given enough tools as parents to learn about every game on the market, even if you didn’t grow up with games and don’t know Mario from Metal Gear. The ESRB has a fantastic website up with descriptions and ratings of games, including helpful summaries of exactly what “blood and gore” or “violent content” mean in that specific game. So if you’re out with your child at a video game store, you don’t need to take anyone’s word for it – look the game up. Get on YouTube and look up the game’s trailer.

You want to know which kids will fall headfirst into violent games and are more likely to act on some impulse? The ones whose parents don’t think about these things.

My son’s still too young for military shooter games. Fighting games like Smash Bros. (but not Mortal Kombat) are fine in my book, and action superhero games are okay as well. And when we play, we talk through things. I don’t trivialize the violence, but I put it in perspective. I remind my son that they are make-believe, just like the television shows we watch.

Just as parents watch what their children eat, parents have a responsibility to regulate their kids’ video game playing and make sure that they aren’t consuming more than they can process. And just as parents sometimes need to explain to their children why they can’t have cake for breakfast or hot dogs every night for dinner, parents need to explain to children why violent games aren’t to be feared, but to be discussed and played when the time is right.

—lead image by lydia_shiningbrightly/Flickr

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About Zach Rosenberg

Zach Rosenberg is a husband and father living in Southern California. He is co-founder of
fatherhood news site 8BitDad.com, and a contributor to HLNtv.com. You can also find him on Twitter @zjrosenberg.

Comments

  1. My daughter is too young right now to really understand what video games are, she’s 2 and a half. But she does have a “Kids Games” folder on my iphone, and plays a lot of the Toca Boca games and other flash card type games.

    I agree, that we are the gatekeepers, not the media, or any other person. I even at times take issue with the ESRB, but realize that unlike the music industry, the ESRB is governed by the gaming industry, not like the issues with the RIAA and Tipper Gore in the 80s, which in my opinion is flat out censorship. Somehow, the ESRB seems more altruistic.

    I’ve changed my own gaming habits and things as I’ve become a parent, and I bet that it will continue to evolve as I and my family gets older. I’ve actually been playing more tabletop RPGs with friends, and am actually excited to play pretend more with my daughter, not really screen based games but games nonetheless.

    I think it’s all in what you want to teach your kids. Games can be powerful teaching moments.

    Last, I recommend two things:
    – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
    – Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.

    Thanks for the enjoyable read!

  2. One thing to keep in mind if you have more than one kid is that little sisters and brothers are introduced to a lot of stuff looking over the shoulders of big sisters and brothers. As a result, lots of the careful decisions we made with the first one sort of go out the window with the next ones.

    When your big kids are old enough to play, say, Modern Warfare or Battlefield, you may want to make sure they have a place or time to do that that’s *not* the TV in the family room, right in front of the 4 year old.

    That said, I think we’re lucky that there *are* a lot of games that can be played by kids aged four-five-six. There’s even games that mimick that fighting and action of the more grown-up games, in a way appropriate for younger kids. The Lego Starwars / Batman / Indiana Jones are good examples.

    • This is very true. Older kids tend to feel put-out by their younger siblings for this reason; older kids need, like you said, a time and a place for their own me-time to play games that the younger kids can’t play. Good comment, thanks!

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