I read recently 81% of eight year old kids play video games. This was reported as shocking and possibly very bad news. As a parent of older teenagers, I’m not so certain. Here are some thoughts I have as a parent raising two kids who love video games.
The first time I saw the image above amazed me. I sat on a sofa behind my son to watch him play Assassin’s Creed, specifically, as he rode a horse up over a hill and looked down on Jerusalem. Except it wasn’t in the past few years. The moving world on the screen was the Third Crusade, 1189 to 1192. A few minutes later, my son was off his horse and stood on the church tower you see above.
I began to understand what attracted my son to his games. While parts of many games are silly, games can be a sort of time travel, as in the case of Assassin’s Creed, or travel in a fantasy world. In the same way time travel would drag you out of your daily hum drum life, playing some of these games provides the same escape as a really good book or movie.
Violence in Video Games
However, as a parent, I don’t like games where characters kill other characters. My kids hate it, or laugh at me, when I happen to watch them play these games and ask them, “You do realize that’s another person like you? They have parents, maybe brothers and sisters, friends who care about them?” There’s a risk these games could desensitize kids about doing harm to others. Especially since real life military action today happens on screen in real time for commanders and support operations who watch soldiers engage in combat. They watch real human beings, soldiers, die and kill other people in real life but on a computer or TV screen.
Indeed, the worst moment in my life as a parent happened on a long Thanksgiving weekend visiting relatives and watching as one of my ten year old son’s cousins carefully hunted him down and killed him on the TV screen. I walked out and later talked privately to my son.
Despite my feelings and reactions as a parent, even these awful bits of video games don’t mean they should not be played. There’s research showing teenagers who play violent games get their aggression out and learn how to put their onscreen actions in context with their real life with the rest of us.
Which makes sense: life is full of violence and people who do awful things to other people. Hiding doesn’t make this part of reality go away. It might help to be exposed to the idea of violence, especially if parents talk about it in casual conversation.
Research also shows the opposite: games make people more aggressive. That could be good or bad. Good if the experience lets them safely try out these emotions in the relative safety of a video game without letting the behaviors overwhelm them. Rather like kids curious about drinking. If parents let them taste a beer or wine when their kids ask, the forbidden will be less attractive than kids whose parents refuse to engage their interest in alcohol in constructive ways.
I’d also point out teenage males, and some females, have anger issues. Partly it is hormones, partly it is the struggle to define themselves as individuals apart from their families. To blame video games for all the anger teenagers might experience probably is inaccurate. The better question is whether or not video games make this natural aggression worse or acts as a safety valve.
Video Games Can Be Social
Another part of my experience as a parent with two kids who play video games has to do with the social aspect of the game. One night my wife and I realized both kids were up late (around 11 pm) playing games with their friends. Both of us grew up going out at night in high school. We had a good laugh. Our kids are freaks.
Today many kids spend those late hours online, goofing off with friends, blowing off steam, connecting online and offline at school. Is that bad?
I’d rather my kids engage with people as they play games, to help reinforce the idea hurting someone in a game is similar to hurting someone in the real world, in this case, one of your friends. It’s also good, for me as a parent, to know where our kids are at night.
And while I’ve been nervous about our kids playing with strangers, one of my daughter’s online friends bought her a favorite game as a birthday present when my wife struggled with cancer. When I asked my daughter about the gift, saying it sounded odd to me a stranger would send her a game, she told me the kid’s mother also had gone through cancer treatment and my daughter had helped him get through it.
While you can assume the worst about video games and online encounters, and I often do, the experience taught me assumptions are not reality until you find out.
Watching Kids Play Video Games
Finally, watching our kids play video games over years has revealed differences between them I might not have noticed otherwise. While my son likes active games with average violence, he also makes a point to play with friends and to play many different games on different platforms. If a kid can get a PhD in video games, studying how they are put together, then our son likely has one. He watches game play videos for new games, signs up for beta programs, and follows the news for favorite games, studios, and creators.
Our daughter, in contrast, loves to play more narrative games. She amuses her younger brother by trying to play games like Skyrim only to have dragons eat her character because she is so lame (translation: she can’t mash the buttons fast enough to defend herself). Or the villagers will attack my daughter when she accidentally fires arrows at them instead of some dragon. Her specialty has been story games where characters interact in different locations to achieve goals. She’ll also tell us stories about the differences in language when the original Japanese is translated into English on screen. She once told us her character had married the mayor who happened to be a raccoon. And she has learned a little Japanese and ordered games in that language so she can play her favorite games before they appear in the US.
In other words, playing these games has offered us a deeper insight into the interests and characters of our kids than if we knew every book they had read or movie or TV show. And both kids show an ability to pursue their interest in games both online and offline, learning and using skills they can apply to any future job or interest.
Are Video Games Hazardous?
None of these random thoughts is intended to dismiss the hazards of video games. I read about kids in their twenties who lose jobs because the stress of work is harder to handle than getting lost for hours and days in a familiar video game. They play until they’re fired for not showing up to work. Or worse, people cannot step away from their keyboards or game consoles.
Yet these problems are eternal. Video games work the same way as alcohol or simply hiding in your apartment or home. We could demonize your escape of choice. The point, however, is to realize you have a problem and get help, to work your way out of the situation.
One key difference between adults and children is awareness that life with other people is far richer than any online world. Even if your life stinks at the moment, adults realize time does pass and tomorrow is another day. Despite lots of time online, both our kids have strong friendships in school.
What Appears to Work: Talking
I found there are times when our kids do not want parents watching them play. Other than say hello, I avoid my son when he has his headset on playing a game with friends. But there are many more times when our kids don’t mind if I sit on the sofa and chat as they play a game. They know I’m easily bored and will not spend hours watching. And our conversation is similar to taking long drives in the car. Our talk is more about being in the moment and bonding and less me as Parent and them as Child.
Looking back, I would say it has been important to talk to our kids about stranger danger, the idea of being open but skeptical about strangers. To not assume everyone they meet online is their age or has their best interests at heart. To not meet online people in the real world, no matter how well they get along. It’s the same with the real world of family, friends, and school.
It’s also important for parents, when their kids are little, to provide early and regular context as their kids go online. As parents, we expressed our feelings and concerns as we asked our kids what they thought about playing games, about how much time was reasonable to spend on games, about how to balance games and the rest of their lives. It started a dialogue. And the dialogue helped our kids as they became teenagers and inevitably began to define themselves as people apart from their family and friends.
It also helped when my wife and I disagreed because our kids learned how two reasonable people can arrive at different opinions. My wife was less concerned about violence in games, for example, but we didn’t hide that difference when talking with our kids about games.
My kids may think I’m crazy to equate killing someone in a video game with doing the same in the real world. But they know how I feel and, so far, I know they think about it when they hurt or kill someone on screen. Indeed, my son recently told me a game he played had a good track and he had chosen to play it first. He wanted to see what would happen.
I didn’t ask if he had played the evil track. I didn’t need to ask. At some point, he has to grow up and take responsibility for himself.