Don't Read This!: Mind Candy for the Hungry Gamer

In this regular feature, Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg will delve into the mind of the average gamer, plumbing the unfathomable depths of his subcon- .... Eh, who are we kidding. Twice a month, we're going to talk about hot button issues that'll make you think, and may or may not piss you off. Enjoy!

The Care & Feeding of Sociopaths
(Parents, Do You Know Where Your Children Are?)

I might be a bad parent.

My son, age 18, is a liberal-minded pacifist who hates war and violence. He embraces acceptance, and is the first to call his peers out if they’re intolerant. He’s an honors student, already accepted into his college of choice in the fall of 2013. He doesn’t drink or smoke. Instead, he and his friends have what they call “Game Night,” where they get together at one another’s homes to hang out, snack, and play board games.

By all rights, I have the perfect kid--he’s intelligent, funny, and kind. He even has a cute girlfriend who appreciates intelligence, humor and kindness. So, how does that make me a bad parent? Well, my kid is also an avid gamer. I’d say he plays video games on a near-daily basis. And some of them are violent. Although he and I have talked a lot about the ability to differentiate between pixelated violence and the real thing, suddenly, in the eyes of certain media outlets and various “experts” on the psychological effects of violent video games, the fact that I’m permissive when it comes to violent games makes my parenting suspect, especially right now.

Assassin's Creed references make for limber similes.

In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, video games have leapt back into the national spotlight with the deft swiftness of Ezio Auditore scaling a wall. While investigators have yet to definitively tie video games to shooter Adam Lanza’s motives, the press made a day-one connection claiming that the horrific violence at Sandy Hook Elementary could have been linked to a gaming obsession. The press is quick to suggest, if not outright claim, that violence in video games + troubled youth = mass killing spree.

I came across an article yesterday with the title:

Violent video games found inside Newtown shooter’s home

With a title like that, you’d suspect that the article was about a probable connection between an interest in video games and Adam Lanza’s depraved actions of December 14, 2012. But if you’ll take a moment to read the article, you’ll see that it really isn’t about video games at all. In fact, title aside, the phrase “video games” is used only once in the entire article. The relevant paragraph says:

Lanza has been described as a loner who lived with his divorced mother and enjoyed playing violent video games. Authorities say hundreds of such games were found in the home, and they are investigating if he replayed a scenario in one of them when he killed Nancy Lanza inside their 3,100-square-foot home, shot his way into the school on Dec. 14, gunned down 20 first-graders and six educators, and committed suicide as police arrived, according to investigators.

In an article that weighs in at about 775 words, with a title proclaiming that violent video games were found in Lanza’s home, a mere 77 words actually speak to the topic of video games--sensationalism at its finest. What’s the rest of the article about? It’s primarily about the residents of Newtown coming together as a community to open a dialog with their children and each other. It’s about a deeply wounded town and its residents rising from the ashes of their loss like a phoenix. A couple of paragraphs in particular struck me as important and relevant:

The parents of another shooting victim, Chase Kowalski, have started a foundation in the hope of building community centers in his honor, first in Newtown, and then in other communities.

"We would like to see families get back to core family values," Rebecca Kowalski told WTIC-AM. "It's not about dropping your kid off at some place to play. It's about going with your child and playing with that child and being an intricate part of their lives."

The dynamic, when it comes to getting back to core family values, is much the same with video games, isn’t it? It’s not about plopping your kid in front of the TV and putting a controller in his hand, and it’s not placating him by turning him loose on Call of Duty (a game Lanza reportedly played), Halo or Grand Theft Auto just because those are the games other kids his age play. It’s about talking with your kid and learning how to say no, even if that makes you unpopular. It’s about being an involved parent. It’s about knowing your child, really knowing him.

This place is weirder than Rick James' place on the 4th of July.

My son started playing video games when he was just 5 years old. His first game was Gex, and I have fond memories of him holding the 3DO controller while standing in the middle of the living room, tongue hanging out of his mouth like Michael Jordan, his whole body moving as if the on-screen gecko couldn’t move unless he did. As violence goes, that game was pretty mild. Gex killed ghouls and monsters by whipping them with his tail, a feat my tailless son couldn’t expect to replicate in real life.

When he was about 9 or 10, my brother (also a gaming junkie, and a peaceful guy except when it comes to stalking overpopulated quadrupeds with cloven hooves and antlers every November) sent him an Xbox. The first game we picked up was Gauntlet, and it became a family obsession. We all played together using 4 controllers and, although we were killing bad guys in this game, we discussed how it was pixilated fun, not an incentive to pick up a BFG and rain down a reckoning on the neighbor’s bitey black Lab. Eventually, my son asked for Fable, an M-rated game. He’d developed a love for RPGs, but he’d outgrown LEGO Harry Potter. I researched the game, and assessed his maturity level. (Mature. Very.) I told him I’d like to spend a little time watching him play Fable, and we’d decide as we went along whether he’d be able to keep playing or would need to shelve it until he was older. He played, and every time I observed him I noticed that he'd made all of the good aligned moral choices the game allowed, and his character was sporting a halo and golden nimbus.

Rated M for Maybe Mom should know what ESRB ratings mean.

Am I a bad parent? I did let my son play an M-rated game (featuring violence, coarse language and sexual themes) at a tender age. But I also didn't let him play just any game--Fable highlighted moral choices and their consequences without glorifying violence. I got a call from his best friend’s mother asking me if it was true that I’d told my son he could not play Grand Theft Auto when visiting their house. I replied that it was indeed true and, when she asked me why I didn’t want my ten-year-old playing GTA, I told her about some of the content. (You see, I’d done my research.) She was surprised to hear what GTA was all about, and admitted that she knew nothing about the game except that her son, like lots of other prepubescent boys his age, had demanded it. She also admitted that she wouldn’t take the game away from him because he’d “have a fit,” but agreed to keep it out of reach when my son was visiting.

In the end, my kid could have simply chosen to play GTA with his friend without telling anyone he was breaking my guidelines. Peer pressure will do that to a kid, and there really would have been no easy way for me to find out. Instead, when offered access to the game, he declined and told his friend that he wasn’t allowed. He trusted me to make that decision for him, because we have an open, no bullshit relationship and I’ve helped him make good choices without indulging him by letting him make all the choices.

Maybe I’m not such a bad parent after all.

How involved should parents be in screening their kids' video game choices? Should kids be allowed to play games rated for someone older (for instance, a 10-year-old playing a T-rated or even M-rated game)? Share your comment below.

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

About The Author

Karen 1
Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.