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Last week, I faced a parenting moment that I knew would come eventually: my kids discovered a video game online that was, in my view, gratuitously and offensively violent—and I banished it from the screen. The game pits two characters (one controlled by the computer, one controlled by the player) who engage in face-to-face combat. It allows players to select weapons, beginning with a pre-modern arsenal of slingshots, bows and arrows, and Viking-style hatchets. But my boys soon worked their way up to machine guns, and their curiosity took over. The game got ugly, and they knew I wouldn’t approve. They showed me the game, and asked me if it was “OK” to play it. I said no, and we sat down for another round of mom’s edifying (or is that moralizing?) conversations (lectures?) on the subject of “why toy guns and violent video games are bad for kids.”

At the ages of 8 and 11, they still willingly participate in these discussions, though I know my days may be numbered. Since my boys were toddlers, I’ve done my best to keep plastic pistols out of their hands. I say “done my best” because in reality, we parents can’t control all the variables.  They’ve picked up water guns at the local pool, and they’ve received toy muskets as party favors—occasions that inspired my own half-hidden, disapproving eye-rolling.  They like to try their marksmanship with a Nerf-ball shooter, and I now realize that compared to the graphic, gory violence lurking in cyberspace, such playthings seem almost as tame as Legos.

But when it comes to micro-chip warfare, my boys know where I stand. And while they—like millions of other boys for whom these games are intended—are intrigued by cyber violence, they seem to get my point. My older son even wrote an essay last year titled “Why Kids Shouldn’t Play Violent Video Games”: a homework assignment that I was all too willing to help him with. Maybe I’m a walking cliché:  a forty-year-old suburban mother who detests violent video games with every fiber of my being. I’ve read books and articles on both sides of the issue: the experts who say that online violence “desensitizes” kids to real aggression; and the researchers who claim that it lets boys “blow off steam” while improving their manual dexterity. I’m more convinced by the former argument, but my reaction to violent games is more visceral and instinctive than rational or scientific. In a word, the sight of my children controlling a virtual machine gun—seeing a barrage of on-screen bullets emanating from their hands—makes me feel sick.

Honestly, I don’t get the appeal. But I’m not an eight-and-a-half-year-old boy. So over tacos last night, I asked my younger son and his friend why kids like these games. “It makes you feel awesome and super-strong,” his friend replied. Eli explained that games with brawls and fights are “more challenging and more addicting” because “you keep advancing to higher levels and getting better and better and beating them.” When I pointed out that Wii Sports or race car video games also provide those thrills, they agreed. “We like those games, too,” they said.

“Those games are OK,” I replied, mouthing the psycho-babble in the articles I’ve read, “because they let you gain skills and feel strong without destroying or killing another person. Even if you’re just pretending, feeling good because you can dominate or murder someone else isn’t a healthy or positive way to feel good about yourself.”

“So why do they make these games if they’re so bad?” my son asked. “Well isn’t that the 64,000 dollar question!” I replied. As I took the last bite out of my taco, I asked “do you guys want to stay here and talk about how video-game companies use violence to sell products and make money—or do you want to go upstairs and practice your magic tricks?” Fortunately, they chose the latter option, but I know the topic will re-surface around the dinner table again soon.