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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 violentâ€”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 wouldnâ€™t approve. They showed me the game, and asked me if it was â€œOKâ€ to play it. I said no, and we sat down for another round of momâ€™s edifying (or is that moralizing?) conversations (lectures?) on the subject of â€œwhy toy guns and violent video games are bad for kids.â€
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, Iâ€™ve done my best to keep plastic pistols out of their hands. I say â€œdone my bestâ€ because in reality, we parents can’t control all the variables.Â Theyâ€™ve picked up water guns at the local pool, and theyâ€™ve received toy muskets as party favorsâ€”occasions that inspired my own half-hidden, disapproving eye-rolling.Â 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 theyâ€”like millions of other boys for whom these games are intendedâ€”are intrigued by cyber violence, they seem to get my point. My older son even wrote an essay last year titled â€œWhy Kids Shouldnâ€™t Play Violent Video Gamesâ€: a homework assignment that I was all too willing to help him with. Maybe Iâ€™m a walking clichÃ©:Â a forty-year-old suburban mother who detests violent video games with every fiber of my being. Iâ€™ve read books and articles on both sides of the issue: the experts who say that online violence â€œdesensitizesâ€ kids to real aggression; and the researchers who claim that it lets boys â€œblow off steamâ€ while improving their manual dexterity. Iâ€™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 gunâ€”seeing a barrage of on-screen bullets emanating from their handsâ€”makes me feel sick.
Honestly, I donâ€™t get the appeal. But Iâ€™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. â€œIt makes you feel awesome and super-strong,â€ his friend replied. Eli explained that games with brawls and fights are â€œmore challenging and more addictingâ€ because â€œyou keep advancing to higher levels and getting better and better and beating them.â€ When I pointed out that Wii Sports or race car video games also provide those thrills, they agreed. â€œWe like those games, too,â€ they said.
â€œThose games are OK,â€ I replied, mouthing the psycho-babble in the articles I’ve read, â€œbecause they let you gain skills and feel strong without destroying or killing another person. Even if youâ€™re just pretending, feeling good because you can dominate or murder someone else isnâ€™t a healthy or positive way to feel good about yourself.â€
â€œSo why do they make these games if theyâ€™re so bad?â€ my son asked. â€œWell isnâ€™t that the 64,000 dollar question!â€ I replied. As I took the last bite out of my taco, I asked â€œdo you guys want to stay here and talk about how video-game companies use violence to sell products and make moneyâ€”or do you want to go upstairs and practice your magic tricks?â€ Fortunately, they chose the latter option, but I know the topic will re-surface around the dinner table again soon.