Video games are a large part of modern culture, for kids and grown ups, and as games have changed over the years, become more and more real, it’s become a lots more challenging to consider whether it’s appropriate or not for kids to play violent video games.
My take on this comes from being a kid allowed to play violent games and listen to angry music and as a dad who is now navigating this water for my children. I’m not a psychologist and I’m not citing studies here. This is an opinion and should be treated as such.
Growing Up With Violent Games
If you started out on an Atari and an Odyssey II or a Commodore 64, to talk about violent video games is to laugh a bit. Watching a few blurry pixels smash into other blurry pixels was hardly something to rage about. I’m sure it was a lot easier to allow kids to play Donkey Kong than to think about the implications of saying yes to Grand Theft Auto.
I think the first “really” violent game I played was the original Doom. I’d played fighting games before and there was some pixellated blood, but Doom was the first gory game for me. Doom captured something in a lot of people. It was absurd violence mixed with genuinely scary (for the time) enemies.
In my mind, Doom set a lot of developers off on a kick to see if they could amp up the violence to even more absurd levels. Quake, later Gears of War, and many many many more games reveled in the bloodshed.
My parents, while not especially thrilled with my choice in games, also were great for realizing how I was approaching this gameplay. I wasn’t acting out the games in real life. I wasn’t expressing myself in overly violent ways in my language. I wasn’t showing hate or rage towards anything in the “real” world. I just liked playing these engaging games that happened to be based around more violent plots and themes.
Me and Violent Games as an Adult
At the time of this writing, I’m really enjoying Destiny, which is a first person shooter set in the future. Here’s a brief video clip showing the typical level of violence in the game:
When I’m “killing” the other players, there’s not a violent thought in my mind at all. I’m just thinking, “I really hope my skills are up to the challenge and that I win this engagement.” That’s it. I’m not thinking “I hope you die” or “Yeah, I’m tough and you’re not.” I’m thinking, “Woohoo! I aimed well!”
If you ask anyone who plays what are called “violent” games, I’d imagine MOST (definitely not all) of us feel similarly. We’re enjoying the acquisition of skills and experience and in-game tools to reach goals. We like the storylines because they’re what appeal to us. But it’s not because we want to hurt someone.
Yesterday in Destiny, I played a game type that matched me up with two other random people against computer-generated enemies. I noticed the gamertag of one of the other two people playing said “NurseKristin” or something (I forget her actual name). There she was obliterating monsters alongside me, shredding them to bits. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t identify herself as violent. (I don’t know her whatsoever, so who knows?)
My Kids and Video Games
I’m a dad. My first experience with this was my daughter asking to get the Assassin’s Creed games. She was…I think 11 at the time of asking, maybe 12. I said yes.
I then sat with her while she played, observing in silence for a bit. (THIS RIGHT HERE IS WHERE MOST PARENTS FALL DOWN – THEY DON’T EVEN LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENS IN GAME)
First, she was great at the game. A natural. Second, she played the game appropriately for the most part. In the game, you can mess with non player characters, regular “civilian” types. I noticed that she wanted to beat on them a bit.
This led to a pause of the game and a discussion. We discussed the ETHICS of who she should fight and who not to fight. Because fighting NPCs was technically allowed, it didn’t mean that it was a great use of her time, and we talked about the real world implications of fighting the non-combatants. This became a rule: no needless killing of non-violent in-game people.
By the way, my daughter surprised her teachers last year with a whole lot of knowledge about Italy that she gleaned from playing the games.
Not All Violent Games are Okay For Every Kid
My daughter also wanted to play Grand Theft Auto. The game has all kinds of ways to break laws and some are fun and others are a little more dubious. I was technically okay with her stealing cars, crashing cars, avoiding cops, but when she wandered into a strip club and the club generated the kind of experience that might happen in one, we ended up stopping the game for a chat.
Looking the game over (again, parents – THIS is the most important way to decide whether a game is okay or not), I decided to rule against Grand Theft Auto. It’s anti-police, a bit too misogynistic, and I didn’t like the behavior it encouraged through basic game play. Now, I should say that LOTS of people play the GTA games and have lots of fun and they just love racing around cars in a destructive environment. No harm, no foul. It just didn’t fit for us.
Should Kids Be Allowed to Play Violent Video Games?
My daughter and I played the Batman Arkham games together and loved the experience. I’d fight the bosses and she’d do the story parts. It was excellent. We played the more recent Tomb Raider game too and enjoyed it together. My son plays the classics, Mario and that sort of thing.
In all cases, we have RULES around our games. No needlessly harming the non-combatants. Nothing that’s ultraviolent for violence’s sake. Nothing with excessive cursing. And no play within any game that would be considered especially sadistic. Beyond that, we evaluate every game one at a time.
I grew up to be a non-violent person (unless you hurt someone I love). I run a very successful company and am a very peaceful contributor to society. I play violent video games almost daily and I was raised on many violent video games.
WHY Kids Play Violent Video Games
Kids don’t play them to be violent or to fight. They play them to solve puzzles. They play these games to immerse in a world that’s not their own for a bit. They play to improve their own skills and learning. They play to appreciate the thrill of acquiring new items, new talents, new abilities. They play for VALIDATION. (Holy Buddha, think on that a moment, parents. Kids THRIVE on validation and video games are perfect systems for doling this out.)
They play these games to have shared experiences with their friends (who many play these games and discuss them endlessly at school the way you might discuss sports or reality TV). They play to be social. They play to experiment with failure in a safe environment.
The fact that the games are violent is because sometimes that’s what helps us react or pay attention. It tickles our fear senses which gives the experience a bit more weight. It allows us to evade some of the “cute overload” of modern political correctness. It’s a different flavor for people who spend their days being good and doing the right thing.
Always Make it a Discussion
The worst way to handle this is to say no or ban them outright. Discuss. Engage. Participate in the games to see what REALLY goes on. That’s how you’ll find your right answer. Stay on their level.
Oh, and grown ups do great stuff with video games. See my friend Jon’s book here? Read it!