“Do you really think I’m going to turn into a psychopathic killer?”
“No, sweetie, of course not.”
“Then what’s the real problem?”
The conversation was about video games, specifically a game in which players take on the role of soldiers carrying out different missions as “first person shooters.” There is a great deal of sophisticated weaponry—and they “shoot to kill.”
My son wanted to play this game. I didn’t want it in my home.
Being faced with the fictional violent images of that game, I couldn’t stop my thoughts from flashing around to other images of real violence. I let myself be assaulted by images of school shootings, and real war, and genocides. If he was fascinated by the game, would he also be curious about how those actions of shooting and killing might feel in real life? Weren’t there warnings from all kinds of sources about harmful images planting seeds in young minds? Shouldn’t he be outside playing in the woods rather than in his room in front of a screen anyway?
My parental brain just wanted to reject this all, as it did not fit in the plan I had for my sweet baby boy.
But I knew there was more to it. I knew from experience that rejecting or isolating tough ideas never leads to a complete and worthy solution. My love for my child, my devotion to his growth, and my need to understand things were pulling me into a deeper exploration of this emotional block. This was a call to open and learn. This was an opportunity to deepen and expand my relationship to my “big kid” and to acknowledge him as the young man he is—and the adult he is becoming.
I was certain he didn’t want to become a psychopathic killer, so what did he actually gain from playing this video game? What was the appeal?
The best source of information on that subject was to ask the kid himself. I picked a calm afternoon and asked him to take a walk with me. I told him that I did have concerns about the game, but that I was willing to listen to what he had to say about it to change my mind. I repeated that all my decisions are made with love and to help him grow up to be an awesome human being.
My son acknowledged the reports that some fans of the game had committed terrible shooting crimes. He followed this up with, “But, mom, those people were already messed up. The game might have brought something out, but it didn’t cause it. I have a good life, and I’m not going there.” I realized I did need to honor that. His life experience was far more than just this one game, and it wasn’t fair to focus on this one form of entertainment as something that would outweigh all the parenting I had done up until now.
My younger son decided to join the conversation and continued, “You know we already play it with dad at Grandma’s, right?” Yes, I knew. And I acknowledged that so far, game play had not transformed him into a beast. Yet I reiterated that I had not changed our home’s policy yet, and asked him not to resort to manipulative tactics.
I explained that as their mom, I spent the majority of my time and energy creating a safe place for them. I hoped they would never have to fight in a real war, and wondered why did they want so badly to pretend to be in one? My sons said that it wasn’t about the battle; it was a different kind of challenge. Just getting through the mission to the end felt like an accomplishment.
I learned a number of nuances about the game that I had never considered. For example, you can play the game as if you are actually in the character, looking out through their eyes, or as a “third person” looking over their shoulder. My older son explained different aspects of each perspective and how that affects decisions in play. I learned that players start with a basic set of weaponry, and as they gain experience in the game, other advanced weapons can be added. Mastering the new equipment changes their strategy in the game. They aren’t playing the same battle each time. The game evolves with their understanding and skills within it.
He also brought up the fact that the game is different for them depending on who he is playing with and how. He can play alone with a computer generated team, or with his brother on the same system as a team, or they connect with other players online. They have strategies they implement well as a familiar team of brothers, and they have to learn how to adapt to unfamiliar players who may join the team. There are also issues with online players not having experience, or being saboteurs, or hacking the game to give themselves extra power. My sons looked forward to having a gaming system that would allow them to connect with their cousin and their dad, so they could all play together.
I hadn’t considered this opportunity to learn about the benefits and struggles of working with a team and to connect with colleagues and family.
My younger son mentioned that there are options within the game to turn off some of the gorier graphics, which was what he would do if he were playing. That gratified me for a minute, until he added that it was because all those extra graphics could really slow down the processing speed of the game. It wasn’t about blood; it was about lag.
Over the next couple of months, there were more walks and talks. They would also occasionally just ask for my attention when they had a new insight for me. And slowly, due in no small part to their genuine efforts to help me understand what they like, I opened up to the radical idea that maybe this really was just a game. The reasons he wanted to play the game weren’t much about the content of the video game at all, which was what had me most worried.
I don’t play video games much, but I did when I was a kid. I remember playing Frogger on the original Atari system and my mother cringing when we would say we had “died” (“I just don’t like hearing you say that,” she would say). I think now I know what she meant. And I know for sure that I did not become a sadistic killer of frogs or a traffic menace.
Instead of video games, I do read books and watch movies. Many of those involve storylines that are fascinating and exciting, but that I would never want to act out in real life. It is not a life goal of mine to rob a bank, or to be set adrift at sea, or to live in Elizabethan England, but in reading those stories, I get a change to live through the characters doing those things. And then I close the book, and go finish the dishes with no lasting effects at all.
The book closes; the movie ends. Life goes on.
I started to see how a video game with a battle theme might provide an opportunity to test one’s physical and mental reactions to that stressful situation, give a sense of accomplishment for completing a mission, all the while being in a safe place with beanbags and snacks. Maybe they were on to something here. In context, playing the game could add to their understanding of the world without being a story that would take over all of their thoughts and actions.
When my kids were younger and I worked at the preschool, concerns once arose about superhero play. Some parents and teachers were concerned about the physical aspects. Some were concerned about the games defining “good guys” and “bad guys” and how that would affect the kids’ other social interactions. Some were concerned about play weapons (which are still not permitted there). When his teacher decided to ban all play of superheroes, cops and robbers, soldiers, and more, she found herself spending all their time trying to unsuccessfully enforce that rule. My son even responded by innocently chewing half of his grilled cheese sandwich into a pistol shape and pretending to shoot her with it.
The reality dawned on us that if this was what the kids were interested in, it might be better to use it as a lesson platform, rather than fruitlessly try to ban it. We developed lesson plans about talking through ideas of “real” and “pretend” and being sure everyone knew the line between. This allowed everyone to have fun and left us assured the kids would not think a store-bought cape could make them fly. Trying to squash this type of play made for chaos, but including it directly in lessons proved fruitful in keeping the kids’ interest.
These memories connected to a podcast I recently listened to in which the topic of monks reciting the Psalms came up. Some of those verses are violent in nature, and others rather sensual. But the monks don’t skip over the juicy ones. They start at the beginning, chant all the way through, and then begin again. The speaker explained that bringing up these themes as a group on a regular basis and then letting them pass was actually a way to acknowledge and consider them, but not become obsessed with them. I realized further that pretending an unpleasant story doesn’t exist doesn’t erase it or give opportunity for consideration. All stories, including stories in video games may give us an opportunity to examine reality, which is at once harsh and sweet.
More recently, I attended a lecture on fear that included discussion of some clinical practices meant to help people work through unhelpful or inappropriate fears. There was to be exposure to the fear in a safe setting, starting out in a small and non-threatening way, which would build into more intense experiences. The repeated exposure is not meant to lead to desensitization, but allow for opportunity to plan strategies to work through the fearful feelings as they arise and become stronger. The therapeutic setting allowed exploration of the fear, without the anxiety of it being overwhelming or actually life-threatening. We sometimes do this on our own, watching a scary movie while curled up in warm, cozy blankets or turning upside down on a roller coaster while clamped down with safety harnesses.
Many years ago, when my babies were born, I focused on protecting them. I fed them good food and dressed them in warm clothes to protect their health. I strapped them into carseats to shelter them from any potential jostling. I rocked them to sleep and responded to every middle of the night cry so they would feel loved and valued. I inadvertently memorized large passages of books about friendly bears and oddly colored breakfast foods to fill their ears with the sounds of language, rhythm, and rhyme. I took them to story hour, and music and movement class, and playgroup so they would connect to other people and treasure the gifts of friendship. I rejected much of the dominant culture in deference to creating a safe place for them, and missed lots of good movies and music in the process. I did these things in full devotion to the idea that it was an investment in their bodies, hearts, souls, and minds—and their future growth.
And now, with my son standing before me in clothes he chose and put on himself, with a deepening voice and the beginnings of a mustache, hands clutching a soda bottle he bought on his own while riding his bike home from school, I had to let my technique evolve in order to still meet my goal. I had to honor that he is no longer a “big kid,” but a young man, and ready for different stories and challenges and plans. I needed to let go of my tightly held protections of him for him to have opportunities to scare himself, to try on other personalities, and to make bigger mistakes.
I ultimately granted my son’s request to purchase and play the game. He bought the game system and the game software with money he earned from his first summer job. Now, on weekends and evenings, I can hear his voice, and the voice of his friends and cousin, forming plans, shouting out warnings, and celebrating victories. And I know this is a good thing, even considering my initial and ongoing concerns.
Their lives are balanced with schoolwork, chores, family walks, nutritious meals, non-screen time with friends, and other entertainments. I do let them know when something seems extra-gross, and usually they agree. The process of truly listening to my sons really grew our connection with each other, and taught me that this is an important part of supporting my family’s evolution.
Author: Mary Jelf
Image: Grand Theft Auto IV still
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis