The Violence Cop-Out
December 4, 2007

I am sick and tired of hearing people claim that violent video games and violent music and violent movies cause more and more violence.

What a simplistic way of looking at the world.

The real truth is that how we choose to deal with and process these media can create more violence ... or more peace.

I'll be honest. I haven't played a video game formally labeled violent since my C-64 with the original Castle Wolfenstein games, 50 Mission Crush (oh, how I miss that one) and a G.I. Joe game. But, even in the Tony Hawk games I adore, there is still violence. The cops often try to knock the skaters down and in the latest game you can now skate-check (knock down a pedestrian). There's other "mild" violence along the same lines.

Does this make the game violent? Certainly that portion is. But does it make the game players violent?

When I am frustrated in my Tony Hawk games, I have a tendency to smash the skater into a wall. Violent? Well, it is pixel violence. But for me, at least, this is a safe release of aggression. It hurts no one. My little pixel skater may look bloodied for a moment, but no being feels the pain.

I would never do the same thing to a person. That is a harmful release of tension and frustration.

And this is the real dilemma.

Do we consciously choose our paths? Do we think?

As adults with children or with children in our sometimes care, do we think?

Our children at age 7, 10 and some even at 15 cannot fully process through these distinctions I've made. It is up to us to limit their playing time and to discuss with them what they see and play on the screen. The real threat to our children is not so much the video game where they might get the idea to push a friend off their skateboard and down a hill -- kids have been doing that or its equivalent for decades. Pushing each other out of trees, down basement steps, holding each other under water, beating the crap out of each other -- learning the physical consequences and limitations and not always with good results.

The real threat is what it has always been: adult passivity and assumption that discussion will go unheeded or is not necessary.

If I let my 10 year old play a wrestling video game, I personally want to:

  1. limit the time the kid can play

  2. discuss appropriate behaviour (these activities stay in the game only)

  3. discuss the emotional impact the game has (feeling hyper or invincible after the game has been turned off, etc)

If the kid doesn't want to agree to this preliminary contract, we're not getting the game. Period. I don't care if every kid in the school from kindergarten on up has the thing. We won't have it.

Chances are, unless my 10 year old is really mature, I don't really want the kid playing a wrestling game. Kids at that age tend to be very physically experimental ... and kinda clumsy. They wrestle on their own enough as it is. If the game is one that I think might be okay, then I'm going to rent it and play it at night after the kid goes to bed. Test it out. See what's in it. Google the game and look at the forums which discuss the gameplay -- NOT simply trust what the news media reports about it.

That takes a lot of time. A lot of involvement and time. In a life already filled with so many demands on our time ... work ... our partner ... the kids' school ... the kids' activities ... enrichment time with the kids ... date time with our partners ... keeping the house fit ... there's not necessarily a lot of time to go investigating every fad video game (or movie or music). It's easy to use the rating system and say no. Or to use the rating system and assume that your values and the values of the rating system are the same. It's easy to get tired of the kids nagging about a game and they're so contained whilst playing.

And that's the cop-out. Allowing ourselves to get so tired that we are just glad the kids are out of our hair for a while and not wanting to look too closely at what they're doing. It's easy to get that tired. And when we get that tired, we get apathetic or at least lose the "umph" behind our drive.

I have a friend who belongs to a very peaceful, non-violent faith. And he's raising his kids in the U.S., which at times seems to be completely counter to his beliefs. He got the LEGO Star Wars video game for his kids. After all, there are no people in the game, just LEGO mini-figs. There's no real violence, just LEGO bricks coming apart when hit with a light saber or bolts from the vehicles.

But, rather than assume this was fine, he observed his children's behaviour after playing the game. And with a large age range gap between the four, he noticed an increase in how hyper the kids got ... and that their games were becoming a little too rambunctious and violent. The game went away. Perhaps when the youngest is older, that game might come back out ... perhaps not. Maybe it hits the kids' imaginations just right that they can't really leave the hyper after-effects alone.

He was involved. He consciously thought about the game, played it with them, let them play it ... and observed them. Took it away as a test and brought it back. Observed. Decided.

I admire that. So many parents make blanket rules about music or movies or video games based on the scare tactics in the media, based on sound bytes.

But, what they forget is that most of our children in the U.S. don't have the kind of playground they did in the '50s and '60s ... and even the '70s and '80s. Instead, many parents now know that the local woods is a hangout for bad guys (even when it's not). That the playground equipment is dangerous and a kid can break a neck falling off. That BB gun wars can result in shooting someone's eye out. That building a treehouse can result in a busted leg or broken neck. That racing bikes down a hill can lead to road rash or even a car collision and a coma. That straying too far from the apartment can take them into gang territory or bring them to the attention of the building's dealer.

So many children are often left with less territory to explore. Less time to experiment and learn about their physical surroundings. It's no wonder, then, that they don't want to heed our exhortations to go play in the backyard but would rather explore the territory of Gaia or Warcraft. They must feel as if they have no room to explore and grow ... and most kids I know are scared to go more than a couple of blocks on their own. (I'm thinking of kids around the age of 10-12, here.)

Of course they think video games are cool. Look at all the exploration they can do.

If we have to take away their territory, we have to offer something in return or we run the risk of raising children who cannot think on their feet. We run the risk of raising children who are stagnant, rules-bound to an unhealthy extent.

It's a scary thing. But we cannot and we should not, keep our children so wrapped in foam rubber and bubble plastic that they cannot fall. Of course we don't want them to feel the pain of a broken arm or a scraped knee. Of course we want them to understand that if they jump off a friend's two story house, they are NOT going to make it all the way to the next roof. (I saw some idiot teenager try that whilst I was watching G4's Attack of the Show last night.) Of course we prefer they learn this without having to physically feel these things. But sometimes, this is the only way they learn. We don't encourage it, but it happens because they explore.

Of course, this still doesn't quite address the issue most people seem to feel is core: do violent video games breed violent people? Do they desensitize us to violence and thus make us think it's not such a bad thing? Do they create reflexes which might be unconsciously triggered in a stress situation? Do they somehow warp our minds?

For the most part, I think the answer lies in our own personal sense of responsibility. Do we play these games completely mindlessly and ask the game to do the thinking for us?

Or do we reflect on our feelings and behaviours after the game has been turned off?

See, I heard these same arguments back before the surge of violent video games. Only then, people complained about Dungeons and Dragons. That game only attracted malcontents who were going to go physically and emotionally ballistic if the game didn't go their way. It taught kids to be violent. It made them crazy.

I heard many of the same complaints back in the day which are now made of video games. And I still believe that game "violence" whether it is the imaginative discussion of D&D, the board game of Risk or most video games ... can be a healthy violence which is simply a release of tension and frustration, no different from getting angry and clobbering a pillow. It's a safe release in which no one gets hurt.

The question I have avoided until now is the question of the ultra-realistic games. The driving games which are played with a responsive steering wheel controller. The first person shooter games.

Here again, we are talking about maturity and self-reflection.

I have an old PS1 game called Sledstorm. Competitive snowmobiling. Kinda tame in terms of violence, but one thing you try to do in the game is run over the little bunny that darts across your way. You have a choice. It's not a goal of the game. You can miss him. (Believe me, it's easy to miss the little blighter.) But you get 1000 "easy" points if you hit him. It became a mark of precision for me to nail the speedy little bunny - something I would NEVER do in real life.

But, after playing the game one evening, my partner and I drove out to dinner. In the dusk of the evening, a cat dashed out in front of my car, just blocks from our house.

My muscles twitched.

I didn't even jerk the wheel; my partner had no idea. But I did. My muscles twitched. I'd been playing the game for a while and played right up until the moment we left the house. I was still at least partially in game mode and I didn't like that muscle twitch.

So, after that, I always left myself a half hour to decompress after playing that game before I would get behind the wheel. I never had another muscle twitch after playing the game and then driving. That half hour was plenty of time for me to completely mentally leave the game.

Of course, a 10 year old is probably not that self-reflexive and probably doesn't notice that level of cause and effect. So naturally, they don't see the point that adults try to make about why too much video game time can be bad. But we're the adults. That's why we have to be involved and observe and discuss trends with the kids. That's how they're going to learn.

It certainly won't make you the most popular parent. There will be plenty of eye-rolling. That's obligatory and I'd worry if they did not do that. But they will also know that you care. And, if you do it right, they'll know you're listening to them. And that goes a long way, even when they disagree with you.

At any rate, I certainly wouldn't want my "just got a license" teen playing Grand Theft Auto or Need for Speed or Nascar 2007 and then getting behind the wheel. We're gonna have to talk rules and limitations. We're going to have to negotiate some deals.

But what about first person shooter games?

Here I will admit that I am much more torn. Those games are not fun for me. In fact, they're pretty boring and I'm personally kind of appalled with most of them. They have a place, though. I can see hunters really enjoying their "off-season" by playing the hunting games. That seems pretty logical.

But what about the Halo games, the SOCOM even some of the Star Wars battle games?

It's funny. I enjoyed the original Castle Wolfenstein game, which eventually spawned the popularity of the first person shooter game. What I liked about it was the strategy mixed with some early attempts at randomness. Also, those early video games were obviously pixel violence and not realistic at all. When Wolfenstein went "3D," I lost interest. It was too disorienting and sometimes too graphic for me.

That's my personal taste, however. I can see many legitimate reasons for enjoying those games. Just as my bashing my Tony Hawk skater into a wall to "punish" the little pixel darling is simply a safe release of tension or frustration, I would rather come home from a shitty day at work and blow up Nazis in Call of Duty than to let the frustration simmer and perhaps take it out on my family ... even if that was "only" yelling at them unnecessarily.

However, I do think that self-reflection is an even more important requirement of playing the first person shooter games than some of the other genres.

It's certainly not a genre of games I want my 10 year old to play. 15 year old? Probably not, but here we really run into the personality and maturity of the teen. Is this a kid gung-ho to be an officer in the Army? Maybe we should spend some time together playing Call of Duty or Halo 3. After all, I'm not going to watch my 15 year old every single minute of every 24 hour period and if I completely and totally forbid it, the kid will probably go to a friend's house to play.

Which, of course, brings up the ubiquitous argument: "but we can't control our kids when they are not home." Which for some people correlates to: therefore violent video games, music, movies should not be made.

It's true that we can't control our kids when they're not home. But here's the deal, we raise our children as best we can, instilling our values and our experiences as best we can, and as they grow older and we allow them out of our direct supervision more and more, we must trust that our teachings will hold. Yes, a 15 year old who is not allowed to play Halo 3 at home will more than likely play it at a friend's house given the opportunity and peer pressure. Perhaps the kid will resist, perhaps give in.

Playing the game for the three hours whilst over at a friend's house is not going to make your child suddenly violent.

If your kid is at that friend's house every day, unsupervised ... if the kid has no release for the plethora of teen emotions building up ... then, yeah, that kid might get violent. If the kid feels neglected or ignored, chances are pretty good on eventual violence.

But it's not the game causing that. It might act as a catalyst for an already troubled person. But that person has chosen to NOT discuss their feelings. Has chosen to NOT find other outlets. Has chosen to NOT be self-reflective. And, ultimately, has chosen NOT to accept personal responsibility.

And if that's your kid and you have chosen to NOT engage ... then you are also at fault for not helping your child learn how to release tension and frustration in healthy and harmless ways.

Now, there is also the issue of mental illness, and I don't include that in this discussion. That's a whole 'nother ball of wax. I'm talking "garden variety" teenager and parents.

The other issue I'm leaving out of this particular post is when parents are simply and honestly not able to spend enough time supervising their children and teens (having to work multiple jobs, single parents and the like). Again, that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Even the first person shooter video games, to a self-reflective and honest person, do not cause us to act violently. We choose violence. We can argue that some of these realistic games hone violent skills ... I think we are reaching a point in video game technology where that is very true.

But it's not the games that cause violence. It's our own choice. Our own frustrations and inability to deal with them. The games and music and movies can be cathartic ... or they can simply cause us to turn in on ourselves and refuse to think. But the choice is ultimately our own.

Can we instill in our children the ability to be self-reflective? to take personal responsibility? to live deliberately?

Or are we too tired to take personal responsibility ourselves and instead grab the nearest scapegoat?

The choice, as always, is our own.

Will you take the red pill ... or the blue?

Posted by Red Monkey at December 4, 2007 7:01 AM | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Pand0raWilde said:

I'm weird--I can't play first person shooters at all.

I get carsick every time.

Weird, yes?

December 4, 2007 3:43 PM


Free Me said:

I'm torn on this issue. I remember, growing up, the big thing then was smoking. We saw adults smoking on television, identified it as a cool adult behavior, and many of us started smoking as soon as we could. Now, the hip thing seems to gangster style violence. I can't tell you the number of times I've been threatened by some kid in low-riding jeans because he thinks it's cool to be a bad ass.

More and more, people seem to think it's a sign of intelligence to be hostile and rude. More and more, they seem to feel violence and threats of violence are a sign of edginess. But did media create that trend, or is the trend mirrored in the media? It's hard to say.

I definitely don't agree that responsibility should be scuffed off to legislation to solve the problem. I agree with you wholeheartedly that people need to take responsibility for what they experience, and what their children experience. If we give the government control of all these things, then we retain no right to make choices.

December 4, 2007 4:38 PM


mikster said:

A parent needs to be more involved on what impression a game, television, or a movie has on their kids. Sometimes they use these things as a form of babysitting though.

December 5, 2007 12:15 PM


Joe said:

Agreed. Mikster is correct. Parents need to be active participents in their children's lives. If you don't know what they are up to, thats when things go wrong. I mean, my toddler proves that to me everyday.

December 7, 2007 1:41 AM
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