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Maintain control, choose wisely — and sit down and play with your kids.
BY Thomas L. McDonald
We all want
to do right by our children: Make them happy, keep them healthy, and raise them
to be fine adults formed by the values of our faith.
Having a nonstop spigot of toxic
mass media sludge pumped into our homes 24/7 can make this a daunting prospect.
A recent Pew survey found that 97% of children play video games. The
Kutner-Olsen study (published as “Grand Theft Childhood”) revealed that
children who didn’t play games of any kind tended to
have more social problems.
Parents may see games as a mind-sucking
waste of time that turns normal people into button-pushing zombies, but for
kids, they are a challenge, a bonding opportunity and a topic of discussion.
In contrast to the passive nature of
watching television, gaming is active, putting the user in control of how
events unfold through exploration, interaction and problem-solving.
Like any other media, some games are
good and some are bad. And while we often talk about violent games because they
are of the greatest concern, it’s important to remember that the majority of
games are completely benign: Sports, racing, strategy, puzzle, music and arcade
games far outnumber those with violent content.
The question is: Do you even let
games in your house? Many families already have a PC, which can also do
double-duty as a game machine — but your kids would rather be playing a
Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii or PlayStation 3.
Teens and adult gamers tend to
prefer the Microsoft Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 because they offer high-octane
action titles and superior graphical performance. If you’re looking for an
all-around family console, however, it’s hard to beat the Wii’s ease of use and
large library of family-friendly titles.
Once you have a game console in the
house, the most important thing is controlling access.
In our household, we limit game time
to Fridays and Saturdays during the school year, and maintain a 1-to-1 ratio of
reading time to game time. (In order to earn an hour of game time, a child has
to log an hour of reading time.)
When I explain our limitations on
game time and access to parents, some are flabbergasted, often remarking that
their kids “would never stand for that.”
What a fascinating statement. If you
do not have the parental authority to regulate your child’s access to media,
then you have no parental authority at all.
The console should never be placed
in a child’s bedroom, and kids shouldn’t have free access to it. But
fortunately, all three game machines have parental locking codes, which prevent
them from playing titles with certain ratings, unless a password is entered.
Thus, you can bar all M-rated (“Mature”) titles from your home or lock the
system so that you can approve when, what, and for how long your kids play.
Picking the right game can be
tricky, despite all the tools available for evaluating content. It’s harder
than choosing the right TV show or movie, since games are often large and
complex and may contain elements that are seen only in certain circumstances.
Although there is no shortage of
completely inoffensive games, many releases are awash in violence. That
violence has a fairly wide range of expression.
At one end of the spectrum, you might bounce on a character who
then disappears in a puff of confetti, while at the other end, you can find
mutilation and even torture. In between those extremes, you’ll find everything
from mild mayhem to realistic and gruesome dismemberment.
As a rule, sex and gore warrant an
M-rating, but T-rated (“Teen”) games are able to show a fair amount of violence
as long as they keep the blood to a minimum.
In our house, for instance, we
debated allowing our 10 1/2-year-old son to play “Call of Duty 2” (rated T), a
first-person shooter game where the player is a World War II Allied soldier.
Although the action primarily involves shooting enemy soldiers, the player is
clearly a hero; the violence isn’t particularly graphic, and the entire
experience is rich in historical detail.
Each child is different and, depending
upon his or her age, may or may not be ready for this kind of game play. On the
one hand, it’s the modern equivalent of playing war, particularly since
multi-player modes allow people to compete against each other. On the other
hand, parents may reasonably want to avoid any game that puts a young person in
the role of killing another person, even an enemy, albeit virtual.
It’s not an easy call to make. Do
you draw the line at non-explicit violence or allow only violence against
non-humans (aliens or other creatures, for instance)? How can we reconcile
games that include any depiction of killing with our faith? Wouldn’t we do
better to avoid such things altogether?
Every parent has to struggle with
these questions individually. Certainly, violence is part of even benign
entertainment: There is no protagonist without an antagonist.
Aristotle’s six principles of drama
begin with mimesis (the imitation of an action) and
end with catharsis (the purgation of excess
emotions). Games function by the same rules: They engage our emotions, and then
provide the release.
In the stormy world of adolescence,
games may actually play a number of important roles, providing socialization,
problem-solving, contained fantasy, and an outlet for tension and troubled emotions.
Making the right choices for each child at each stage in his or her life, however,
There are tools — such as ratings,
descriptors, content-rating websites like CommonSenseMedia.org, and parental
lock-out codes — that can help, but in the end, there’s no substitute for
Sit down and play with your kids.
Find out what they’re doing and seeing. Maybe you’ll even wind up as a gamer
L. McDonald is editor-at-large of Games magazine
and a diocesan catechist.