National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Video Games and Your Family

Making the Right Choices

BY Thomas L. McDonald

October 5-11, 2008 Issue | Posted 9/30/08 at 11:00 AM

 

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.


Maintain Control

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.


Choosing Games

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, is challenging.

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 engaged parenting.

Sit down and play with your kids. Find out what they’re doing and seeing. Maybe you’ll even wind up as a gamer yourself.

Thomas L. McDonald is editor-at-large of Games magazine and a diocesan catechist.