SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - There are a lot of opinions when it comes to video game violence and the effects it has on our children. As a member of a generation that grew up with video games and other interactive entertainment, I’ve seen games progress from the relatively inane “Pong” all the way up to multi-million dollar cinematic productions with graphic violence and story lines ripped out of our media’s headlines.
Now, more than ever before, parents must be vigilant when it comes to understanding the games our kids play. Not only because the games themselves might be violent or pose adult themes, but because they’ve become part of our culture and the online 24-7 world that our children are inheriting. Games are more than just simple constructs of light and sound, they carry with them a narrative and language all their own and it’s one that increasingly, our kids under- stand and we don’t.
While it’s always been incumbent upon parents to keep in touch with their children’s interests, it’s also important for us to use our experience as Soldiers, as Warrior Citizens, to temper how we respond to these games and our children’s interest in them.
First off, not all games are violent. There are thousands of simple, light hearted games that are not only fun for kids of all ages, but are age appropriate for kids that are 6 or 60. But having said that, these aren’t usually the games our kids are bringing to us and asking for us to buy. They want the big games, the popular games, the stuff they see on TV and online. They want the games their friends are playing. And many of them are violent enough and realistic enough to make a lot of parents pause.
Now I love games. I’ve played them since I was 4 and I’ve never stopped enjoying them. My interests as an adult and as a soldier often leads me down the road to playing a lot of games that carry the same kinds of ratings and warning that an Hollywood produced action movie would. My son, who has just as vivid an interest in video games as I did at his age, wants nothing more than to hang out with dad and play these same games.
When he was younger, we stuck to things like Tiger Woods Golf. Sports games are easy, they’re fun, and they build the same motor skills and hand- eye coordination that are important to a generation that is growing up with a game controller in their hand. But it wasn’t long before he was ready to graduate from golf to something a little more intense. He wanted to play Call of Duty. To those in the know, Call of Duty (or COD as it’s known) is one of those mega-action packed, productions that are filled with guns, explosions, and enough bad language and adult themes that they’re able to keep the attention of a room full of infantrymen. The game is filled with Soldiers and to my son, how can something that’s full of people like his dad be bad?
Where to start, how to explain? Now, it’s only natural for a son to want to be like his dad. Forgetting about games altogether, I’ve had to spend a lot of time and a lot of hours trying to explain to him what exactly it is that I do for a living. The results have been mixed. When he was 5 years old I was an Executive officer for an HHC company. I explained to him that I was responsible for managing vehicles, supplies and food for our unit. Later I found out that he simplified my explanation and told the kids at school I took care of Soldiers by passing out doughnuts. Fair enough.
Even though his young mind processed the information differently and simplified things in a way he can under- stand, he was happier understanding what it is I do as a Soldier. Part of my responsibility was also explaining the difference between the things that games and the media glorify about being a Soldier and the hard truth. In the real world, bullets kill, and there are no saved games. To the invincible and immortal mind of a 9-year-old, no amount of stern warnings that, “war isn’t really like video games,” are going to have the full effect that a parent might want.
My solution has been to make sure that my son and I play games together. Sometimes we play the rough stuff and I know that not every parent would be thrilled with my decision. To me, it’s more important that I’m able to temper his enthusiasm with doses of reality. I’m able to answer his questions about what he’s seeing in the game and contrast it with the realities of being in the military and how it differs with what he’s seeing in game.
My son is 9 years old now and his understanding of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is very thorough. Or at least as thorough as you can expect out of someone his age. But he understands a lot about the history, and much of his interest was spurred on by our time playing games together.
Now that we live on opposite sides of the country, we can connect online and play as a team. More than anything else, I’m thankful for this technology most of all. Keeping an 9-year-old engrossed in phone conversation can be rough, but playing and talking at the same time gives us both a world of quality time that Soldier-parents of bygone generations simply did not have.
Every day our children get older and we get less time and less influence over them. One day soon “dad” will stop being the coolest guy on the block. That place will be taken up by friends, sports heroes, and the real and virtual celebrities that are part of our kids’ world. As parents we get so little real time to truly influence their attitudes and actions. Maybe my little dude will outgrow his dreams of being a soldier. Maybe he’ll move on and do something completely different.
But thanks to games and our time together, I’ll get to be a part of his life - even when I’m away - and that’s something I’ll treasure always.