For two and a half weeks now, two words have been on everyone’s minds: Newtown, Connecticut. The second worst school shooting in the history of our nation. An unthinkable act that, in all honesty, is beyond what my mind can comprehend. As a nation we’ll spend years trying to wrap our minds around the atrocities that have taken place over the course of the last year, culminating, it would seem, with the act of violence to end all acts of violence. And the attacker? He was barely out of his teens.
While browsing Facebook today, there was a huge outpouring of love, sympathy, and remorse for the victims of the shooting. There were also a lot of cries on both sides of the gun control debate. And then there was one post that caught my attention more than the others. Indie artist April Smith posted the following status:
“I know one thing – my son is NEVER going to be allowed to play violent video games with guns and killing. I think they mess with kids’ minds BIG TIME!! Human lives don’t reset when the game starts again. Do your kid and the world a favor by introducing a hobby that will challenge their mind, not desensitize them. Music, photography, painting, fishing, biking…there are SO many wonderful things to do!”
On January 12th, a town in Connecticut is planning to hold a drive asking people to ‘turn in their games of violence’ to be burned, this prompted by many blaming, at least in part, violent video games for the school shooting. Now there is a debate that we’d nearly forgotten about. It seems that the arguments for and against violent video games had died down recently, but with every act of violence they tend to pop back up at least a little bit. This raises the question: Does allowing our sons and daughters to play violent video games make them more likely to commit acts of violence? Are we bad parents if we buy the new Call of Duty game for our child?
There are two major areas to look at here. The first is outside of the game. What is the thought process of someone playing a violent video game? Is the player thinking, “I killed a person” when they shoot at a character in a video game? Like most of the other people our age, I was enthralled with Goldeneye 64 when it came out. I played it for countless hours, through single player, hidden levels, and multiplayer. Not once did my brain process the pixels as people. My mind processed the game as a story, a piece of fiction, not as any sort of real life event.
Which leads to the second area. Games are getting more realistic with every new system that is released. We’ve gone from 8-bit square-shaped men that are as tall as they are wide to motion capture that looks so real that you could legitimately confuse it for a live-action movie. The new goal for game producers, it seems, is to make the worlds seem as realistic as possible, to blur the line. This is especially true with more violent games, it seems. Resident Evil 6 might as well be real actors, but, let’s face it, no one is going to think you’re watching a movie if they see you playing New Super Mario Brothers U.
Does this line-blurring affect the players and their minds? It’s a tough call. It’s certainly easier to see your enemy as a real person rather than the faceted bots of the Goldeneye era. As parents (or future parents, as is our case) it is our responsibility to decide what is best for our children, but when something like the Newtown shooting occurs, suddenly the lives of so many others are thrust upon a parent’s shoulders.
In truth, there is no one answer. Not all children will react the same way to the same situations. With the increasing number of people on the planet, the number of people who commit violent crimes are an incredibly small percentage of the population. How can we know which one out of a million will be the one that will be negatively influenced? Just like in the mid-90s when a group of children killed a friend while pretending to be Power Rangers, that one (or ones) can be almost impossible to guess until after it’s too late. So how do we handle the situation?
This discussion sounds a lot like the gun debate. Do we stop our child from playing any and all violent games because we’re afraid that they’ll be the next James Holmes or Adam Lanza? Or do we give our child a chance to show the responsibility and clear-thinking that it takes to hold in place the line between fantasy and reality? No one said that being a parent is easy. In fact, my whole life I’ve heard that it’s very, very, hard. But taking on the mob mentality that it’s the video game’s fault is an easy way to avoid taking a look at the person playing, the parents of the person playing, and the billions of other stimuli that we are hit with every moment of every day.
A realistic violent video game is no different than a violent movie is no different than violence on the news. Are we to shelter our children from seeing or hearing about the news of shootings out of fear they too could do something so awful? Or as parents, are we to take life circumstances (real or fake) and teach our children right from wrong? We can’t trust video games and television to raise our children correctly. That is our responsibility. Now, ask us to let our child play a video game that portrayed a school shooting as a good thing, or watch movies with similar themes, or read books on the same, etc. A large majority of the violent video games put you in the role of military personnel fighting for the salvation of your people against brain-hungry zombies and the like. We want our children to take from a video game like that: “Zombie bad. Shoot it in the head.” It’s our responsibility as parents to teach our children and instill in them whatever values we deem to be the right ones. Don’t want your child to shoot up a school? Teach them that murder is wrong, and keep your gun cabinets locked. See ‘signs’ that the video games your child is playing may be affecting him in the way of becoming a psycho killer? Then there is something far more deep-seededly wrong. We’re not saying a video game or movie can’t influence you, but you should have a lot more going on in your head and heart than the last kill of a video game. And if the line between reality and fiction is that blurred in a child’s mind, you need to look far more deeply than what’s in his or her Xbox.
I guess in the end every parent must decide for himself or herself, but these humble writers ask that before you make any hasty decisions you consider that no event can be blamed on one single source. Resist the knee-jerk reaction of blaming your favorite scapegoat and take a moment to consider that there were far bigger factors in this whole mess than what video games this young man played during his free time. And certainly don’t let the actions of one child dictate how you raise your own.