Eleventh Way for Dads to Change the World: Play video games with your kids

By Jeremy Adam Smith

video game

Lawrence Kutner had seen his teenage son play video games. But like many parents, he didn’t know much about them.

Then in 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice asked Kutner and his wife, public health researcher Cheryl Olson, to run a federally funded study of how video games affect adolescents.

Olson and Kutner are the co-founders and directors of the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Mental Health and Media. Kutner, a psychologist, had never examined video games, either in his research or in his life as a dad.

And so the first thing he did was watch over the shoulder of his son, Michael, as he played his video games. Then, two years into their research—which combined surveys and focus groups of junior high school students—Michael urged his parents to pick up a joystick.

“I definitely felt they should be familiar with the games if they were doing the research,” says Michael, who was 16 at the time. Kutner played played James Bond games with son. “And he would thoroughly trounce me,” recalls Kutner.

When I was growing up, video games were something new under the sun—this is the 80s’, people—and I played Donkey Kong and Pac Man fanatically. For their part, my parents seemed (to me) to barely know these games existed.

But since I was a lad, it turns out, the video game industry has expanded exponentially—especially among boys and men. And many of those games are a whole lot bloodier than Frogger ever was. (Remember Frogger?) For millions of kids and quite a few their parents—probably for many guys reading this—video games are a pretty big part of their leisure time.

Today the American video game industry makes more than twice as much as movie theaters, and consumers spent $21.4 billion on video-game hardware, software, and accessories in 2009—almost quadruple what they spent in 2000.

But there’s a problem: Unlike movies and TV, which are fundamentally passive viewing experiences, violent video games call for players to actively shoot, stab, or bludgeon enemies to death.

“A movie’s the same, even if you watch it multiple times,” Kutner points out. “You may get additional insights, but it’s the same thing. With video games, you are interacting with the movie and it changes based on that, and so it’s a different way of thinking. In a way, we diminish these programs by calling them games. In other contexts, the same thing would be called a simulation.”

This has led lots of thoughtful people to argue that video games teach kids to kill. Given my generally pacifist tendencies–plus the fact that I now hate playing video games–you might expect me to agree with them.

But I’ve looked hard at the evidence, and I don’t. For example, when the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education analyzed 37 incidents of school violence and sought to develop a profile of school shooters, they discovered that the most common traits among shooters were that they were male and had histories of depression and attempted suicide. While many of the killers—like the vast majority of young males—did play video games, this 2002 study did not find a relationship between game play and school shootings.

In fact, Olson and Kutner’s analysis (which ultimately involved 1,254 junior high school students) suggests a positive and paradoxical dimension of playing video games with violence in them: helping kids to grapple with life’s scariest experiences. They report that many kids in their focus groups said they liked playing violent video games because they knew the fighting wasn’t happening in real life.

Actually, many of the kids reported being much more scared by TV news. “They told us, ‘The news is real, and that makes me scared.’” In contrast, they could control the violence in video games.

“There are things you can try out in a game that you can’t do in real life,” says Olson. “Some of the boys in our focus groups really liked the fact that you could choose to be a good guy or a bad guy. They can ask, ‘What kind of person would I end up being?’”

Their son Michael says he and his friends do not play games just because of violent content. Instead, they are looking for a compelling storyline, intriguing characters, and interesting choices. “A good game to me makes you feel like a method actor,” he says. “It just draws you into the story and draws you into a character.”

These insights resonate with research into children’s pretend play. In studies of kids with imaginary friends, University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor has found that kids often create pretend characters who do sinister, nasty, and even violent things.

“Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation in real life,” says Taylor. “If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That’s a way of developing emotional mastery.”

That doesn’t mean that anything goes—and that’s where you, the dad, come in.

Olson says many precautionary steps can be taken to mitigate the harm that violent video games might cause. In addition to setting firm limits on when (e.g., after homework is done) and where (e.g., not in the bedroom) video games can be played, Olson and Kutner say parents need to get to know the games—and talk to their kids about the contrast between game violence and violence in real life.

“I would definitely want to show realistic consequences,” Olson says, when I ask her how she would design a violent video game. “There are a number of games with storylines that show the consequences of violence: Kids are getting orphaned or people are suffering.” She says the violence should never be depicted as funny, or the perpetrators as attractive, and the players should be rewarded for mercy and moral choices—as they are in the game SWAT, for example.

But to help kids make the right choices about video games, dads and moms first need to understand what kids are playing. Kutner and Olson urge parents and researchers alike to learn more about these games, and even play them with kids. This will help both groups develop a more nuanced understanding of gaming and be able to tell the good games from the bad ones.

“It’s a great thing developmentally for the child to teach the parent something,” says Olson. “A lot of kids said they’d love for their parents to play games with them.”

This is based on a much longer article, “Playing the Blame Game,” that I wrote for the Spring 2008 issue of Greater Good magazine. Photo by SanFranAnnie.

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