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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Good Story about Non-Violent Video Games

            The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School compel answers to many questions, including whether the prevalence of video games that involve killing has ingrained violence into our culture and whether it’s a good thing that so many kids play these games.   In thinking about that question, I thought about my family’s own experience with these games, sometimes referred to as “first-person shooter” games (among the most popular are Call of Duty and Halo).

About a year and a half ago, my son felt isolated because many kids were playing games that involved shooting people and he wasn’t.  My wife and I discouraged him from doing so to the point that we refused to purchase the games for him.  We preferred that he play games related to professional sports leagues, where the goals of the game don’t involve killing.

            My wife’s and my simple motivation is that we worry about the long-lasting effect these games will have on this generation of kids, how they’ll view violence and what that will mean for our society in the future.   How will what seems to be a routine task of killing someone in a video game translate into how our citizens value human life?  And how will those attitudes affect a nation’s views on diplomacy and foreign policy, if as a society we broadly trivialize killing in our kids’ hobbies?  

            That said, we gave in and purchased a few of these games, much more so because we did not want our son to be socially isolated than because we believed that he should be playing them.   Rather than continue our censorship, we figured that we’d let him decide whether these games are fun and worth playing.  Since he’ll have to make many difficult decisions for himself in life, we determined that we’d let him make this one under our roof (while continuing to discuss guiding principles with him).   It was a tough call, but we concluded that we needed to loosen the reigns a bit and see what happened. 

            He then played Halo and Call of Duty for a few months, but one day he came home from a friend’s house complaining that he didn’t like the games.  They just didn’t interest him the way sports-related games did.   A friend of our daughter’s suggested Manager Mode in FIFA 2012, and it opened up a new world for him.  The ability to learn international soccer, build teams, buy and sell contracts and compete was much more fun.

            He then started to talk about the game with his friends at school, none of whom were playing FIFA 12 at the time and many of  whom were playing the shooting games.  His enthusiasm must have been infectious, because eighteen months later, many of his friends are playing FIFA (and their interest in the shooting games has diminished).  The kids gather on-line, talk about their favorite teams, and whether they’d purchase the contract of a megastar for $50 million, ask their parents for soccer jerseys of players in the English Premier League as presents and even talk about the real teams at the lunch table.  

Our son is not a loud or pushy kid, just a sensible, sensitive one who is as enthusiastic as any thirteen year-old is about the things that he likes.  Long gone is the talk of isolation about not being the only one not to do something.  Instead, he’s started a trend that is inclusive and shows that there are other ways for kids to have fun.   Soccer and managing and building teams – and not shooting – is becoming more popular by the day.   What a difference a few years makes. 

            Abraham Lincoln once said that it takes courage to be kind.  It also takes courage – ultimately -- not to do what everyone else does.   Of course, playing even this video game is no substitute for reading, writing, doing math homework, getting involved in activities that require in-person interactions with others and physical exercise, but let’s face it, kids have plenty of free time and many boys will play video games to fill some of their spare time.  And isn’t it better to fill the free time with positive things than with destructive ones?

            I am proud of my son.   Instead of letting a temporary sense of isolation get him down, he figured out a different path.  His road less traveled is now seeing more traffic by the day. 

            Let’s not have our society be the result of games like Call of Duty.  Instead, let our society after the Sandy Hook tragedy call us to duty – to address how much we want violence ingrained into our culture.   One thoughtful seventh grader has started a trend in his middle school.  Imagine if one kid in each middle school across the country did the same and moved kids away from shooting games.  And then imagine what the focus of the discussions at the lunch table, on texts and in hanging out would be like two years from now and how our society’s view of, and tendency toward, violence might change.   And then imagine the types of leaders that these kids can be and the world that they’ll help improve.



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