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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How bad is it, really?

          A couple of weeks ago, I started a series of pre-Christmas articles designed to offer helpful tidbits of information that I have gleaned in my many years of postgraduate work at the University of Hard Knocks, World Campus.  This week, I'll be focusing on young parents, and some of the grandparents out there who didn't have to face the dreaded "V" word when their own kids were growing up.  That's right, folks, this week, I'm going to look at Video Games, and specifically that raging debate about whether they engender violence in children.

          So, do they?  Judges, not wanting to provide an easy scapegoat for a sociopathic child, deny any connection between video game play and real-world maladjustment.  Researchers are divided on the issue, as evidence can easily be found, manipulated, or outright invented, to support any agenda the publisher may have.  I'm coming to you here to present my own take on this, based not on any courtroom cases or research studies, but my own daily observations conducted over about 60 years of raising children, influencing grandchildren, and being a child myself.  Here's what I've learned:

Me at six (1954). Note flintlock pistol
lovingly cradled in arms.
          I was a child during the 1950s.  Video games weren't a mischievous gleam in a programmer's eye; hell, programmers weren't a mischievous gleam in their mothers' eyes.  What we had for entertainment was the dawn of television.  I've posted elsewhere on my infatuation with a sci-fi character called Commando Cody.  He, his cohorts, and their associated villains gallivanted around the solar system shooting each other with ray guns, both hand-held and ship-mounted, trapping their enemies in various buildings and setting them on fire or filling them with toxic gas, or using a remote controlled robot to bludgeon each other senseless.  Fess Parker's version of Davy Crockett, as produced by Walt Disney, was another early favorite.  He shot people.  People tried to shoot him.  He died at The Alamo, immersed in violence.  I loved this guy!

Period ad for Mattel weaponry.
          He was the point man for the 1950s wave of Westerns that inundated television.  During that decade, about twenty-five first-run TV westerns were running during any given week.  At three hours of prime time a night, seven nights a week, the three networks offered a potpourri of action series set in the American and Canadian west of 1860-1900, old Mexican California (Zorro), and the Australian outback (Whiplash).  Most of them were 30 minutes, while some ran the full hour.  They owned the airwaves.  Every cowboy, marshal, gambler, drifter, or Shaolin monk, you name it, had a gimmick to try to set him apart from the others, and the vast majority of the gimmicks involved their guns, and the way they were used to kill people.  There were rifles, sawed-off rifles, sawed-off shotguns, six-guns with a shotgun load under the regular barrel, pistols that built up into rifles; how long have you got?  Every kid in the neighborhood had a collection of guns that would put a militiaman to shame.  Of course, ours were cap guns, but the point is that every kid on the block had an easy familiarity with firearms that almost negated the need for weapons training when we later got drafted to go to Vietnam.  We not only had most or all of the gimmick guns of our favorites (I was usually Johnny Yuma, The Rebel, and carried a Remington Navy .36 and a sawed-off, double barrel 10-gauge), but we had a full array of military and sci-fi guns as well.  There was no problem in the 'verse that couldn't be solved by killing somebody, and that was the culture we grew up in.  And we didn't watch it happen as we were pushing a few buttons on a game controller, oh no!  We acted it out in all its gory detail.  As an eight-year old, you were expected to shoot to kill, and if you were shot, you were obligated to perform a death scene worthy of a Hammy Award; every time.  Not only did we not, on the whole, grow up to be a generation of homicidal maniacs, but we produced the generation of hanky-wringers who are fueling this whole debate over, "What are we doing to our children? [sob, sob]" 

Space Invaders
          Before this Great Debate got started, there was Pong, two little lines batting a square of light back and forth.  My boys must have been about two, too young to manage the fine motor skills required, and anyway, the damned thing was close to one hundred 1978 dollars.  No way a government clerk with twin toddlers is going to spend that on a game like Pong.  Ah, but then they were about five when Atari 2600 hit the shelves.  I eventually bought that as a bonding exercise.  It worked.  I played games with Alex right up until he moved to Colorado, and Brian still sits down to a game session, albeit with his sister rather than me.  Atari offered such fondly remembered titles as Space Invaders, Centipede, Asteroids, and Defender.  This still wasn't too far advanced beyond Pong, though there were recognizable real-life (sorta) situations.  By seven, the Nintendo Entertainment System was in our rec room, and movie-style games with full-length plots were the norm, and while the graphics had a long way to come yet, what you were doing was clearly recognizable.  The finest video game I have yet to play (The Legend of Zelda) was on NES, and there was more killing in that game than any John Wayne war movie I've ever seen.

The Legend of Zelda
           My sons played this game, and many like it, and they went on to acquire Sega, Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, every mark of Play Station, and both X-Boxes.  Now, my boys were, and still are, pretty rough customers, but before you lay the blame at the doorstep of Sony and Microsoft, let's look at what else was going on in their lives.  First of all, mea culpa.  Trying to be a good dad, and in the absence of the sort of hindsight I have now, I got us lodging in a lower middle class neighborhood in hopes of saving enough money for their sister to take dance lessons, them to play in Little League, and all the things that suburban kids are said to enjoy.  It worked for a while, until the neighborhood turned into an open cesspool of drugs, gangs, pimps, and prostitutes.  When a child, especially a boy, is surrounded by a gang element, that gang looks at him and sees a member, a supporter, or an enemy.  They began to fail in school, and I started learning the names of the cops on our beat, as did the boys.  They got into more and more trouble, both around the neighborhood, and in school, until they dropped out; fortunately their troubles remained relatively minor.  Failing to recognize the one overriding principle that was at work, I spent their teenage years harping on them about making better choices, never realizing that they were making the choice to stay alive.  To complete the story, they both turned out all right.  One went on to found his own business, and the other works depot security for the Army, but if you have kids who are having trouble in school, in the community, and in their social lives, maybe the first finger you point shouldn't be at the game system.

Grand Theft Auto
          I have grandkids now, the oldest of whom is Brian Jr.  He's thirteen, and has been playing video games since before he could read the prompts on the screen.  An early favorite of his was Wolverine of the X-Men, who had a most disagreeable habit of disembowling mooks with the blades that grew from his hands.  His current favorite seems to be Saint's Row, a gangland clone of Grand Theft Auto, which he also plays, along with a wide array of military shooters.  He steals cars, he brains old ladies with his Louisville Slugger, he shoots cops with rocket launchers, and laughs in awe at the results.  All that said, Brian is what the owners of the Mexican heritage on his mother's side of the family call a soft-heart; he wouldn't harm a fly.  He's a goofball who enjoys an elaborate practical joke or a comic insult contest, looks out for his three younger siblings, and is in high school prep courses in his middle school.  He doesn't know any gang-bangers, and on the days that he comes to our house after school, he understands that his homework is to be done before he fires up the game machine; it is a rule that we never have to enforce.  His sisters, ages nine and eleven, have their own personalities, but in terms of game play, they are very similar.  They are both fans of Left 4 Dead, a pretty violent game in its own right; I can't detect it leaking into their personal lives at all.  Their little brother's four.  He likes Left 4 Dead, too.  It's a little early to tell what effect games may be having on him, but he basically seems to have a normal personality for a four year old with three much older siblings.  The point is, with the older ones at least, if all these violent video games are going to corrupt them, they'd better get started.

Saints Row
          My conclusion is that video games are one of many, many influences on your children, our children, and I suppose it's possible that a child could become a delinquent because of their influence, but it would almost take a clinical effort to cause that to happen.  Children aren't as stupid as a lot of people want to give them credit for, and I contend, based on a lifetime of direct observation, that a child knows the difference between what happens on a screen because of what buttons he presses, and what happens in real life if he shoots somebody with a real gun.  Case in point:  I own a real gun.  All the grandkids have seen it, and whenever it comes into view, they back away from it like it was a poisonous snake, partly, I believe, because their video game experiences have showed them in no uncertain terms what a real gun can do.

Left 4 Dead
          It's Christmas, and if you have children of a certain age clamoring for a game that you might find objectionable, especially in the current sea of media psychobabble, stop worrying.  Your child is much smarter than they want you to believe.  Let him have it, and be glad he's safe on your couch instead of out, God knows where, hanging out with a street gang, or experimenting with drugs, or sex, or whatever.  Learn to play, especially in cooperative mode.  Use it to bond with him; very little will bring you and your child together like coordinating a hunt for evil terrorists, or standing back-to-back holding off a horde of zombies, and your kid will see you with a whole new aura of cool!  Lighten up, let them play, and you may just open lines of communication and camaraderie that you never knew existed.

          Okay, I think I've made my point.  I'll see you next week.  Now, get out there and live life like you mean it!


  1. Well said. I think you're right. The desensitization toward violence and lack of empathy has a lot more to do with larger social factors than video games.

  2. Welcome back, Bob. Always good to see you around the Hideout. Thanks for the word of support. Why would "experts" and the media invest so much and time and effort into making you believe your kids are too stupid to differentiate between reality and a game? Hmmmm. Let's follow the money, and see who gains from that...

  3. Nice to finaly have access to a computer again. Love this posting mostly because it directly involves my childhood. I too played war with a pleathera of plastic weapons. My favorite was a gawdy orange camo colt 1911a1. I spent the longest portion of my life playing video games with my Dad and looking back on it now, I am sad that I did not take advantage of every opportunity to play with him again. I did have a ruff area to grow up in, but we all have choices. Hind site being 20/20, I wish I had chose to stay inside out of trouble and play with my old man. The memories I will share with my kids kids will be about playing games with the coolest Dad anyone could want.

  4. Welcome back, Axeman! Thanks for the warm fuzzy. See, this is from a man who spent many of his formative years in front of a console, killing anything that moved. I have raised 3 kids, and been directly involved in varying degrees in the lives of 7 more. All of them are gamers, and none of them are rotten. It just seems to me that if video games are what is creating rotten kids, the law of averages should have caught at least one of them...

  5. This post reminds me of the whole "nature vs. nurture" debate. Why can't it be both nature AND nurture that influence the development of a human being? I think we're certainly a species complicated enough to warrant more than one influence in our development. Children are usually surrounded by adults that are, hopefully, teaching them GOOD things. They go to school. Some go to church. They read. They hang out with friends. They watch tv. They get on the internet. How could anyone single out a very tiny slice of life and blame all the problems of society on such a small fragment of our existence?

    I think you're probably on to something with your "follow the money" comment. As we've all learned, that opinion has merit in most situations. I also think, though, that blaming games (among other things) is an easy out. Kids learn from the things adults DON'T say just as much as they do from the things we do say. For example, a child that is indulged and rewarded for throwing a tantrum makes the mental connection that this behavior is acceptable and condoned. Rewarded even. When adults don't speak up, don't correct bad behavior, and don't set a good example, I would imagine that those things contribute more to the erosion of society than any Space Invader game or violent movie.

    Likewise, kids grow up and begin to make their own choices, so it's on the adults in their lives to teach them how to make good decisions. We all have to be responsible for ourselves and our choices. You didn't have a dad to teach you how to be a dad, yet you knew that abandoning your family was wrong, so you didn't. The same way that Boogie braining old ladies in a video game is something he would NEVER do in reality, because he knows it's wrong. Blaming all our problems on games is ridiculous. It's too bad that people can't see how dumb that makes our species look.

  6. Well if its any consolation for you parents against video game violence I enjoy my Gears of war 3 for the xbox 360 and there is an option to block the blood and gore. Although it's just not the same without the blood and gore when Marcus Fenix drives a chainsaw right down the middle of a locust (The enemy), I do not like my 7 and 9 year olds looking at that stuff. So thankfully Gears 3 has an option to turn off the blood and gore so it doesn't look as violent. Although overall the game is somewhat violent it is based on war. Good luck trying to raise your kids without having a clue what war is or why we have guns. Keep it as clean as possible and moderation is the ticket for me. Let em know there is more to life than just video games. Balance is the key!!

  7. Good to see you again, amigo! Sounds like you have a good balance in hand. My whole point here is that your kids aren't stupid, but you have a good chance of making them stupid if you act stupid yourself...

  8. There were some early Space Invaders machines where if you only inserted the quarter partially and held on to it, you could rack up free plays. Of course I only found out about it after the manufacturer caught on and fixed the problem. Then you couldn't do it any more. I've always had bad timing..

  9. Oh, forced to be honest, eh? That's doing it the hard way! Here's an example of video games corrupting children in a way I hadn't thought of...

    By the way, welcome, Honest Joe. It's always good to pick up a new viewpoint.

  10. .. um, well, when you put it that way...