In Defense of Video Games

I have an old friend from college, our kids are about the same age. Back about five years I was visiting his house and his oldest, then 10 or 11, asked my oldest if he wanted to play Grand Theft Auto.

“You’re letting him play WHAT?” I asked Doug. Grand Theft Auto was generally regarded as the lowest, seediest video game in the whole low, seedy world of video games.

Doug looked at me like I’d called his son an abject idiot. “Do you think my son is so dumb that he doesn’t know the difference between that game and real life?!?” he asked. “He knows he can’t do any of those things when he turns that game off.”

Good point—especially as the release earlier this year of Call of Duty: Black Ops set off the latest hew and cry that video games are ruining our young people.

And Doug’s question has stuck with me: Do you really think your kids are so dumb they don’t know that this is make-believe.”

If so, then you may find all of childhood a scary time.

  • Do you tell your 3-year-old to stop playing with toy cars because, you know, he’s too young to drive?
  • Do you tell the 7-year-old who has seen snippets of Star Wars to put away the Light Saber?

And yes, I know there’s a difference between creating an imaginary world and being dropped into someone else’s—especially those predicated on violence and treating people as objects. But what about books? Do you ever look at the things (pre)adolescents read? There’s violence in spades. One of my rules with reading has been that the act of reading overrides whatever the heck is being read. So when my older son, who’s not a reader, tears into Jay-Z’s Decoded or Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, I don’t thumb my nose—hell, I drop to my knees in thanks. If he was reading Stephen King, I’d break into a loud huzzah! (Anais Nin? I’d cheer—then check the Web history on the home computer.)

When console video games first came out, my family had an Atari and we played Pong, then Asteroids, and Space Invaders and Ms. Pac Man and Missile Command until we wore out the controllers. And then we got new ones. And somehow, we managed to maintain our grades and our friendships and everything else.

In fact, the consoles aren’t what worries me. The thing that actually does bother me is the handheld devices, in the hands of 5- to 12-year-olds, who sit distractedly in social situations and never interact with the other kids nor the adults. It’s especially vexing at family events, where the kids don’t see each other very often, and instead of talking and playing with each other, they hunker down in their seats and barely look up except to eat the occasional French Fry. On Christmas Eve, I saw a young guy around 8 or 9 playing his DS in church, as other kids put on a Christmas pageant. I wanted to chuck the thing against the wall.

And I’m drawn back to my friend Doug, and his question, which is really a challenge. As a parent, the question isn’t just, Does my child know what’s real and make-believe? It’s also: Can my child engage in social situations and understand those cues? If not, and I consistently let it occur, am I failing them?

Next post, we’ll get a more-expert opinion. And with the unveiling of the slick new iPad 2, it seems a good time to talk about some good rules for managing your kids and their increasingly ubiquitous access to the Internet.

This post was originally published at Men’s Health.

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