While many parents are locked in a life-or-death struggle trying to decide whether to get their kids a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One for Christmas, let's not forget the more important question that goes along with it: Should they be buying any violent video games for junior over the holidays?
Being childless for as long as I was (up until 2 1/2 years ago) I sort of glossed over this discussion. Being an adult, it didn't really seem to matter if I was playing the latest FPS, because I considered playing games more of a stress-reliever than a supposedly innocuous pastime.
Then a friend of mine posed the question: Do you think Call of Duty or Medal of Honor is appropriate for a 15-year-old boy?
Smarter minds than mine have tackled this subject, but for the first time it gave me pause, because, like most of my peers, the mental picture of video games is still rooted in the machines of yesteryear. Say "video games" to me, and I still picture Pitfall! or Super Mario Bros. or some other prior generation of titles and their respective hardware. I don't picture the current reality: graphic, lifelike violence, explicit language, mature themes, a vast multiplayer experience and an unflinching drive by the industry to continue to sell the medium to children.
The fact is, the next-gen consoles and games only build on those factors. For many parents, many of whom haven't played since their own childhoods, modern offerings are likely beyond their wildest imaginings. Imagine a Link from The Legend of Zelda that swore like a sailor, or a Sonic the Hedgehog who gunned down innocent bystanders in an airport. These aren't the good old days of the NES or Atari 2600 we're dealing with here.
The notion that violent video games are a detriment to children's mental development or affect kids' behavior continues to be a focus of debate. Results between one study to another can show wildly different conclusions, often based on sample size, personality makeup or any other factor or combination of factors.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has reported that the "more realistic and repeated the exposure to violence, the greater the impact on children" and that kids may "become overly involved and even obsessed with video games." It would stand to reason, then, that playing violent games makes children violent, right? Especially if they already have emotional issues and are prone to violence or other problems.
But Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Stetson University, recently completed a study of children with attention deficit or depressive symptoms and found that in reality, games tend to be somewhat beneficial as a stress reliever in kids who are already troubled.
"Statistically speaking it would actually be more unusual if a youth delinquent or shooter did not play violent video games," Ferguson said, according to the U.K.'s Metro, "given that the majority of youth and young men play such games at least occasionally."
So with that in mind, I can easily concur with what the AACAP uses as guidelines for dealing with a child that wants to play video games — among them checking the ESRB ratings, being a good role model and discussing what's appropriate and inappropriate with your child. As I told my pal, his son may not be troubled as it is, but at 15 there's a good chance the boy will find a way to play anyway, so it's best to engage him about it.
I also told him to talk to his son about the titles he wanted to play, and limit his playing time. Be aware of his son's online interactions in the age of cyberbullying. Preview titles he wants to play by renting them at Redbox or through a subscription service. Make sure he doesn't become consumed by games, like many parents allow their children to become. Be sure the boy understands that playing violent games are a real issue, with real consequences to his emotional and physical health.
And since games keep popping up in conversations after mass shootings, make it clear there are far too many gamers out there who take games much too seriously, or not seriously enough. As a parent, helping a child find the balance between those two distinctions is not the time to play around.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.