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Why I let my kid play violent video games

The very first fight I had with my husband came long before I was even showing in my pregnancy. It was an extremely loud disagreement about whether or not our child would ever play video games. I was staunchly against the idea, while my husband, who was at the time learning to make them, was obviously for it. It was a stupid fight about the possibility of our kid doing something far in the future, and like all stupid fights it eventually ended in a begrudging compromise: she could play games, but not the violent ones.

My staunch opposition is embarrassing now, but in my defense I was raised to believe that video games were at best an inferior form of entertainment for people with no imagination. At worst they made Jesus cry.

Which is why it might surprise you that not even a year ago I found myself talking to my daughter in a bathroom at the studio where my husband works uttering the totally reasonable phrase, “Do you want to talk about the part where the bad guy was sliced in half by a chainsaw, honey?”

Obviously a lot changed between that early pregnancy fight and the late-evening bathroom discussion. It’s a long story. Actually it’s not: I mostly just got over myself.

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When my husband’s studio hosted a showing of the latest promotional video for the game he was working on, she begged to be allowed to watch it, too. We reluctantly agreed, but not before many fraught discussions (between the two of us) and a few hundred endlessly fascinating lectures about the value of not telling other little blabbermouth kids what we were about to let her do (between the three of us). We told ourselves she was mature and had context for the scary stuff and would probably not freak out.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d overshot the mark. I’d at least always planned to stick to my “no violent stuff” rule, and yet there I was listening to my daughter tell me that she was fine, reciting her dad’s lecture about the difference between fantasy violence and real violence and how killing a fake demon is different than killing a real person back to me word for word. She survived the experience unscathed and nightmare-free.

I obsessed about it anyway, of course.

Fortunately, one of the more awesome things about doing what I do is having access to experts who can help me gauge just how terrible a decision I’ve made and what kind of bad parent I am on a scale of “incompetent” to “despicable.”

Dr. Jared Miracle is a social anthropologist who specializes in video games and education. He has a doctorate, he’s won tons of awards, and he has a book coming out soon called Now With Kung Fu Grip! : How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. He’s even given lectures on Pokémon and made the case for video games as teaching tools. In short, he knows what he’s talking about. He was also nice enough to take the time walk me through my residual neuroses. What he had to say on the topic should help even the pearl-clutchingest helicopter mom ease up a little.

The first thing that I wanted to know was just how huge of a psychopath my kid was going to grow up to be based on what she saw on a scale of one to 10. Not that huge, according to Dr. Miracle. “Given what you’ve told me and with no other knowledge about your lifestyle, I’d put her around a two. Kids are resilient.”

Good news for me, obviously, but what he told me next is good news for all parents, particularly given the modern parenting landscape that frets over the hidden insidiousness of sticker charts.

“The message to parents for a long time was ‘everything you do will ruin your child.’ That’s mostly bunk. The reality is that young people of past generations often saw and experienced graphic events — both violent and sexual — without being especially harmed at all.” That is a damn good point, but I can already hear people chanting “know better, do better,” which is a great sentiment for things like lead paint and car seats, but is universally applied to any parenting notion someone else disagrees with.

In fact, our childhood experiences can and should be taken into consideration when we wish to gauge how kids will handle something, says Dr. Miracle. He even shared one of his own that went straight to the topic at hand. “Seeing a computer rendering of violence may be disturbing or grotesque to your kid in the short term, but she probably won’t even remember this in 20 years,” he assured me. “Personally, I had nightmares for a week after playing Resident Evil 2 as a kid. I haven’t even thought about that game in years.”

See? And mine didn’t even have nightmares. So I guess I can stop flagellating myself now. But what about the broader topic of violent video games and all of the moral panic that surrounds them? Are they ever OK? If they are, when? Also, what about sexy bits in video games? Won’t anyone think of the children?

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The children, Dr. Miracle says, are just fine. As for when your kids can handle blood geysers and jiggly bits? Well, it’s probably sooner than you think. Games, he says, are actually a really healthy way for kids to act out the aggressive instincts that everyone naturally has: “I tend to point out Pokémon, in particular, as a healthy way to let kids explore violent topics without going overboard.”

Not a whole lot of gore or nipples in Pokémon, though, right? To that end, Dr. Miracle explained that content should be looked at on a case-by-case basis: “Extremely graphic or gore-heavy games may not be particularly suitable for anyone, although that is, of course, up to the parents.”

OK, so kids can handle more than we give them credit for. So what about all that breathless worry over our once-sweet cherubs turning into aggressive monsters thanks to first-person shooters? It’s time to let that myth die, says Dr. Miracle.

“You won’t be a better shooter after using a joystick for several hours any more than Gran Turismo bred a generation of superior drivers… and I’ve yet to hear about an instance in which flocks of children suffer brain damage by trying to break bricks by jumping at them, so we can be fairly certain that Mario is also a harmless pastime.”

In fact, he says, a little violent play — think cops and robbers or monster hunters — can be more beneficial than none at all. And that goes for both boys and girls, by the way. “Preventing your child from exploring the darker side of humanity is a good way to set her up for culture shock later on,” he told me. Of course there’s a caveat, though. According to Dr. Miracle, “If [your] child is acting out what she sees in the game by harming herself or others, then it would be appropriate to take the stimulus away. I have to stress, though, that this is a rare situation.”

So far, my kid hasn’t pretend-chainsawed anyone in half, so I’ll place that squarely in the win column.

There was a lot of fretting awhile back about video games “desensitizing” kids to violence thanks in part to the Columbine shootings, where a popular game was referenced by one of the gunmen. I asked Dr. Miracle to weigh in on that, too. While he said that “desensitization” was largely a buzzword for a hot topic, he also said that “constant immersion” is one way to increase the odds that your kid won’t consume video games in a way that is healthy.

But honestly, doesn’t that go for just about anything? You could say the same thing about too many inane Disney tween sitcoms or inordinate amounts of ice cream. Everything in moderation, no?

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In fact, when I asked him if there was anyway that I could spin my kid’s early(ish) exposure to the violence she saw into a positive, he pointed out that spin isn’t really necessary. As it turns out, there are some very good reasons to acknowledge the fact that more mature content exists as opposed to never talking about it and just hoping your kid is happy playing Animal Crossing for the rest of their lives.

“When you can talk about something, it takes away a lot of its power,” he explained — pointing out that the same concept applies to everything from sex to scary stories, and adding that taking some of the mystery out of heavy topics “works pretty well for both social problems in general and fear of monsters under the bed in particular. Ever seen Dora the Explorer? There’s a very good reason why she always says “Swiper no swipin’!”

At the end of the day, it comes back to that balance. Take sexual content in games, for instance: Another fun issue to tackle as kids get older. Dr. Miracle’s advice is to find that middle ground between blinkering your kids and giving them unfettered access. He pointed out that knowing the facts of life up front is hardly innocence corrupted, and can instead “produce much healthier attitudes among young people when they know that such things exist. Should you let your kids have access to graphic porn? No. Overemphasis on that kind of fantasy is also unhealthy. But that doesn’t mean you should take the Santa Claus approach and try to promote a false understanding of the world.”

Kids deserve a lot more credit than we give them, too. When I asked him if it’s a good idea to constantly monitor an older child or teenager’s every minute of video game consumption, he pointed out the value in doing the opposite, and what he said applies to a whole lot more than just video games:

“Those who are shielded from the real world their entire lives or molded into the exact image of their parents are in pretty big trouble when they leave the nest. Much better to let them make mistakes. Sheltering your kids is one of the worst sins a parent can commit. Of course you want to protect them, but you can do that much more effectively by training them to be strong and independent, not by treating them as fragile or incompetent.”

Hear, hear.

As for my kid, it turns out that all of the angst around it wasn’t even necessary: Her interest in this particular video game is less about the game itself and more about her dad. Other kids get to see what their parents do, and other kids get to actually see their parents, something she foregoes almost entirely when overtime rolls around. It’s reasonable for her to want to see firsthand why she’s making that sacrifice.

Besides, playing games is something she has in common with him that she just doesn’t have with me, and I’m not interested in getting in the way of that. Some parents connect with their kids by taking them hunting. Some share their love of contact sports. And others just want to bond by ridding the known universe of the Demon Scourge. Poe-tay-toh, poe-tah-toh.

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