Shooting Down the Shoot-'em-ups
Take away boys' plastic guns, and you'll soon see them firing at
each other with sticks. How do we steer those inclinations towards productive expressions?
Conventional parenting expert wisdom says, over and over again, that we should disallow our boys from playing ridiculously violent video games. I have to say, however, that I've found myself questioning the conventional wisdom over and over again as my son heads towards teenager-dom. He's 12 next month. Up to this point my wife Jenny and I have been very wary of violent, first person shoot-em-up games. But whether it's Call of Duty or Goldeneye, he keeps asking. He just keeps asking. Sometimes begging.
Up to this point, here's what we've said: you cannot own any shoot-em-up game that involves killing other humans. Not even Call-of-Duty 1, 2, or 3. Yes, Nazis barely qualify as human, but still. Now, Halo is all about offing aliens, so have at it. And I think, as I write this at home, that I hear him down in the basement doing just that. Split ET's head open, son, go for it.
Now, does this wariness about human-killing games come from a place that believes playing such games will turn our son violent? No, not really. All the studies are mixed at best, and common sense says the number of kids playing these games who do NOT turn into Columbine murderers is, obviously, quite staggering. At the same time, are we absolutely certain that killing human-shaped aliens instead of human-shaped humans is inherently more humane? No, not really.
Here's my best analytical, professional thinking: I recognize that there indeed seems to be some destroy/protect gene inherent in boys. I mean, take away their plastic guns, and you'll soon see them firing at each other with sticks that look like .44 Magnums. Most boys simply like to do battle, and they love clear good guy/bad guy scenarios. I think this explains the intrinsic appeal of Star Wars, even Episodes I-III.
I do not want to stifle those inclinations, but I do want to steer them. I want to guide them toward productive expression. This is what I believe about a number of childhood experiences/fascinations: emotions, touching their own genitalia, cooking, playing with fire, etc. Simply put, I do not want to shame any naturally-occurring fascination; I want to find a way to steer that fascination toward the most productive expression. Take fire, for instance. In the right contexts, it literally powers our world. It cooks our food, warms our homes, fuels our industries, etc. It makes life possible. Outside the right contexts, however, left unguided, it is incredibly destructive.
Does this make fire bad? Of course not. It makes the very question moot. The right question is: What am I doing to teach my children about the proper handling of fire, whether at the campsite or the outside BBQ.
I believe I feel the same way about boys' fascination with battle, combat, victory over enemies, etc. In the right contexts, such competition is not only appropriate, it's downright necessary. At extreme levels, it has rid the world of fascism, imperialism, slavery, etc. At more accepted levels, it makes for efficient economic growth, continued self-improvement, and court-enforced justice.
Here's my point: it is our job to appropriate this fascination for our boys, steering it toward the most helpful and healthy expression. This not only means discerning the proper contexts for this expression, but the appropriate expressions within that context. Take choosing to involve our sons in competitive sports, for instance. This has long been seen as an appropriate venue for experimenting with competition, battle, victory, etc. But what is fascinating is how we can easily turn that appropriate venue into a license for very inappropriate expression. Hockey dads fighting one another on the ice, cheerleader moms hiring hit men, Sensei Kreese telling Johnny Lawrence to "sweep the leg."
These are extreme examples, but bad behavior in the name of competition is rampant throughout youth sports. Whether it's 100-0 basketball scores or never-ending taunting, we've all seen it, whether in the media or from the stands. Does this make competition inherently bad? Of course not.
I think this is a good framework to look at video games. Are first-person digital experiences inherently bad? Of course not. Is make-believe bad? Of course not. Is the desire to conquer evil and earn a hard-sought victory inherently bad? Of course not. I would argue that at varying levels, all these things are inherently good. Just like fire.
But discernment within those contexts is where leadership comes in. Simply put, guidance means drawing lines somewhere. What's the famous G.K. Chesterton quote? "Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere." We as parents, are called to lead our children into a productive adulthood. Period. That is our job: preparing them for the adult world. This means drawing lines somewhere.
With that stated, saying absolute yeses or nos is simply inappropriate. Yes you can compete in sports doesn't mean you can use any means to win during those competitions. Yes you can play video games doesn't mean you can play any video games. Yes you can play shoot-em-up video games doesn't mean you can play any shoot-em-up games.
Thus, Jenny's and my delineation of the human/alien differentiation. Is it a scientific delineation? No. Is it totally arbitrary? No. Does it work, for now, helping us to feel good about our leadership toward what we believe is a productive adulthood? Yes. For now.