The question I’m asked most often as a psychologist:
Are violent video games bad for kids?
My response to this tired question: Who cares!
Researchers have spent years researching. The media has spent years spinning this issue every which way following every act of violence committed by a teen. Congress gets involved with no real effect. We are spinning our wheels worrying about a question that most likely can’t be answered because of all the other variables that influence violent behavior in teens. The games keep coming, and technology and popularity rises exponentially with no definitive answer in sight.
We parents are left to make difficult, uninformed choices. The deck is stacked against us. We either allow our kids to play and risk the possible emotional problems that may come with gaming, or not allow them to play and risk the social alienation of being one of a few who doesn’t play. I think there is a third choice here, one that allows for play, some really good discussion, and for us to put aside the tired question of whether the games cause violent behavior.
The right question to ask about violent video games
Why are violent video games so popular among boys and young men? Despite intensive discussions about violent content, this one simple question seems to have been overlooked.
The answer to this question is: rather than being affected negatively by violent games, children might actually be playing violent video games to prepare themselves for experiencing potential violent threats in the real world. They play to get over their fears surrounding violence.
Theories trying to link video games and violence suggest that extensive game play may be desensitizing young gamers to violence, making them more likely to use violence to solve problems and get what they want, just as they do in the games. I agree that kids are becoming desensitized to violence while gaming, but not in a negative way. They are actually using the games to get over their fears of the very real violence that is part of our everyday lives on news, TV, and the internet.
Cops n’ robbers, war, and wrestling are all aggressive games that mostly boys play when there are no video games around. It is generally accepted that these “play” activities can help kids prepare for challenges in the real world. Isn’t it possible to view video games in the same light?
Play is preparation
Play-acting dangerous and difficult situations involving violence may help our children deal with death, defeat, and loss, traumatic experiences they are sure to encounter at some point in their lives. What I’m suggesting is that playing violent video games doesn’t teach children how to use a gun, shoot and kill people, but rather allows them to acknowledge and deal with the frightening fact that there are people out there who use guns to shoot and kill people.
Looking at video game violence through this lens, parents may be able to view violent video game play as an attempt by their kids to cope with what’s really going on beneath the surface, mainly fear and anxiety. Our kids have access to more information about the world than any generation before them, and much of this information is scary. Wars, famine, genocide, and tsunamis are just a few of the terrible things that happen in the world around us. As parents this information is scary and difficult to cope with, so how do our kids process it?
Coping with fear
The short answer to the question How do our kids process the idea of a Tsunami? is…not well. For many reasons girls seem to be better equipped to process fear and anxiety. They have more acceptable social outlets and use touch and talk to communicate more openly about negative feelings. Culturally, boys don’t have it so easy.
Boys are generally expected to “suck it up” and “deal.” Talking about feelings, particularly negative ones, is typically not in a 10 to 15 year old boy’s repertoire. It isn’t a coincidence that boys from this age group are among the main users of violent video games. Since there are few acceptable outlets for expressing fear and vulnerability, video games may allow young boys to practice or play out how they will respond if confronted with the chaotic situations they see on TV, in movies, and over the internet. With the push of a button video games offer a chance to feel potent and strong when faced with real world violent situations that leave us all feeling powerless.
Accepting that violent video games may in fact be an outlet and practice ground for uncomfortable insecurities and fear, parents can use game violence as a platform for a discussion of these sensitive issues in a way that will neither challenge their child’s burgeoning adulthood nor their need for independence.
The games are not enough. Discussion is key.
I am by no means advocating an escalation in the use of violent video games as a means for boys to get over their fears. Playing violent video games will not help kids feel any more secure, as most may be unaware of their underlying fears and reasons for playing. However, should parents choose to allow their kids to play rated-M games, the violent content provides an opportunity for open discussion about important issues that seldom get discussed.
Simply asking a 12-year-old boy whether or not he is scared of something is like asking a 4-year-old if he just hit his baby brother. You will rarely get an honest answer! The violent content provides an amazing in for parents to bring some of the unspoken fears to the surface. With some practice boys can grow more comfortable talking and reflecting on their feelings rather than acting out or avoiding them.
Here’s a sample dialogue of how a discussion might go:
Violent video games aren’t going away any time soon and the technology advances daily. As a parent, a psychologist, a video game lover, and someone who wrote his dissertation on the effects of gaming on kids, I’m convinced that we’re looking at this issue the wrong way. By resisting and fearing violent video games, we are missing a real opportunity for dialogue about the things that we as parents fear and perhaps what our kids fear as well.