I have a problem with violent computer games

Why did the kids put beans in their ears?
No one can hear with beans in their ears.
After a while the reason appears.
They did it cause we said no.

(from The Fantasticks)

Like most folks over the age of 50, I have a problem with violent computer games, such as “Grand Theft Auto.” I’ve never played any of them, but, like many young folks, my 13 year old grandson does.

gtaOn one occasion, I look over his shoulder as his avatar – a strong, white, adult male, – climbs into his Super Sport Bugatti and sets off on a heist. The bank robbery hits a snag and he and his partner have to shoot their way out, killing the security guard. He makes it back to his virtual apartment with the designated “payout” stashed in his virtual account. He will use those earnings to buy more cars. Or maybe a helicopter or a yacht, depending on how wealthy he becomes. The graphics in this virtual world are realistic and compelling, a quantum leap in design and process from the “Space Invaders” arcade game of my generation.

“Hmpf.” I say to him. “I don’t like these killing games.”

“Grammy,” he says, with a patience that belies his age. “It’s like playing a part in a movie script. It’s fantasy. I know the difference.”

I know, and his parents know, that if he is forbidden to play, he might find a way to do it anyway, and the stress it would put on family relationships would not be worth it. The answer to this dilemma is not for the adults to say “No,” but rather to try to understand what this gaming culture is all about and how to ensure that the young players don’t internalize a wrong message.

For my home schooled grandson, well versed in morality and ethics, his gaming goal is not to kill anyone but to complete the assignment (although characters can get killed along the way). Granted, there are other gamers who get delight in escalating the violence just to see what they can get away with. That’s what I have a problem with out of a concern that they will become inured to the horrors of violence and start confusing fantasy with reality. Hundreds of contradicting studies have been done – and continue to be done – that both affirm and deny the ill effects of playing violent computer games.

The culture of my family is to try to understand where the other person is coming from before any decision is made, so my grandson has explained to his parents his approach to gaming and they have shared their concerns. It reminds me of when my 10 year old son became obsessed with comics during the time in the 1980s when many of the publications began to use illustrations with hyper-sexualized female superhero bodies. I remember having a long talk with him, expressing my feminist disapproval of such depictions of women and reminding him that it’s all fantasy.

I have embarked on a long learning curve that involves my grandson explaining how the game works, which is a complex process, on the part of the gamers, that involves planning, coordinating, and cooperating in setting up each heist. While the game program itself establishes parameters, the gamers make specific choices and have to deal with the consequences.

There are other modules that are available for GTA, my grandson tells me. His favorites are the ones in which his character is a fireman or policeman or emergency medical technician. While the scenarios for those modules can include violence, it is always because the protagonist is trying to rescue someone.

What I am learning gives me a more informed appreciation and understanding of why my otherwise non-violent teenage grandson likes to play “Grant Theft Auto.” And the conversations continue.

I see that what he is taking away from playing these games is so much more than I would have ever considered. For example, he has to budget and manage his virtual money so that he can afford to buy the new luxury items that he wants. In the process of researching cars, he has developed a knowledge of automobiles – both ordinary and classic – that is encyclopedic. He experiments with designing the appearance of his cars, playing with colors and shapes. He has forged online friendships with other players his age from around the world as they work together to develop strategies for their heists. He is honing his reading skills as he keeps up to date on understanding the evolving rules and improvements in the game.

Because he was not told “No” and instead was invited to share his gaming experiences with the family, the problem other families might have with the issue of violent computer games is not a problem for us — although I still really don’t like them. It’s probably a generational thing, as it often is with music, fashion, language, and etiquette. But I learn to appreciate it all. Like Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.”

10 thoughts on “I have a problem with violent computer games

  1. My problem is not so much with the violence that computer games seem to feature (I think most kids know it’s just pretend just as we knew that playing cowboys and Indians was just play and that shooting pretend Indians did not lead me to wanton violence against Native Americans).
    My problem is with the proliferants of video games in general.
    I bought a Kindle mainly to download books, but I use it for other stuff too. While there are some worthwhile and productive apps available, the vast majority of the new apps are games, and violent ones at that.
    I know it’s old fashioned, but I wish kids would become more inventive when it comes to the games they play and not depend so much on what’s new on X-Box.

    • Actually, there are more and more games coming out that have other bases. My grandson also does a “farming” game with one other kid, where they clear land of trees and put in crops that they then harvest and sell and use the “money” to buy new equipment. These games are played on the computer, not the X-Box. I guess it’s up to parents to buy those games for their kids and encourage them to play those instead of the violent ones. Of course, it still winds up that kids spend too much time indoors playing those games. I’m I’m not raising kids these days.

  2. I have always, on general principles been opposed to violent games, I understand your process and agree with your families method of bringing their opposition into a learning experience. My concern has always been a gradual desensitizing to violence as a method for problem solving. The games of our generation seemed to have a more clearly defined good guy/bad guy framework and our goal was to get rid of the bad guys. cops and robbers, cowboys and indians (we were misled on that one) . We also naturally evolved out of these games at a certain age, moved on to kissing games!, while these video games continue on into adulthood which I find somewhat disturbing. Also, they have replaced the actual, physical interaction of games played together, outside, thus begging the question, has more technology brought us closer together or not. As usual, I have no answers, just questions. Your blog, as usual was so well written, You should start a writing circle.

    • Yup. I agree with all of that. But our culture is what it is, and we have to figure out how to balance it all out. The games we played as kids are very different from these reality-simulation computer games. I know that adults play those games as a way to get rid of stress. Those games are not going to go away, and I guess the best we can do is to continue having conversations about them to put them in perspective.

  3. Hi Elaine, I am reminded of Bob Krull’s first class in Communications at RPI, when he surveyed the class to find out all the reasons we chose to sign up for the program. This was the metaphor for TV and violence – and does watching violence on TV promote violence? (This was long before the age of computer games, of course!) Research, it turns out, shows that there are many factors involved in making a decision, and that TV (and probably computer games) doesn’t cause any bad behavior. It’s a whole lot of the other stuff that does. I forget this sometimes, because I can’t even watch a scary movie. And then I remember. For what it’s worth!

    • Yes, lots of factors affect how an individual responds to images of violence. I imagine that most of it is connected to our specific personalities. But I still can’t help feel that the violence we see (and play out) in various media can desensitize the mind to just how horribly painful and immoral it really is. Our culture is what it is, however, and the best we can do is make kids aware of the issues. It’s all about communication, isn’t it?

  4. I like the approach your grandson’s parents used in handling the gaming issue. They were wise to look at all sides, and include their child in the discussions. Just saying ‘no’ doesn’t work for anyone, adults and children alike.

  5. I really enjoyed this post Elaine. So well written and balanced to respect both sides of the argument. That’s a difficult thing to do, when it’s hard for our generation to understand why such a video game as GTA is popular with so many young men. But I admire your effort to get in there and understand the mechanics and appreciate what your grandson has learned from the gaming process. As with others who have commented here, my main concern is the potential for desensitization of violence and disrespect for others, especially women…in our everyday lives. All we have to do is watch US politics today to see how personal attacks and disregard for human decency have become the norm in running for the highest job title in the land. Sigh….

    • There is so much inhumanity in the real world today that these video games almost pale by comparison. And, just as with the real world, parents need to be eternally vigilant to make sure that kids are getting the right message. We can’t seclude them from the culture in which they are growing up. The best we can do is keep communication lines open and keep the discussions going. At least there’s finally a growing vocal female constituency in the world of pop-culture (including gamers, cosplayers, and comic writers) who are demanding that women in those arenas be treated with respect equal to men. (For more info, google “Gamergate.”

  6. I agree with the idea that so much exposure to violence in so many areas of our life does desensitize all individuals, but children are especially sensitive. There are so many factors that come into play as to how any one child or individual will be impacted. Perhaps, as with so many matters, shepherding a balance limiting exposure to violence is important. I’ve seen a generational difference and focus on violence in play — more today — in my family. A respected and/or loved elder expressing a dislike for killing might well register in a young mind if not at the time, perhaps later.

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