Effective Parenting Means Careful Choices of Video and Computer Games
By Kristin Farmer, M.Ed., ACES Founder and Aimee Pack, MA, BCBA, ACES Director.
When the video game Mortal Kombat hit American arcades in the early 1990s, a fierce debate ignited. Horrified parents decried the game’s unprecedented depictions of human decapitation and incineration, and gamers launched back defensive applause for the game’s artistic ingenuity and the freedom of speech that made its creation possible. The battle has continued to rage on for over two decades with no clear winner, at least in print and in the media.
Compared to popular recent games like last year’s God of War: Ascension and The Rest of Us, the original Mortal Kombat’s two-dimensional pixelated blood looks comically tame. Currently, the first generation of gamers are becoming parents, and many of these parents are underestimating the impact of violent images on children’s brains. Exponential growth of technology has allowed many of today’s game developers to create worlds that are far more vivid than the original Super Mario Brothers style games. While adults have watched video games evolve and understand the difference between fantasy violence and real violence, today’s children seeing these images for the first time may have a different view and method of processing the very realistic images. They may not be able to separate the worlds of fantasy and reality as easily as their parents did, especially younger children and infants.
Child psychiatrist Laura Davies argues that playing a video game is a vastly different experience from watching a film or from reading a book, especially for children. Video games give players options and frequently reward players for violent actions. Citing the game Grand Theft Auto as an example, Davies explains, “You kill a prostitute and get points, so you’re rewarded.” Even seemingly innocent games like Angry Birds reward players for annihilating gentle birds sitting on a fence.
Using a more recent and much more graphic entry in the Mortal Kombat series, a study from Iowa State University examined the immediate effects of playing violent video games on aggressive behavior. The subjects were split into two groups. One group played Mortal Kombat, and the other group played a nonviolent puzzle game. After 15 minutes of playing, participants were tasked with administering hot sauce to another group of students. The Mortal Kombat players, in addition to displaying higher physiological arousal, consistently made their peers drink more hot sauce. Considering that these particular subjects were all highly educated and privileged college students, one can only imagine how this effect could manifest itself in a young six-year-old who is just beginning to understand the world around her.
Violent video games, along with music and films with violent themes, have long been a scapegoat for acts of extreme violence. Dr. Craig Anderson, one of the authors of the Iowa State study, has stated that there is no single factor that drives people to violent acts, but rather a collection of social influences and biological predispositions. “If you look at the literature, I think it’s clear that violent media is one factor,” he says. “It’s not the largest factor, but it’s also not the smallest.”
All children are at some point exposed to violent images in media, and parents have an obligation to talk to their children about the difference between fantasy and reality. Parents need to regularly underline that what can be seen on television sets, on mobile devices and on video game screens are not necessarily real images, unless we are watching the news or a documentary. By doing some simple research and regularly talking to children about the games they play, parents can best protect children from the inevitable effects of exposure to violence with no proper context.
Fortunately there is some good news and possible solutions if we, as a society, choose to encourage these solutions and support them with our regular purchases and social networking. Some ethical employees of large companies that profit from blood-spewing video games that draw people in through addicting adrenaline rushes wake up one day and then decide to leave, in order to do the right thing. An example of a start-up video company that does everything in its power to avoid violence and yet keep gamers interested is JudoBaby Inc, founded by Dan Mueller, a brilliant game designer and accomplished drummer who spent some time with an international gaming conglomerate and then decided it was time to cut ties and be more ethical. Judobaby focuses on intellectual and emotional development in a non-obvious way, so kids will participate. One example is their game Jerry Rice & Nitus’ Dog Football, which features pets, sports, celebrities, and encourages positive socilaization among all generations. This California based c-corp has created Pet Sports League designed to bring together the love of pets and the excitement of sports and family celebrities. This way, kids can stay engaged without flooding their brains with violent imagery. An additional solution developed by The Representation Project is that anyone can use #NotBuyingIt or download the app to bring powerful social media attention to any video games that are offensive or underrepresent girls and women.
In an age when it is confirmed that convicted mass murderers do play violent video games in their spare time, the emergence of companies like JudoBaby is a breath of fresh air and welcomed not only by parents and children alike, but by our larger world community as a solution to one of today’s social ills — violent games that are promoted and supported by much of the public and profit-oriented corporations at the expense of impressionable young children who are doing their best to process their surroundings. It is more important than ever before to stand up, together, and say no to obnoxious games whose premises are dominance and graphic violence, not to mention rampant sexism. It is time to say yes to healthy skills development, to compassion, and to the development of a world order that is built on fairness and giving children a chance to thrive from the very beginning in supportive healthy surroundings.
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