I grew up with the Atari 2600 video game system. It was the cultural phenomenon of 1978, right along with Star Wars (I was a nut for both). To go from the old Pong game system to Space Invaders, Pac Man, Pitfall, and Asteroids seemed like a giant leap for all mankind. I had such fun playing those games, saving up my money to buy another cartridge, and swapping stories and games with my friends. Perhaps I wasted some hours of life along the way, especially in the long days of summer, but all in all, it was good clean fun.
Flash forward 33 summers later. My son just turned 12, and like all boys, loves to play video games on his X-Box. As a matter of fact, right now he is playing a video hockey game with a friend. They just finished playing soccer and wiffle ball outside, so it’s a great way to cool down indoors on this steamy July afternoon.
This is what I love about video games. It can be a very social activity for boys and girls to play in between more active, creative activities. Sometimes, my son and I will play a game when we are wiped out from the other activities of the day, and we just want to chill out and have some fun. We tease each other and laugh a lot, as we play a game that keeps us acting and reacting to each others’ onscreen moves. Mostly, he wins, which makes him feel great, but most importantly, we enjoy the free-spirited competition — the laughs, the taunts, the punches — much more than the game itself.
As with every good thing, there can be too much of it. Here’s one of many articles about the negative effects of too much gaming. Certainly, moderation is paramount with video games. Moderate amounts of time, money, and love for video games must be maintained for the good of the child(ren). By specifically limiting the amount of time and money spent on video games, they can be a fun part of a healthy family.
Over the past five years, we have had dozens of family discussions about whether to buy the next game system or handheld device, and each time it involves our values and moral beliefs related to money, time, personal relationships, creativity, etc. Those have been some very productive teaching moments (as well as some heated debates which melted down). What rich discussions we have had about the nature of play, what makes a game worthwhile, and why boundaries are so important. We discuss these things with our son to include him in the thought process, not just to make him feel important or to merely appease him. And he usually ends up “getting it,” even if he does not get his way.
The other aspect of moderation / limitation is the content of the games. While there are many wonderful games today which expand the participants’ imagination and problem-solving skills, there are some major concerns with many of today’s video games. Going to the video game store feels a lot like roaming the aisles of the video store – with so many wild images of violence, sexuality, and mayhem on the posters and covers.
– Graphic violence. We are no longer just defeating or dissolving an opponent, but too often now we are graphically and brutally mangling him to death. The ratings system is helpful, but careful research should be done on all adventure games.
– Drug use, prostitution, and general social mayhem (driving over pedestrians, beating up bystanders, vandalism, etc). Again, check the labels and research online carefully.
– Profanity. Why there isn’t a “disable profanity” option on all games, I’ll never understand. Anyway, check for it. Often, it just runs quietly in the background.
– Sexuality. Many games are designed to sell to teenage boys, so there are characters and situations specifically crafted to titillate that target market, and it’s not always on right on the cover of the game. Once again, check the online reviews.
Age-appropriateness is a very subjective and challenging thing to determine, but we should attempt to make every media choice based on what’s acceptable and good for kids at each level of development. That’s easier said than done, but it can be done with some help.
My favorite place to research media content in general and video game content in particular is Common Sense Media. Bookmark it. For a Christian perspective on media choices, if you are so inclined, check out Plugged In.
A particularly tricky situation is when there are older teenagers and young adults in the same house as young children and preteens. Once again, family discussions need to be open, honest, and clear about what the little kids are not allowed to watch and do. The big kids need to be held responsible and accountable for protecting the little ones from images which they cannot process properly. In other words, an 18 year old might be allowed to kill zombies on his PlayStation 3, but he had better not let his 7 year old sister watch!
In conclusion, I believe there is a place for video games in the home of the child growing up well. However — and there is always a however in life — there must be moderation and limitation that is carefully considered. Proceed with caution, and have some fun. Join in with the kids for some real laughter. Just don’t expect to win.
* Please leave a comment about what you do about video games in your home.