Parenting in the Age of First Person Shooter Video Games

The hottest rage in my thirteen year old’s class last year was a first person shooter internet video game called Soldier Front. T’ween boys love these type of internet games because they can play with friends on-line; no need for playdates, the kids all meet in the virtual world and don guns together.

The goal of this game is to gun down soldiers in what easily passes for an abandoned building in Iraq. Points are given for missions accomplished and head shots (not photos of aspiring actors – bullets to the head which then explodes).
I hated this game and wanted it out of my house. With the newest software, I could block this site. But I don’t have the newest software on all my computers, I am not exactly sure how to use the parental controls properly, my eight year old could probably find his way around any filter, and – most significantly — there are many, many more games ready to fill in if this particular game is blocked. Soldier Front and others like it are not rated, so evaluating them without playing each and every one of them is impossible.
I weighed my options. I could get rid of the internet in the house (which would make it hard for me to work); I could create a filter that blocks out any content dealing with guns (including an important recent Supreme Court decision on the 2nd Amendment); I could move us to a remote part of Alaska and live off the land. None were good options. Attacking the media platform – in this case the computer and internet — rather than the content itself seemed misguided.
In 1964 Marshall McLuhan concluded that the content of electronic media, its “message,” is simply beside the point—that in electronic media, unlike print media, “the medium is the message.” In a recent volume of The Future of Children that I edited with Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Children and Electronic Media, we came to a rather different conclusion. Content, it turns out, is critical to how media influence children. That is, the message is the message. Rather than focusing on the type of technology children use or even how much time children spend with media, parents, educators, and policymakers need to focus on what is being offered to children on the various media platforms.
This turns out to be difficult. At the government level, First Amendment considerations and the increasing reality that many media forms are exempt from government oversight makes broad regulation of content close to impossible. At the community and school level, educators struggle to use media in positive ways while ensuring that technology is not used to cheat or bully. At the family level, it is often easier for parents to tell their children, “one hour of media, that’s it,” than to wade through the content of the myriad media offerings, rely on inconsistent and hard-to-understand rating systems, and compete with an industry that often cares more about commercial success than children’s quality of life. Moreover, with the increasing portability of technology, the reality is that kids are often using electronic media where no adult is present, let alone their parents.
The answer is not more gadgets – filters, V-Chips, parental controls. Rather, industry needs to step up to the plate and do a better job in offering positive media content. In our recent policy brief we examined ways that non-profits and government are using media to positively influence adolescent well-being. These are not the public service announcements of the 1970’s and 80’s (“this is your brain on drugs”) that preached and missed the point. Rather, these are exciting, interactive, “Web 2.0” media campaigns that invite youth to create the content and own the message. Certainly for-profit industry can follow suit. While I am fairly confident that the government cannot ban first-person shooter games, I am sure that industry can decide it is not worth their time to post such games. Advertisers can push this by paying for ads on positive websites. Finally, parents, government and advocates can band together to put pressure on industry to clean up its act.
As for Soldier Front, I resorted to old fashioned parenting and simply banned the game with serious consequences if that rule was broken. It worked this time — no batteries (or broadband) required – but it may not the next when my son is older and I am not standing over his shoulder watching everything he does. Here’s hoping industry has listened by then.

16 thoughts on “Parenting in the Age of First Person Shooter Video Games

  1. mrmattbubbly

    @ Brandon Lee — I completely agree. People should blame crappy parenting on their children turning out wrong, not video games. It’s like blaming McDonald’s for making your kid fat, even though YOU’RE the one that brings them there every single day to eat. Wake up people, some things in life (like raising a responsible, well-educated child) are your responsibility.

  2. Brandon Lee

    All it comes down to is that they are games! They are a form of entertainment and that is all. One should never bring politics into the gaming world because there are several people that will take it to extremes as with anything. They are just video games, made to enjoy and entertain… anyone that reads it beyond that are just plain idiots! Pure and simple!

  3. computer wargames

    Aoleon has a good point, parents need to step up and actually control their children.

    its all very well having technology exist to try and stop kids seeing certain stuff, but if a parent is buying their kid Grand Theft Auto, then that parent is a bad parent, end off.

    As for internet access, for people not knowledgeably about computers it could be hard to block access to certain sites / games.

    Personally i think using a service such as open dns is the way to go, its really not hard to setup and is a very good way to block those unwanted sites!

  4. Cloth Diapers

    Like gate-way drugs, even games for younger children are being filled with direct and indirect violence. Parents have to speak up and let their kids know how they feel about violence in games. Banning them in your on home is a good start, but they will encounter them elsewhere. If they are clear on how you feel about them, they will have different feelings about playing them. Research shows that kids really do pay attention to what their parents say.

  5. aoleon

    I agree that we don’t need more digital countermeasures such as the V chip or more Government intervention. What we do need is parents to take responsibility over their own children and manage what games they play and what games they shouldn’t play. The ESRB rating system is a good method for Parents to use in choosing games for their kids. Just like movies, kids shouldn’t be allowed to go see a Rated R film if they are under 17, they shouldn’t be able to play a similar rated video game. But ultimately its up to the parents to control what content their own children consume.

  6. Maria Bereket

    As a parent of soon to be 15 year old boy I have watched with great interest his passion for on-line front line war games. I have put books on the table about war and battles, subjects he enjoyed and eventually used in his games. We have talked about guns and violence and although he understands my concerns, ones he shares as well, the games give him something that is missing –a bond with other boys “in the woods” so to speak. Why is it that my daughter has no interest in such games? She will text until her fingers fall off, but her need is face to face relationships with girls.

    Boys have a desire to meet in the “jungle” and play predator. While blowing off the heads of terrorists, they are talking about school, making jokes, and even plans to meet later. There is some strong need to bond in this way. I am not sure what it is, but he and I talk about it. And our conversations must be working because today is he out riding his bike with friends–“see Mom,” he said. “I do things outside too.”

  7. tlm

    Perhaps because I’m depressed about the state of the world, I am not optimistic about the future of children. That is because of I am not optimistic about the future of adults. When kids land in my office charged with something, I usually have to look for the problem no further than the adults accompanying them. Responsibility? None. Good example set? Hardly. Question for you bloggers: What is the example you set by what you watch and do? In another setting, I believe it was Saint Francis who said, “Go and preach the Gospel. When all else fails, use words.”

  8. EQ2 Plat

    Something that everybody seems to forget is that you just need to look back at history and you will so that it has all been done before. Look at EverQuest, it is still going strong with the same game play from the past. Does anybody think that it really matters.
    John Assam

  9. David Dooley

    My name is David Dooley. I’m an elementary school teacher in Bakersfield, CA. I learned of your work through your website.

    Here are a couple of “best” parenting behaviors relevant to this discussion.

    Don’t allow your children to patronize gutter media, that is, television, movies, and games that portray base, vulgar, or violent behavior.

    Introduce your children to media that portrays honesty, sacrifice, loyalty, perseverence, modesty, love, humility, courage, courtesy, respect, and reverence.

    I’m an advocate of community-based parenting education for young people…that is young people, kids, being taught best parenting behaviors and practices in an effort to prepare them for the responsibilities of parenthood. I believe parenting education for young people could be a tremendously powerful and proactive means for preventing child abuse, substance abuse, and other forms of violence.

    I feel strongly about teaching kids how to parent because preparation for adulthood is the reason we educate children, and parenting is by far the most important job they’ll have as adults. Additionally, trying to identify, round up, and change the parenting behaviors and practices of every adult who needs intervention is next to impossible for practical reasons.

    I was thinking the education could take the form of both free and paid, permanent yet evolving, public service messages on radio, television, billboards, print, products, and the internet designed to teach young people how to engage in parenting behaviors and practices generally recognized as supporting the healthy physical, emotional, and intellectual development of children, and reject parenting behaviors and practices generally recognized as disrupting the healthy development of children. I can envision appealing school age spokespersons delivering these messages.

    Does this idea have merit? If it does, how can I turn my dream into reality?

    David Dooley
    3600 Brisbane Ave.
    Bakersfield, CA 93313
    (661) 835-8450
    (661) 477-1513

    1. Elisabeth Donahue

      Yes, I believe your ideas have a lot of merits. There are many examples of clever media folks using the internet and other forms of youth media to promote healthy behaviors such as delayed sex, not smoking or using alcohol or other drugs, etc. We have highlighted such programs in The Future of Children policy brief, “Using the Media to Promote Adolescent Well-Being.” While the behaviors targeting may not be explicitly “good parent” behaviors, they theoretically will lead to good parenting because they hopefully will result in less early, non-marital childbearing, less tobacco and alcohol use, better decision making — of which translates into a smoother transition to adulthood, delayed marriage and childbearing, and other behaviors that result in good parenting down the road.

  10. Elisabeth Donahue

    I agree with both comments posted. I did not mean to imply that a straight out ban was imposed in my house; we had a lot of conversation about why these games bothered me so much. I showed my son the research, but more probably more important, we discussed the Iraq war and the fact that real people — people we know from our town — were being killed in a real life version of Soldier Front. (And we had the same conversation about junk food when he was younger). That said, peer pressure is a powerful tool. The desire to play Soldier Front was inspired more by the fact that all his friends were playing the game than actual love of the game. We do own a Wii and it is a good alternative. Thank you both for your input.

  11. Special Ed Teacher

    Although I agree with your article, I wonder if we’re not missing an important step here. Continuously we must educate our children to make their own decisions about the morality and ethics of media. I can actually remember talking to my then 2 year old son about the marketing of McDonald’s happy meals to small children and how their Playplace concept was really a ploy to have kids eat their food, not ride on their slides. Of course, I used age appropriate language! But, now that he’s 12 he understands the concept and is a pretty good consumer. He also understands the connection between violent video games and the real world. Of course, when he turns 13 he may want to play Soldier Front.
    In short, try not to put bars on the kids brains but educate them about why it’s wrong.

  12. Criminal Justice College Blogger

    I love the post and the idea behind strengthened efforts on the part of the game publishers. I believe that the gaming industry is responsible in some way for shaping the American youth.

    In most cases, violent video games take precedence over crossword puzzles, board games, and Frogger. However unlikely the evolution of Pong (the game), “the people” wanted more. More became more real, more violent, and more damaging.

    I remember when I did my grad studies at Boston University I stumbled upon myriad articles and news feeds detailing interviews of juveniles and young adults after commission of a crime – games were often mentioned as the culprit, or at the very least, as an accessory for better shooting skills.

    Since the bulk of the gaming consumers were introduced to interactive shooting games the craze skyrocketed. However, I do feel that the Nintendo company is starting to present a positive spectrum on the gaming industry through the introduction of the Wii gaming platform. I don’t own one, but I gladly played tennis, bowled a couple frames, and even made my way through an adrenaline filled labyrinth. All that with fewer calories, sharper mind, and no violence.

    The point is, many people will say that things can’t change for the better, that first person shooters are always going to flourish, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I disagree and have hope that the gaming giants will step up. Who else will?

    1. Elisabeth Donahue

      Thank you for your remarks (and apologies they are late; I have been on “leave” from blogging for the past two weeks.) The key, I believe, is finding ways to put pressure on industry to step up. There are good examples of parents and media advocacy organizations working together to put pressure on companies to stay in line — many of which we highlight in the introduction of the Future of Children volume, Children and Electronic Media.

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