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Confessions of an EW Parent: How guilty a pleasure is videogaming?

As a (semi-) reformed gamer, our associate editor sometimes worries that her children are exposed to too many videogames. But then she asks herself, is that necessarily a bad thing?

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Confessions of an EW Parent: How guilty a pleasure is videogaming?

What I’m about to share with you is probably in the top five on my mommy-guilt list. It even beats out the fact that my family is so familiar with one of my guilty pleasures — General Hospital — that they’ve made up their own lyrics to the theme song, just to tease me.

Yes, even worse than that is the fact that my son, eight, and daughter, six, have been exposed to a mountain of videogames. Everything from the game versions of kiddie TV show fare like Avatar and Xiaolin Showdown to sports games like Major League Baseball 2K7 and adult stuff that’ll raise a few eyebrows, like God of War and Dead Rising, have come through our house.

While the debate over the effects of videogames on kids rages on, I find that I’m torn. I really don’t think they’re any worse the wear for gaming. I know they are not playing in a vacuum, and that they have a full life, balanced with academics, sports, books, and truly quality family time. But still, I wonder…

During a normal school week we limit their videogame access to a total of an hour or so, and that’s only after homework, chores, and any reading is done. I’m often in the room or passing through as they play, passing judgment on any gore and violence. But it’s my technophile husband who makes sure to play every game before they do, and he has a pretty good understanding of everything they’ll see and experience. The fact is, I married a gamer, and at one time, I was a bit of one too. One of my husband’s favorite stories is how once, early in our relationship, I embarrassed some guys by strolling in and beating them in a couple of rounds of the fighting game Soul Blade. So game consoles and videogames have always been in our home. And I am probably much more accepting of them than most women are, which is a good thing because we have a lot of games.

We do keep many of them from the kids, but part of my problem is that some of the games meant for children (with ratings from E for everyone to T for teen) still push me do a little soul searching. For starters, we’ve let our kids play some teen-rated games because we believe they know the difference between games and reality. That’s also the likely reason why so many parents let younger kids watch PG-13 movies. (That, and as one of my son’s friends said while lobbying to see such a movie, seven is the new 13.) And just as with teen movies, teen-rated games may bring more grownup themes to the foreground. There are games like The Simpsons Hit and Run (the name says it all), which has relatively low-grade violence but violence nonetheless. I know I probably shouldn’t laugh so hard when the kids use the ”I’m confused and disoriented” line from the game when talking about someone who is acting strangely. But I also know they understand that actually hitting people with a car in real life is not funny.

Even the games supposedly rated for everyone, like THQ’s Bratz series, do give me reason to question my belief that giving them access to so many games is all right, as long as we have frank and open discussions about what they’re seeing. I already had problems embracing these lollipop-headed, scantily clad creatures in their doll and television forms. But then my daughter, who’s got her own passion for fashion (as well as soccer, baseball, and gymnastics), became enamored with the Bratz game. While it’s an extension of the show’s limited girl-adventure storylines, it also has a feature in which the player can ”do tricks” with pets for money at the mall. By tricks, I mean making dogs roll over or fetch, but yes, there’s an inherent ick factor with the whole venture, and it raises lots of questions for me as a feminist. So while the characters in the game have the added esteem of starting and running their own magazine, I make sure my daughter has plenty of other good female role models to balance out the equation. But I don’t ban the game.

Then there are the adult games that our oldest has either been allowed to play or they’ve both watched others play. From Syphon Filter to Halo 2, they’ve seen just about every first-person shooter game available. But they are not allowed to play with fake guns or even pretend to shoot someone with their hands, something I’ve seen kids who don’t play videogames do. And I don’t think that’s hypocritical because, much the same way we that help them distinguish the news from a movie or TV show, our kids know that in real life guns hurt people. But even still, some games, like Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto, are automatically out of the question because of their extreme gore, realistic violence, or open sexuality.

Of course, all videogames aren’t bad. We’ve had hours of family fun and exercise playing Dance Dance Revolution. I’m almost positive the hand-eye coordination required to hit all the marks in the Nintendo DS game Elite Beat Agents will end up benefiting them someday. And some of the games have even added to our kids’ vocabulary. They were able to teach their friends the word ”disembowel.” (Although my daughter has also since asked how you ”embowel” someone).

I may be biased, but I know that my kids are polite, well-behaved children who get good grades and whose teachers adore them. They don’t watch television during the week. They both thoroughly enjoy reading, doing so just about every night after doing all their homework. And they have age-appropriate understandings of right and wrong. It’s just that I worry when faced with reports of a new study that found exposure to children’s video games with even cartoonish violence had the same short-term effects on increasing aggressive behavior as the more graphically violent teen games. It makes me want to put a moratorium on the whole thing and revisit it when they’re much, much older — like in college! But before I can padlock the entertainment armoire, I see a different study that found that videogame talent was a better predictor of surgical success than years of training. Suddenly my worries begin to subside, and I breathe a little easier. Now I’m thinking, bring on the games, and say hello to my son, the doctor!

So let’s have it, people. Is there a middle ground for videogames and children? Do you play videogames with your kids? What kinds of games do you let your kids play and for how long? Share your thoughts on the message board below.

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