Violence and video games together again

Most be another one of those violent video games, right?

An Italian man who argued with his son over Sony PlayStation tactics was recovering in hospital on Monday after the teenager stabbed him in the neck with a 15-inch kitchen knife, police and hospital officials said.

What was he playing? Grand Theft Auto IV? Modern Warfare 2? God of War?

The man, identified as Fabrizio R., suffered a deep cut to the throat after his 16-year-old son, Mario, attacked him during an argument on Sunday over the soccer video game FIFA 2009.

Huh. So it wasn’t a violent video game that led to this violent outburst. My world view = shattered.

The infamous Modern Warfare 2 airport shooting

Controversy can be good advertising. Although I have to give Infinity Ward some credit, when your game has been pre-ordered by everyone and their cat it’s not like you need cheap publicity to sell your game. While I tend to take a cynical view of business many times, this is one time when the facts as we know them seem to contradict the more jaded conclusions being jumped to.

I am, of course, talking about the already famous “No Russian” sequence in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Since the cat is already out of the bag and other websites have discussed this in detail I am going to give a spoiler warning here and move on.

Initially I thought I might skip over this scene, especially after finding out there is no way to avoid conflict with the police. Yet when the police came I managed to take advantage of game logic to avoid killing any of them until the very end. At that point I realized that I was not becoming the player. That I could see myself trying to disguise my non-killing of civilians but when shots are fired in anger am I not going to shoot back? I do think some of the game logic ends up sacrificing some of the impact from the scene, since half a dozen armed men are not going to be able to take on what seemed like the entire Moscow police force and real life can’t exploit AI weaknesses to push on to the next checkpoint without killing someone.

The payoff for the scene was anger. While many have criticized Infinity Ward and said there was a better way to portray how villainous the main antagonist is without such a heavy handed (and heavily scripted) sequence, when I took Makarov’s hand and he casually shot me in the head I realized all my agony, all my regret, all my concern over the consequences of my actions were for naught. Despite trying to hold onto my humanity, trying to be one of the good guys, I was going to die for nothing. Worse, I was going to be used to start a war.

The emotional payoff is huge. I don’t think I’ve been this vested in a villain since I was betrayed by Rhalga nar Hhallas (aka: “Hobbes”) in Wing Commander 3. Videogames have seen their fair share of villains and many of them I would consider far more epic than Modern Warfare’s Makarov, but I hate this guy. I can’t wait to take him down.

Was it cheap, exploitative, and unnecessary? Was there a better way to convey the depths of Makarov’s villainy? I think Infinity Ward was desperate to show there was no nuance to this character. No matter what may have happened in his past, there is no justification for his actions. He cheaply slaughtered his own countrymen and women so that he could turn the murder of an American agent into a full-scale war.

People are not going to like this sequence. They’re going to question motives of developers and producers. I think that’s good. It’s a powerful scene that is not to be taken lightly. I would definitely encourage anyone who feels too disturbed by the content to skip it. I think it’s a fair thing to do. Otherwise, experience it, even knowing what is going to happen, because it has a major impact on the story.

Funny, though, that even though the people at the airport are not real I could not shoot unarmed civilians when I was a “good guy”, even if I was in deep cover. Odd that even though they were not real, I began to hate Makarov right from the start simply because he could so casually slaughter them.

Parents with Common Sense

I don’t know how many times in the last year my wife and I have received a movie from Netflix only to get about five to ten minutes into it and be amazed at the junk Hollywood is putting out. Some of these are PG and PG-13 movies. In the last six to nine months we’ve taken a different approach to consuming a lot of different media. Amazon reviews have been a good source when it comes to books and some movies and close, online friends have been great when it comes to video games.

For a long time, I’ve been wishing for a one-stop place on the web where all aspects of media consumerism are reviewed with the family in mind. Enter a little Common Sense Media.

I’m not for sure how long the site has been around, and I’ve only just come across it today via a new feature on Netflix. However, this site does an excellent job of being descriptive but also being spoiler free. A quick scan of some popular movies, books, and games and they have been pretty much spot on. Some reviews even present some discussion questions you can use with your family if you do decide to let them consume something that may not be normally appropriate for children.

I think I’ll be visiting the site a little more in the future before we decide to allow the boys to consume any type of media. Of course, we’re still going to be more responsible than that by viewing it ourselves as parents before they do. We took them to see Madagascar 2 based on the standards of the first movie alone. We enjoyed the movie, but my wife and I were a little apprehensive taking them to see something that potentially we wouldn’t want them to experience.

Let me step on my soap box for a moment. There will be a time where our boys will see and experience violence, language, bad humor, sex, and all sorts of other things that we won’t let them see now. However, that will be when they are grown up and on their own and, hopefully, have the same level of standards and responsibility that we’ve tried to instill in them. We want them to have integrity and to not be morally corrupt. However, the choice is still their own. Until then, they are my responsibility.

Responses to Walking Away from Violence

It seems as if I may have struck a small nerve on the Internet that generated some good ideas about how violence—mainly in video games—and kids go together. For some it’s not necessarily peanut butter and jelly and for others it’s not avoidable.

I has thought about responding to the comments in the original post, but in following up on links, track backs, and even a podcast (awesome!), I figured it’d might be best if I culled them all together and responded to them. Many people seemed to share the same ideas so I’ve tried to pick the best comments on that idea to post.

First I have a comment from Corvus of Man Bytes Blog

What I’d be even more interested in hearing about is the conversation you had with your son after he did that. The conversation about context and consequence–about the role of violence in the expression of anger. He may only be 3, but if he’s already capable of correlating shooting daddy dead with being upset, chances are his messages are coming from outside the home. Play dates with the children of less-aware parents perhaps?

The first thing I did was share with him that it was wrong to shoot people. He’s only two years old, so I found this rather difficult at first to put it in terms that he would understand. He was not disciplined for it, but he was warned that he would be disciplined if it happened in the future. It’s been almost two weeks and he’s not responded this way. My wife and I think he did not pick it up outside the home but from his older brother, who’s five.

darrenl from Common Sense Gamer had this to say about the exposure to violence being inevitable:

I have the same issue with this and my 7 year old daughter…but I keep this in mind when she’s playing it: she’s going to be exposed to violence in one form or another whether I like it or not. I would rather be the one to coach her through those feelings than someone else. Having the ability to seperate fantasy from reality is key here and I think video games are a great medium for teaching that lesson…so are books, and movies.

I don’t disagree that being exposed to violence will happen. It’s just a matter if I’m there when it happens or if I have prepared my two boys to disassociate it from reality. Let me give this food for thought: I’ve read a large number of books recently that dealt with current events in the military (Black Hawk Down, Generation Kill, etc.). Every book has mentioned that soldiers in the heat of battle remarked at how much it was like being in a movie and/or video games. Some of them even had a hard time consciously realizing that they were physically vulnerable to the violence that was all around them—and this is my formulation—because they had grown up being passive observers.

Pete S from Dragonchasers had this interesting comment about violence and age:

I’ve actually noticed the same thing in myself. I really don’t need to spend 40 hours watching people being eviscerated anymore. I don’t know if its my age, or that the technology has improved making everything look more realistic, or what.

I think “tone” plays into it a lot for me, too. For instance, Uncharted… I played through it and loved it. I appreciated the lack of blood and dismemberment even though I was shooting humans, so it really didn’t bother me. It was just like its inspiration: saturday afternoon adventure films.

The flipside for me is Bioshock. I played part of the demo, and found it fairly horrific. One of the first things I had to do was bludgeon an insane person to death. Then start jamming needles into myself. No thanks. I understand that the story is amazing and all, but I just wasn’t going to be comfortable playing the game.

Of all the comments I read, this one got me to think about myself more than any other comment. I too have noticed that as I’ve gotten older I no longer want shock, I want something that will get me to think—something that has an excellent narrative. I found Uncharted to be dull (although I have not completed it—yet) and Bioshock (which is discussed in the posdact listed below) to have an excellent story coupled with atmosphere. When I played the demo, I was appalled at the violence it contained. Surprisingly, I found my self playing the game months later and overlooking the violence and language because of the presentation. I do intend to complete both games. They are the only two I chose to keep, but I’ll be getting rid of them as soon as they are completed. However, one look at my gamercard shows that most of the games I play (on the 360 at least) are casual or toned down games.

Jason O from Unfettered Blather went the opposite direction:

I do kind of wonder if this is really necessary?

Young boys have a tendency to act out. I kind of see my role as a parent in helping them understand what is and is not appropriate. I don’t worry about the games so much, but I think content is important to.

Sooner or later they’ll pick this behavior up.

Necessary? For a two year old, yes. Sure, he will pick this behavior up. This was a popular comment. It ranged from a “why bother” mentality to idealic thought. I played “guns” in the neighborhood when I was kid. I know he will too. However, at this time in my family’s life, it is utterly necessary. That may change as they get older, but they will be sheltered until I deem it necessary. They cannot make decisions for themselves. Eventually they will. My goal as a parent right now is to make sure that when the time comes they make wholly appropriate decisions. This doesn’t just apply to video games either. It covers movies, books, music, people (one I think parents forget…kids are influenced by their peers and other people), and many other things that don’t fall under the previously mentioned items.

Lastly, I mentioned that a podcast covered my post. Shut Up, We’re Talking is a podcast “covering recent topics found within the MMORPG Blogging and Podcasting community.” I don’t play any MMOs anymore, but I found this hour to be highly entertaining. (If MMOs are your thing, give it a listen.) The discussion on the post starts at 16:20 in the audio.

I really don’t want to quote the audio, because I do think you should give it a listen. They didn’t quite agree on my total removal of the games because of separating fantasy from reality needs to be managed and learned. I will respond by saying that their own children referred to in general we’re older than my own. They felt it was more appropriate to share the experience and work through it with the child. It’s something I intend to do with the boys in the future. This is not all to different from what has been mentioned in previous posts (one of the podcast’s hosts was a commenter). Empathy was also mentioned as a perspective that needs to be put into the equation as well as accountability (especially under the guise of Internet anonymity—I’m looking at you Xbox Live kids).

I agree that there is no way in which I can protect my child from everything. I don’t want to put them in a box. It seems to me, the children that I knew who were the most protected or too protected were those most likely to “go crazy” when the inevitable freedom from parents materialized. Yes, they do need to differentiate fantasy and reality and right and wrong, but it’ll be on my terms.

I do play games with my boys. In fact, most of my game playing is with the boys. In some aspects, I look at this “Walking Away” as buffer for myself. (However, see my argument for an overly violent game such as Bioshock posted above. I’ve not played it since making the decision, and wonder if I ever will. Maybe I should have just traded it in as well?)

To followup, I do want to say thanks to everyone who made a comment. For the most part, they were all well thought out and added to the discussion. One person had mentioned on another blog that he pretty much allows anything to go into his son’s eyes. The child didn’t seem to be bothered by it and was alos highly intellectual. I think it shows that each child is different—even among the same family. Parents need to be specifically aware of each personality and temperment their children have. To each his own, but may to each his own be the best that the child needs.

Walking Away From Violence

A week ago, my soon to be three-year-old son was being corrected for doing something wrong. He was upset by it. That’s not really a bad thing to be upset when you are corrected. Making your hand into a gun and yelling “Bang! Bang! Pew! You’re dead, daddy!” is.

Before you raise any preconceived notions, my wife and I are very controlling of our two boys (5 and 2) as to what they watch, hear, and play. I only play violent games after they have been put to bed and I even go so far as to hide the games in a closet. Even then, I don’t play many violent games because, presonally, they affect me. That’s not was this post is about. Also, I don’t want this post to delve into the video game violence debate. I just want to share what we as a family intend to do about it.

Two days ago my wife and I were talking late in the evening. I was lamenting my recent poor parenting skills and the feeling like I had not ever really grown up. It was then she mentioned video games. My wife is not a typical nagging video game spouse. She never pressures me or makes me feel guilty of what I play or purchase. (There was a time where she called them my “second wife” but that was me being stupid early in our marriage.)

She mentioned the idea of getting rid of video games. I was surprised by my initial reaction: agreement. I think it surprised her to. Actually, at first I misunderstood her. Her intention was for us to get rid of mature games. Once again, I was surprised by my answer. Let’s do it.

Starting on Labor Day, I took inventory of all my titles and if they met a certain criteria, they were added to a pile to be traded for credit.

  • Any game with blood was out
  • Any game that realistically and graphically killed humans was out
  • Any game that had strong, pervasive language was out
  • Any game with sex was out (which we didn’t have any that I knew of)

Using the ESRB ratings, the pile started to stack up: Halo 3, Mass Effect, Gears of War, Call of Duty 4, Viva Pinata—animal sex! Ok, just kidding there—, Assassin’s Creed, Crackdown, Bioshock, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid 4, Okami, Metroid Prime 3:Corruption, Ghost Squad, and recently acquired Too Human.

A couple of things I did find interesting is that all the Wii game’s ESRB rating descriptions used the term “Animated Blood” and some of the ESRB ratings were too vague in their descriptions or maybe even a little off base. For instance, Too Human has a description of “Blood”. Either I am blind or I’ve been desensitized, but I don’t remember any blood. (Maybe in a cutscene I’ve skipped?)

My next step was to examine or remember the specifics of the titles. I decided to keep Okami, Metroid Prime 3, Bioshock, and Too Human. Three of the titles I’m still slowly playing through, and the latter title I didn’t see it as being overly violent or meeting the criteria. It’s new, and I’ll probably trade it in when I find it just sitting there. Bioshock is the one title that I’m keeping that certainly falls in the list above. I am so impressed by its atmosphere that I truly want to finish it. Once I do though it’s gone.

This really only applies to consoles and not my handhelds or PC games. The boys don’t even know I have a DS and PSP and they don’t have access to the PC. Of course, I’ve only got the Hal-Life series, Tie Fighter, X-Com, and a bunch of RTS games on my PC—and I hardly play PC games anymore.

The response I’ve received from offline and online friends has been from agreement to indignant, stupid remarks. Jokingly, someone asked me what I would then play. Actually, I don’t think I’ll miss all that much. There are a lot of games out there that are entertaining and are family friendly. In fact, in the list of games above only two did I really struggle with keeping. In the end, I decided to get rid of them. I hadn’t really played anything from that list in a while anyway. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten older, but overly mature or violent games don’t really impress me that much anymore. Most—and I say most—have become formulaic. I’ve had more fun with games such as Geometry Wars, Everyday Shooter, LEGO titles, racing games, and casual games in the last couple of years more than anything.

We don’t know where our son picked up the gun gesture, but I’m not taking any chances. My only guess is that he may have overheard me playing after he was in bed. More likely, he saw it on TV or a movie. Video games aren’t the only thing we are cracking down on. My wife and I are currently working on TV and movies too. We already are restrictive in what they watch. Now, we are taking it a step further in really policing what we watch.

I believe it all to be for the better. There are so many things my family could be doing other than zoning out to a screen: reading together, drawing, walking, bike riding, just talking, fixing meals together, and playing. Of course, this all leads me to when I am going to play the games I own. That actually brings me to another Gamer Responsibility topic: time spent playing games. (I hope to address that soon.)

This also means that you probably won’t see many reviews or posts from me on violent games. If so, they will be rare. But you know what? I believe that to be ok. Life will go on and my family will be better for it. They (and many other things) come before personal entertainment.