The exact moment I knew I was a gamer parent -- that is, a gamer who happens to have kids, and not just the parent of kids who play games -- was when I heard my nine year-old son Drew proclaim, "They won't let you kill kids in this game? That's a bunch of bullcrap," and immediately realized I was going to have to have a conversation with him about it.
He was playing Fable II. One of my games.
"Father, let us murder virtual children... together."
Knowing what to do in these situations is harder than it sounds. On one hand, I know there are millions of parents like me now. On the other, it's kind of uncharted territory. In some ways the world still thinks of gaming as a newfangled gadget for the kids (so there is all sorts of advice out there for parents about how to find out if the game your teenager bought merely lets him kill hookers or actually dismember them completely). But it's a different deal for parents whose own primary form of entertainment is gaming -- Moms who raid with their kids in World of Warcraft, dads who consistently teabag their own children in the Halo games.
I'm one of those. I'm more of a gamer than any of my kids, in fact. As far as they know, this is what grownups do. And a lot of the games I play are in no way appropriate for them. But here's the thing...
Let's look at my experience with Fable II. It's a game for adults and like I said it was in fact my game, not my son's. But I also knew nothing about it; I got it as a Christmas gift last year and hadn't spent much time on it because... well, World of Warcraft still exists, and I am a weak man who is afraid of change. A friend found it for $12 in a bargain bin and he assumes I will like any random thing that has a cartoonish guy with a sword and D&D garb on the cover.
I left it laying out in a household with three children because, well, it was a pink game with the word "Fable" on the cover and a guy dressed like Link. It didn't seem like a game that would contain a lot of murder and bonin'.
Now, some of you reading this are already snickering, or perhaps dialing a hotline for child protective services, because you've played Fable II and know what's coming. I really should have looked at the back.
I didn't, and one of my sons found it and soon was asking me about how he could murder children, because it apparently seemed like that kind of game. I calmly explained to him that Hollywood and games, as a general rule of thumb, don't really show violence towards kids and he would have to be satisfied with mass-murdering all of the adults in the game world instead.
There was no cause for alarm at this point, all I knew was that this was one of the 95% of video games that involve murder -- even Mario kills dudes. We crossed that line a long time ago.
Then, an hour later: "Dad? What's a 'used condom'?"
My mind went frantic, and it took every ounce of willpower to not answer, "a tragedy averted." Instead, I waited five seconds and said, "...what?"
"A used condom. I just dug one up in the game. What is it?"
I won't document the talk we had because we didn't have one. Instead, I had him turn off the Xbox and take a shower to wash away the stink of his sin.
But I knew it wasn't going to be that easy. It'd be naive to assume that this would be the last time this situation would come up. Partly because...
Some of you have already skipped down to the comments to point out what a terrible father I am for ignoring the rating on the game. That's what they're there for, after all.
I make no excuses. In a perfect world, I'd have all of my games neatly categorized by ESRB rating and would watch like a hawk every second to make sure that each game was only being played by a child who was age appropriate, and that neither of their younger siblings were watching them play on our household's one television. And I do take steps -- I know to keep GTA IV and Dildo Samurai locked away in a drawer.
I think that's what it's called
But let me ask you: how old were you when you saw your first R-rated movie? I bet most of you weren't out of elementary school. Some of you saw porn before you read your first novel. Others of you may have had parents who let you see graphic violence when you were nine, but freaked out when they found you with porn at 15.
In the real world, there is no perfect, black and white rule on when a human brain is ready to see a beheading, or a pair of boobs, or a man's balls, or a man's balls painted to look like a pair of boobs. And it wouldn't matter if there was, because you still saw that stuff whether your parents allowed you or not. It was all around you. The bigger issue was whether they were there to talk to you about it.
Likewise, I'm a gamer and I live in a gamer's house -- one with three children from ages five to eleven. Games wind up all over, I have game boxes on my desk, in my TV cabinet, on my dresser, laying on the floor. Hell, even if I take the XBox away from them and restrict them to fun flash-based browser games, I can turn my back for 30 seconds and they can wind up playing this:
My eleven year-old has a World of Warcraft account. Even if I've decided the game content is appropriate for his maturity level, what's to stop some anonymous forty year old from calling him an incompetent cockhole when he screws up?
Nothing. That's why I, as a Gamer Parent, have some work to do.
Especially since ...