The 4 Most Important Things to Know as a Gamer Parent
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...
It's Not Easy Keeping Adult Games Away from the Kids
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
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...
Game Ratings Don't Make the Decision For You
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:
The Torture Game
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 ...
In a Game, the Objectionable Content Can Be Buried Deep
So, I realized then that being vigilant about my kids' gaming was going to require me to do some actual, strenuous parenting beyond simply trying to banish games from their lives and washing their eyes out with soap.
I needed to treat my games the same way I treat television. When my kids watch movies or TV shows, they do it in a room where I can easily supervise the content (it's one advantage of having a small place with one TV). And when inappropriate situations pop up, we talk about it.
So, I put in Fable II and signed in.
At first, it sure enough looked like a kids' game with cartoony graphics and some decent, offbeat humor. It was somewhat fun, but nothing special.
Then the first big cut scene started, and just as Drew exited the bathroom, I witnessed my six or seven year old character get shot in the chest and blown out of the top of a castle tower. My son giggled and said, "I love that part."
I turned and stared at him for a few concern-filled seconds and then told him to comb his hair and get dressed. He asked, "Did you rename your dog yet? You can use the dog collar to change his name if you want."
"Oh. No, I didn't know that. But I'm not concerned with it. His name is just fine as-is."
I spent the next couple of hours in the game, kicking chickens and giggling. Eventually Drew asked, "Did you get to the part where you have to listen to the starving guy beg for food for three minutes?"
That's a real part of the game, I would later find out. They actually time you, and your entire goal is to stand there and look him in the eyes as he begs for his life, while doing nothing to help him. You literally put down the controller and the game makes you just sit there and listen to him beg you to not let him die.
I said, "I just got to the part where you find the cross-dressing guy at the Temple of Light. He wanted me to go into his home in the cave and kill a bunch of monsters..."
My son snickered. "Oh, man. There's something really creepy in that cave. Did you find it yet?"
"I... I'm not sure," I said, scanning the room.
"Oh, you'll know it when you see it. It's over there by his bed. It's creepy."
I moved across the room, and there it was.
A dead baby in a crib.
See, this is what I'm talking about. At what age were you ready to see this? Because it just freaked the shit out of me and I've seen the Gene Simmons sex tape.
And you'd never even know it was there if you didn't stop and carefully examine the surroundings. No camera stopped to point it out. No narrative brings it to the player's attention. It's just there, hinting at an incredibly gruesome untold story.
What if they took out all of the other adult stuff from the game -- the condoms, the group sex -- and just had this. What rating would it get? If I played through the entire game to pre-approve it for my kid, I would have missed the dead baby completely. But you'll notice that Drew had no problem finding it. And he was deliberate in pointing it out to me. I'm still not sure he didn't find a way to hack the game and put it there himself, as a cryptic message to me. Or a warning.
Very slowly, I reached down and shut the game off. When I turned back, I did so the way one would turn on a crouched guard dog. My children stared at me in emotionless silence.
"Hey, uh... why... why don't we all get ready for bed?"
They nodded in unison, never taking their eyes away from mine.
"You know... if you want. If you feel like staying up... you don't have to... I... I think I'm just going to go lie down."
It's All About Communication
These things didn't come up in the old days of gaming. There weren't a bunch of complicated conversations with my parents when I played my Magnavox Odyssey with "Shooting Gallery" in the late 1970s. Even if it did come with a gun that looked like you could totally kill a dude with it.
Those were simple games, and even right up through the SNES days you didn't find many games intent on exploring themes about death and loss and morality and dildos and dead babies.
And my parents and I didn't play them together much. It was, after all, just a toy. My parents maybe would play it every once in a while, and even enjoy it, like a parent jumping on a trampoline with their kid. But the grown-up who would go out to the yard, alone, and jump on the trampoline for eight straight hours would wind up in a straightjacket. But fast forward to today, to my household, and you see both my children and I spend far more time playing games than watching television.
The same games.
That's me on the right
This is a good thing.
Gaming, I've now realized, gives my children and I something a lot of us didn't have with our parents -- common ground. In generations past you'd have a kid sneaking rock and roll music behind the back of his fundamentalist parents, and waiting until they went to bed to read gory horror comics under the blanket with a flashlight. It's not like that for us. Because we're both gamers, we speak the same language. It can open up a whole new channel of communication, and bring you closer... if you're willing to do it.
That shared experience became a chance to talk about subjects and situations that otherwise wouldn't have come up. That's what I've learned from my Fable II debacle. We can use it as a chance to talk about, for instance, why things you do in a game would get you locked up in the real world, and how zombies aren't real, but Nazis are. We can talk about how to handle the douchebag insulting him in WoW. And we can talk about why he's not allowed to play some of the games Dad plays.
As far as I see it, it's my duty as a parent. But make no mistake, if my son rolls a tank and can't hold aggro, I'm calling him an incompetent cockhole, right to his goddamn face. It's my duty as a gamer.