Trying to control the controller

As a parent, I'm supposed to take a stand on video games. But how can I tell how they'll affect my kids if I don't even know how to turn on the PS2?

Topics: Video Games,

“I just killed somebody!” I scream.

“Sweet,” says my 9-year-old son, beside me on the sofa. “I haven’t killed one person yet.”

I fire another round. I haven’t played a video game since Pac-Man was big, never so much as held a controller except to vacuum under it. Now, two minutes into “Star Wars: Battlefront,” and I own this game. There’s me, a white-helmeted battle droid, sprinting through a hail of bullets on the planet Naboo, blasting away at robots and clone troopers.

“Just kill everyone in sight, Mom,” Jack advises.

Until now, I’ve never had any interest in playing a video game. Like many parents, I regard them with a queasy tolerance. I’d prefer my sons spent more time reading, playing outside, interacting with the real world. I’ve heard the warnings: video games are violent, addictive, that playing them makes kids fat.

But I have also wondered whether the experts’ misgivings — and, for that matter, my own — stem from simple middle-aged skepticism toward the newfangled, suffused with nostalgia for lower-tech childhoods of the past.

Parents have always been expected to act as media gatekeepers for their children, scrutinizing and evaluating according to age and personality, banishing anything too bloody or scary or sexual or profane. For my parents, that meant tucking “The Story of O” safely away in the underwear drawer (nice try, Mom). Today it requires wading through a relentless tide of movies and music, thousands of cable channels, an Internet that seems to swell as infinitely as the universe itself. But video games are particularly hard for me to assess, because I don’t even know how to turn on the console system. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who, struggling to keep on top of all of this but confronted with a yawning gap between what’s ideal and what’s practical, winds up drawing a shaky line somewhere in between and hoping for the best.

A contrarian new book promises to let me off the hook for much of that monitoring and worrying. In “Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter,” Steven Johnson claims that video games, along with TV and other entertainment media, actually exercise the brain. Gamers become adept at jumping into unfamiliar video environments without a glance at the manual, poking around and testing strategies until they find ways to solve complex problems. These skills, Johnson writes, have “great real-world applicability” — one example he mentions is how easily kids pick up and use high-tech gadgets — and he even offers evidence that video games (along with TV and other entertainment media) boost kids’ IQs.

As Jack and I play on, it becomes apparent that my first triumphant slaying was beginner’s luck. I can hardly get my droid to run in a straight line — he keeps going backward, zooming into the air, crashing into rocks. I get killed repeatedly (and reincarnated instantly, each time, as a new droid). Fumbling with the controller, I am, so to speak, all thumbs.

“What do we do with all these buttons?” I ask.

“I’m not sure yet,” Jack says, explaining that the buttons do different things from one game to the next.

Testing and fiddling, he quickly learns to make his droid flip summersaults, fire a thermal detonator, ride a dinosaur. When momentarily disoriented, he calmly studies the screen for clues. “I don’t know where I am … I’m leaving the forest … Seriously, where am I? Uh-oh, I’m in a big battlefield!” As Johnson predicts, Jack possesses a nonchalant confidence that, sooner or later, he’ll figure things out.

That helps explain why Jack teaches me the intricacies of my own cellphone and digital camera, why at 8 he was the only one in the family who could operate the DVD player. But it’s hard to tell whether he transfers his deductive skills to other real-life situations, whether his intelligence and self-assurance have been enhanced by playing video games.

The very idea would strike many parents as absurd. In my neighborhood, where it sometimes seems child-rearing competence is determined by how many mainstream pleasures you deny your kids, video games rank somewhere between toy guns and Twinkies. In many eyes, the medium itself is almost as bad as its message. An acquaintance told me she buys board games for her sons so that “at least they’re not sitting in front of a screen” — as if sitting around a sheet of cardboard were intrinsically preferable. A neighbor forbade her son to touch a video-game controller, though she would allow him to watch as other kids played.

What, exactly, are they afraid of? What was I afraid of? For years, I let my sons play games at friends’ homes but outlawed them in ours. I had grown up just fine without them, and saw no reason why my boys couldn’t do the same. They began pleading for a game system roughly as soon as they could stretch their dimpled fists around a controller, but I held my ground. While friends’ kids upgraded their Nintendos and wore out their Gameboys, my ban gave me a rare feeling of maternal superiority and control. When other parents bemoaned their kids’ gaming obsessions, I could smugly announce that I had never even heard of Super Mario Bros. I might be lax about bedtimes or let orange soda stand in for organic fruit juice. I might pick up dinner at a drive-through while my neighbor’s kids dined on tofu. But here was one patch of moral high ground that I could proudly claim.

The only problem was, when I stopped to examine my opposition to video games, I found it hard to define their actual dangers. After all, I green-lighted other sedentary activities (drawing, checkers, TV), and mildly violent entertainment (a few Saturday morning cartoons that made me cringe). What evidence did I have that video games, in and of themselves, were so much worse? They didn’t seem particularly mindless or brain-rotting; they looked as challenging as the average board game — more so, actually. And if they weren’t any worse than my approved activities, didn’t my prohibition violate what experts tout as the prime directive of effective parenting: consistency?

Meanwhile, the ban only made my sons’ longing grow. “Mom, I can’t go over to Kevin’s anymore,” my older son Cy announced. “It makes me too crazy seeing his PlayStation and knowing we can’t have one.” Jack went the other way, developing friendships with kids purely as an excuse to use their systems. Video games were becoming more intrusive in their absence than they would be in middle of the living room. So when the kids were about 6 and 7, a friend offered to sell me an old Sega system for $25, and I caved. Since then, we’ve gone through the Sega, a Nintendo 64 and three Gameboys, and we’re on to a PlayStation 2.

As Jack and I finish the game level, the word “victory” flashes on-screen. We have captured the command post or conquered the planet or whatever. No thanks to Mom, observes 10-year-old Cy, from the sidelines.

“What,” I say defensively. “I killed a couple of people.”

“We did pretty bad, Mom, sad to say,” Jack reports. “I only killed one person. Well, and R2D2, but I don’t think he really counts.”

Our cheerful conversation about killing might horrify an eavesdropper. But, to me, wasting robots in a “Star Wars” game is closer to shooting rubber ducks at a midway concession stand, and not only because we’re destroying something inanimate. It just doesn’t feel like violence. It’s as if the impulse springs from a whole different part of the brain, not from the primitive depths that drive acts of murderous rage or “take that, sucker” sadism, but from some more composed and civilized lobe that relishes a challenge and a bit of friendly sparring.

Over the years I’ve read enough about media violence to know that it’s hard to tell whether it makes kids more aggressive. Research is inconclusive, and common-sense assumptions come with equally logical flip sides. Maybe our bloodless, comic-bookish “Star Wars” killing is actually worse than graphic carnage, because it obscures bloodshed’s real consequences. Or maybe combat games discourage aggression by providing a benign release valve. British media expert David Gauntlett notes that one study found that a group of young violent offenders actually watched less violent entertainment than average. And as Johnson points out, the most recent Justice Department figures show violent crime is at a recorded low, despite rising media violence.

Even so, I’m not about to fling open the door to an ultra-violent game such as the best-selling “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” “From the sick insinuations … to the sexually deviant threats … you’ll hear things said in San Andreas that will curl your toes … don’t buy this game for your kids unless they’re thirty,” writes one critic. Parenting expert? Right-wing ideologue? Nope, a game-site reviewer who considers the best-selling “GTA” “a masterpiece.” I don’t necessarily believe my children will mimic brutal acts, but that’s not the only reason to shield them, when I can, from humanity’s uglier side.

So I don’t let them buy games rated M for “mature” (defined by the Entertainment Software Rating Board as suitable for ages 17 or older). And they can’t have games whose box features somebody wielding a giant weapon. Together, these eliminate about half the titles in the store. A nice middle ground, I try to reassure myself. But a lot of good it does I find out as we sit together playing. When I ask Jack what he thinks about violent games, he informs me he has played gory, M-rated games in other kids’ homes. He claims to have no interest in them — “All they are is blowing people’s heads off and doing drugs and S-E-X and stuff. They’re just stupid” — but maybe he’s saying that just to placate me. Or he’d change his mind if tempted by a particularly cool game.

In any case, he makes little effort to set my mind at ease when the topic turns to addiction. He readily admits to being something of a game junkie. “It’s really hard to stop playing — it’s like a cigarette,” he says cheerfully. Though at 9 he has never smoked, the comparison is, of course, unsettling. What if Jack’s obsession, like my own former cigarette habit, goes on for years and years, choking out healthy activities the way tobacco smoke blackens pink lung tissue? Better tighten those time limits, I think, disconcerted.

Tonight, though, I reach my own limit first.

“This is such a tight game!” Cy exclaims, watching us.

“Yeah, I know,” Jack says. “This is a game you want to just stay up all night and play!”

I hand my controller to Cy. Personally, I don’t feel in much danger of getting hooked or staying up all night. After an hour or so of watching a pixelated droid bound across a TV screen, I’m ready for something more, well, three-dimensional. On the other hand, I don’t feel any smarter, either — at least not about the benefits and risks of video games. Johnson’s book is appealing, and it’s hard to argue after reading it that, content and addiction questions aside, video games are inherently more harmful than other sedentary activities: drawing, building with Legos, playing chess. Still, I’d be much more comfortable seeing my sons do those time-tested things.

Yet I want to respect their choices. I don’t want to condemn their tastes just because I don’t share them. How can I expect them to appreciate my cultural interests — to check out the books, movies, museums, Web sites and music that I recommend — if I reflexively scoff at theirs?

These days, I know, parents are supposed to have vehement child-rearing opinions and to stick to them with droidlike consistency. But with video games, as with so many parenting matters, I wind up thinking that almost all the positions — even diametrically opposed ones — make a little bit of sense. And that none offers any guarantees.

So the PS2 stays in the living room.

Which is fine because, unless I’m willing to window-peep at sleepovers, to put households that allow video games in the off-limits category normally reserved for those that store loaded guns in unlocked cabinets, I can’t keep my sons from being exposed to, and tempted by, video games. In the end, I can’t shelter my kids from the modern world.

“We start talking about the challenges of parenting today,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in a recent speech about video games, “and all of a sudden people are exchanging their deep concerns about losing control over the raising of their own children, ceding the responsibility of implicating values and behaviors to a multidimensional media marketplace that they have no control over and most of us don’t even really understand because it is moving so fast we can’t keep up with it.”

As politicians do, Clinton issues proposals — clearer ratings, more research, public-service announcements, industry self-policing — public measures that, for all I know, might help. But meanwhile, parents face a dilemma, and in that one run-on sentence, she captures it. The mass entertainment media are powerful, enormously profitable, pretty close to uncontainable, and constantly shifting. Maybe I am drawn to books like Steven Johnson’s partly because they offer some comfort against the inevitable.

After all, he claims video games can teach my sons to navigate a complex and baffling environment where circumstances change quickly, rules aren’t clear and they’ll have to figure things out, as best they can, along the way.

I sure hope he’s right, because we’re already there.

Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis.

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