The Gamer’s Conscience 09.08.03

As I sit here and type this column on this mildly hot Sunday evening, I can’t help but somewhat reminisce about earlier times in my short yet sweet gaming life. Perhaps not any specific time, or even an interval of time, but simply an earlier time when the very practice of gaming was innocent and free of scrutiny.

It might be hard to believe now, but there was a time where video games held little significance outside being a hobby; a hobby like reading, RC Car building, or dwarf tossing. They served as something that could pass the time on a rainy day (like that happens in So Cal), or just offer a small diversion after a long day in the confines of High School. Hell- the only losers present when I played Castlevania IV were random bone-wielding skeletons, and honestly, some of my grades.

However, as time passes, certain aspects of what we come to know and love begin to change in the process. Fast food is no longer an ally of weekend sloth, but rather an enemy of healthy living. Optimus Prime may still lead the Autobots, but he’s also in mint condition- which means the electric bill just might be paid in full this month. And according to US mass media, my dear old pastime of video games has turned itself into a ravenous beast, and must feast upon the souls of middle America in order to survive.

Earlier this week, a certain story linked from caught my attention. The piece, itself linked from ABC News, paints an all-too-familiar picture in US media today: a wrongful death lawsuit against a game developer holding the designers of “Insert Franchise Here” at fault for the morally deviant behavior of one of it’s own. This particular news piece is about two teenagers claimed that they were ’emulating’ the ‘behavior’ found in Grand Theft Auto by firing on passing cars with shotguns and in the process, accidentally took the life of a motorist and wounding the passengers.

When an event like this takes place, it drives me to ponder about the different factors surrounding it; mainly, it make me wonder about the direction that segments of American society are beginning to take, especially when they blame a tragedy like this solely on a video game. More specifically, I wonder what could have been done to prevent something like this from occurring in the first place. Those who say violent video games call for more regulation as a salvation from an apparent erosion of our moral society are wrong- dead wrong. Amazingly as fate would have it, I believe that if they put their protest signs and bullhorns down long enough to talk to those they’re trying to shield, they’re that much closer to solving the problem.

Sadly, yet all too predictably, the Liebermans and Falwells of the world pull their podiums from their 4-car garages and continue to promise an end to the reckless abandon that video game designers engage in when making violent video games. In the interest of unbiased research, I decided to read a press release of Connecticut Senator Joseph Liberman, released on 12/19/2002, entitled Lieberman Says Kids Still Vulnerable to Violent Video Games, Calls for New Hearings on Kids’ Access to Adult Materials . As I read the piece, all those early news clips swept into my head like an all too familiar mantra of some far-off right-wing special interest group. During this quick read, I could recall all over again all of the backlash against games that pioneered this reactionary movement; most notably Mortal Kombat and Time Killers, just to name a couple.

Now, as did the story earlier this week, part of Lieberman’s statement also strikes a nerve. Just when I thought it was safe to blow off the entire propaganda piece as just that, I found the silver lining at the very end of the document. This is the part of the argument that is the most often overlooked, and is probably the most important part of all. But what is the saddest part of all is that those that it should apply to the most probably overlook it.

“Remember, you are your child’s first – and last – line of defense!”

Quite simply, this is indeed the answer. Straight from Satan’s mouth. THIS is what gets to the heart of the matter. THIS is the paramount realization that US media culture needs to make. Rather than blame the makers of video games, take a look at the parents who purchase, or allow the purchasing of those video games in the first place. The causes behind shootings like the one mentioned above do not lie within some subliminal brainwashing effect of violent video games. Tragedies like this lie in the parenting, or lack thereof, that parents should be giving to their kids.

Rather than actually take any effort to inspect what their children might be playing for themselves, many parents today are becoming so inattentive that they would rather surrender their sound judgment to outside groups. I mean, what incentive is there for hands on parenting, when we have agencies like the Entertainment Software Ratings Board that can parent for them in their absence? Yeah, just because it’s that damned easy to let someone else evaluate what’s best for his or her child, rather than actually investing some time themselves into understanding why their child wants to play it.

“Oh, but Fred, we can’t be with our child every waking moment of every day, monitoring their every action. Groups like the ESRB, which was created in the aftermath of Mortal Kombat’s release, are a convenient way of letting me know that this title is not suitable for my child.”

Now, I’m sorry. I just don’t buy this. Had you been a good parent, Mr. Lazy-X, there would be no need for the ESRB at all. There are certain steps that you can take as a parent, and even look worthy of procreating in the process. Yes, parents, I’m talking to you.

Granted, you can’t be around your kid during every moment of the day because groceries don’t buy themselves. But, perhaps over dinner or later on in the day you could —GASP- talk to your kid about what he or she is playing! Ask them questions about their new favorite time-waster, like ‘what is the game about?’ ‘What’s the story behind the plot?’ ‘Who are the characters involved in said plot?’ I honestly ask: Is discussing with your child the themes or premises of the game that hard of an endeavor to attempt? I think not. By doing this, you’ll get invaluable insight into why your child likes a given game, and probably get a better picture of what excites your child as well. They’ll appreciate the genuine attention, as they’ll perceive that you are taking a direct interest in their hobby- a great ‘bonding’ tool in an of itself.

And think about this: as scary as it seems, today’s gamers are going to be tomorrow’s parents. Hell- some of today’s gamers ARE today’s parents! But being a gamer or not, there’s no better an evaluation tool then sitting down with the product yourself. Pop the game in and see what it’s all about. Again, ask yourself the questions that you’ll ask your kid: ‘what is the game about?’ ‘What’s the story behind the plot?’ ‘Who are the characters involved in said plot?’ Don’t trust some outside agency to pass judgment on content that you may find permissible for your children to see. YOU are the only one who should be making decisions about what your kid can and cannot play.

As cliche as it sounds, we’ve seen it all before. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the pair behind the Columbine Shootings were said to play Doom for hours on end; yeah- something that absolutely MUST have been a huge piece of the pie (sarcasm there!). What was mentioned far less (and not as fashionably alarming for the media to repeat into inundation) was the fact that Klebold and Harris were neglected by their parents who, despite all the good will and intentions on Earth, could not find time to simply be with their children. It is neglect like this that makes kids seek outside stimulus, which in turn may become some kind of vindication from that said neglect. No video game was the culprit here- just the absence of good and attentive parenting.

Thank God, though, that these incidences appear to be in the minority. And by making a conscious effort to know what your child is doing, and what content you think is appropriate for them, Columbine-like tragedies can become a thing of the past.

I’d wager that if you’re already (or intend to) actively engaging yourself in what your child is doing in their free time, are knowledgeable of your child’s interest and hobbies, or even make semi-frequent conscious inquiries into what your child is doing, chances are your child isn’t going to imitate ‘socially deviant behavior’ found in video games, or any other art form for that that matter. Because of attentive parenting, they’ll have already developed a sound consciousness and sense of conduct that they and take into the real world, and in the future will have the confidence to discern for themselves what is right and what is wrong.

So, in closing, it is my sincere hope that America can learn from it’s mistakes and begin to devote more active attention to parenting it’s youth, rather than sidelining that job to bureaucrats in Washington (and in other places) to do for you. Rather than surrendering themselves to a zone of effective despondency by knowing nothing about what their children play, parents should instead be more directly engaged in the parenting process by making a positive step into understanding what type of games and themes their children enjoy. This allows parents to get to know their children better than if they had otherwise not made the effort. In the long run, good attentive parenting can be the best thing for the upbringing of a child- not to mention crafting a sense of good taste in gaming.

Knowing the game behind the rating, and the child behind the controller.

That’s the parent’s- I mean, Gamer’s Conscience.

Well, that’ll do it for me this week, but the rest of the 411 Games staff is just beginning. Look forward to some great columns and reviews by our superhuman gaming cadre of thugness. Strong opinions, praise, criticism, I take it all- feedback is always appreciated.

Until next time!