Recently, an 11-year-old girl explained to me how her 10-year-old brother got a dildo gun and penis sword in Saints Row IV, a video game that was released last month.
A couple of days later my 9-year-old son and his 10-year-old friend came home and shared with me a playground discussion about their friend’s exploits in a “strip joint” in Grand Theft Auto 5.
“She was, like, waving her butt in his face!” the friend explained to me, obviously barely able to even conceive of such an act.
It might strike some as shocking that there are such things as dildo guns and strip clubs in video games. Others might be angry that children are being exposed to them.
After some discussion with these kids, however, there was a much more disquieting issue at play: a complete lack of parental engagement.
Many video games these days are adult oriented. The aforementioned Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto series are definitely not designed to be played by kids. Other games that arguably fall into this category are BioShock, Dead or Alive, and Mass Effect.
These adult-oriented games set themselves apart with dense story lines, morally conflicted activities, graphic violence, sexual content and, yup, full nudity.
Often, as in the case of Saints Row, they wrap their messages up in parody, satire, irony and bawdy humour.
For adults, they’re great fun. Honestly, I recommend most of these games if you’re a grown up. But they’re well beyond any child’s comprehension level.
Kids simply can’t get past the surface depiction to the deeper levels of meaning that video games makers are building into these adult games. And more often than not, kids can’t even comprehend the visuals of the game.
For example, whereas an adult might see the irony in a weapon that’s fashioned out of male genitalia, a kid only sees the genitalia and understands it to be a weapon. It’s an important distinction.
Shouldn’t somebody do something about this? Video game makers? The government? The police?
Actually, the responsibility falls to parents. And too many of us are failing in that responsibility. Badly.
It’s not like kids come by these $60 video games by accident. When I followed up with the kids that had been playing Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, it turned out their parents had bought the games for them.
If you don’t believe me, just check out the video on YouTube of the 11-year-old French boy weeping tears of joy when his parents triumphantly deliver a copy of Grand Theft Auto to him.
There’s a huge degree of ignorance here. A lot of parents are simply not paying attention. A lot of parents believe that, just because it’s a “game,” it’s okay for kids.
Parents, we need to wise up. Pleading ignorance is a lame excuse when our kids are frequenting virtual strip clubs and drugs houses and fashioning weapons out of genitalia.
But how do we improve our understanding of video games and their content?
The video game ratings system is a great guide, but it’s not an accurate measure of the actual quality of a game’s content.
For example, the “M,” for “Mature,” category, which suggests games that are adult-only, is a wash.
Many M games have less disagreeable content than a PG-13 movie.
That’s where parents come in. Regardless of a game’s rating, we need to bring our family and cultural values to the video game console and set the standards for what types of content we’re willing to let our kids experience.
As a start for learning, I highly recommend the web site Common Sense Media. It reviews video games – even M-rated ones – from a parents’ perspective.
But you have to develop an in-house process, too.
My son and I have agreed that T (for “Teen”) and M games are not necessarily out of the question, but I have the final say on them.
If there’s one that looks interesting to us, we’ll discuss it. If we buy it, I always play it privately first. If I deem it okay for my son, then we play it together.
And in that is an important rule we’ve agreed on: T and M games are never played alone. I’m either playing with him if it’s multiplayer, or sitting on the couch with him watching.
On the other hand, if an M game strikes me as unacceptable for kids (as Grand Theft Auto and BioShock both do), then he doesn’t get to play, or even watch. I only play it when he’s not around.
My son’s okay with this, because we talk about it and I’m willing to explain my decisions to him.
That might sound like a lot of work. That might sound downright boring. But parenting is rarely a glamorous job and often requires hard work. That’s the point, isn’t it?
It’s ironic then that many parents consider video games to be the soother for our older kids. They are the tool to shut them up and keep them out of the way.
But video games are far from that. They are the single most formative influence on our future society and its citizens. They teach our kids how to behave, how to socialize, how to make moral decisions.
No medium ever – not movies, not TV, not books – has been as capable in influencing young minds as quickly and strongly as video games are.
And that’s why it’s particularly important that we, as parents, control how our kids engage with them.
We must inject our values, intelligence, wisdom, and love into deciding what video games our kids will interact with. And then we have to be there, also interacting with our kids and the games they play so that any challenging content can be addressed and explained.
Otherwise, they’ll encounter a world of questions we never hear, and seek answers elsewhere.
And wouldn’t you like to be there when your young daughter wonders aloud, “What’s a dildo, anyway?”
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 27, 2013.
In writing this, it’s nice to know I’m on the same page as Samuel L. Jackson: “Everything is Samuel L. Jackson’s Fault.”