The past decade has seen the rise of a previously nonexistent genre of video games often referred to as “realistic shooters” or “realistic action.” Before the 2007 release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, shooters would generally be about overblown antics divorced from reality. “Realistic” military shooters attempted to give shooters a more real look.
There’s a problem with this nomenclature, though: these depictions aren’t realistic at all. Modern shooters often present combat as devoid of any moral grey areas.
These games never depict the consequences of the conflict or show civilians caught in the crossfire, and they portray superpowers as vulnerable to small, poorly armed groups. It’s essentially the same plot you see in many Hollywood action movies, with the most recent “Die Hard” and the remake of “Red Dawn” being good examples.
So, why is this trend a problem? In my work I study a great deal of military history, and I can tell you that what I’m describing isn’t realistic at all. War, even when fought for the best reasons, is a dirty business wrapped in shades of grey, and it’s dangerous to think of it any other way.
With that in mind, I wanted to write something about how to approach these kinds of games with your kids. We’ll start with what not to do.
Don’t try to ban your kids from playing these games. Those kind of bans won’t necessarily work (they can always go to a friend’s house), and as any rebellious teenager will tell you, banning something just makes it seem more alluring.
Even if your ban works, there’s another problem: forbidding the genre as a whole gives kids the impression that you don’t think they’re mature enough to handle these games. My mother had a saying: “Treat children like idiots and they will rise to meet your expectations.” The idea that your kid isn’t mature enough to handle these things is an expectation you do not want to set.
Of course, this comes with one caveat. It’s okay to say no if your kid is well outside the age rating for a given game. Everything I’m saying assumes your kid is old enough to process these kind of games. Put another way, banning Call of Duty is one thing for a 12-year-old, but another for a 17-year-old. Not every 16-year-old is the same, and parents should know whether their kids can handle particular M-rated games. (For reference, the official recommended age for M-rated game is 17, but that’s meant to be a guideline not a rule.)
So, what should you do? I’d suggest three things for parents to consider.
1. Familiarize yourself with the content of games you buy (or that are bought) for your kids.
In the age of the smartphone, this is fairly easy to do even with impulse buys. Most games have short entries on Wikipedia summarizing their content, and Google will provide you with reviews; Pixelkin.org’s game library is even written specifically for this kind of thing. Once you know what you’re buying, you can have some idea of which issues need to be addressed with your kids.
2. Consider offering counterpoints which depict violence in a more nuanced way.
The best example of a game like this is Spec Ops: The Line, though you really want to read a description of the plot before buying it. Spec Ops is an extremely disturbing game that does not pull its punches; like Apocalypse Now, it was influenced by Heart of Darkness.
Dishonored and the Deus Ex series are also worth considering. Both games encourage nonviolent and stealthy play and have characters who react negatively to the use of excessive force. Even the game that kicked off the modern military shooter, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, has a surprising level of complexity to it. Though it has no shortage of violence, it also has one of the best depictions of the grey area surrounding violence I’ve seen. Then, of course, there are movies and books you could show them—Apocalypse Now, Johnny Got His Gun, and so on.
3. Most importantly, talk to your kids!
Engaging them in conversations about what they’re seeing on screen will encourage them to think about what they’re playing. Especially when the villain is ripped from today’s headlines—the Russians, the Chinese, “the terrorists,” etc.—asking them about what they’re seeing and doing will spur them to think about the media they are consuming, and that’s never a bad thing.
You can find more info on the games mentioned here on Pixelkin’s library page. For more information about talking with kids about games and about the ESRB rating system, you also might want to download our Get Connected Guide. (Don’t worry; we won’t give anyone else your email address!)
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