My nephew Austin stares at a picture of a rugged man with an eye patch as the image stares back. A few days earlier, I’d been replaying missions in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and now Austin and his brother Darren want to play as Snake, who to them is just another soldier fighting in another war.
After experiencing a growing concern over how much they’re exposed to guns and violence, I made a rule: no more violent games. This concern came to a head when they decided to bring Call of Duty: Ghosts with them to my house after school. Depending on the day, I’m responsible for taking care of them for two or three hours before their parents come to pick them up. Now aged 8 and 6, Austin and Darren already know more than their fair share about Call of Duty.
The first time I told Austin he couldn’t play Call of Duty, he asked the question, “Is it a bad game?” I told him it was bad in that it wasn’t for kids.
They both ask why I’m not letting them play these kinds of games anymore. I have to admit that from their perspective, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Despite my change of heart, I wonder if the damage has already been done. They’ve played Ground Zeroes before and done a lot of killing. Chances are, when they go back home, they’ll play more Call of Duty between games of Super Mario 3D World. Is it my place to tell them they can’t play those games, since they’re not my kids?
You can’t have conversations about parenting without sounding judgmental, especially if you haven’t had a kid yourself. When the gaming world has conversations about censorship, the ESRB rating system, and how kids are exposed to adult content, we always talk about how it’s up to the parents to make the final call. I’m not a parent; I’m an uncle. As far as Darren and Austin are concerned, their parents have made a different decision than I have. Even if I’m keeping them from playing Call of Duty at my place, they’re going to play it when they get home.
I don’t have to deal with the intricacies of parenthood, but I know the culture of video games. I’m burdened by my knowledge, and I want to help my sister raise her children. She may not see the issue of letting these games into her kids’ hands, but I do. That’s a difficult line to walk without making judgments about her as a mom.
It’s not just violent games that worry me, either. By all metrics, FIFA 15 is a perfectly acceptable game for Austin and Darren to play. No one is ever shot, tortured, killed, or cursed at, and there’s no blood to worry about. But it’s become the biggest instigator of headaches in my house. Every time Darren and Austin play FIFA together, it ends in tears. Someone gets upset, someone yells, and I have to break them up.
The reasons I worry about FIFA are a little more complex. Austin gets loud when he plays FIFA. Really loud. And it’s not just cheering, either; he celebrates every goal with whooping, he sneers at the enemy players, and he blames his digital teammates every time he doesn’t make a goal or someone else scores. Darren loves FIFA too, but his love of the game comes from a genuine love of soccer. At times he’s just as hyperactive as Austin, running around and being as bothersome as his brother.
I can’t tell how much of the aggression and over-competitiveness they take from FIFA and how much they take from the culture around it. I grew up around plenty of obsessive soccer fans, so the hollering and yelling isn’t new to me. I know what it’s like see a crowd erupt in a tiny room barely capable of containing the resulting decibels.
So I expect a hyperactive kid like Austin to jump around every time he scores. What’s unnerving is that he doesn’t seem satisfied with himself unless someone else knows they lost to him. This isn’t an isolated thing for Austin. He’s had problems with kids and teachers at school, and has even been thrown out of the game in his little league soccer team. So I wonder if I’m just not used to it or if it’s symptomatic of a larger issue that I may not be able to address.
If I talk to his parents about it, I’m afraid it’ll cross that parenting line. I’m there to tone him down when he kicks couches, but I’m not sure I can do much else. I have a lot of fears about what could influence both of my nephews as children, like violence, aggression, and addiction. However, my biggest fear might actually be about myself. I’m 23, and I’m deathly afraid of bringing a child into this world, but I have these two kids to take care of anyway. And I can’t say I’ve always been the best influence I could be. I’ve learned a lot of lessons as an uncle and have done things I wouldn’t dare repeat on my own children.
In spite of all my fears—about the kids, about myself—on occasion, the boys do surprise me. Sometimes they pick up Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare (it’s got shooting, sure, but the colorful aesthetic makes me feel a little better about it) and they don’t yell at all. They’re happy, quiet, and sticking more to the vision of what I hope playing games with my own kids will be like.
Games can be great things. It’s picking the right games for the right kids that’s the hard part.