The challenges, and hypocrisies, of raising kids in a gaming house
I found a copy of Batman: Hush under my son’s mattress yesterday. He’s 11 years old, and he knows the rules about what comics he’s allowed to read, and which are off-limits.
Every morning I go through my kid’s pockets and book bags before they go to school. I usually confiscate a lip gloss or two from my nine-year old daughter. I’ve removed iPods, the 3DS, and an iPad from my son’s bag on multiple occasions. This always reminds me of the scene in Aliens where the Marines are forced to give up their ammunition. I’m sure both kids sometimes get things by me.
What’s funny is that the way I raise my kids has nothing in common with how I was brought up.
Every generation has unique challenges when it comes to raising their kids, but as I sat disabling in-app purchases on the iPods my wife and I had bought the kids for Christmas, it seemed to me that this generation of children is more at-risk than others. I’m sure my parents thought the same thing.
The truth is that I’m strict with my children when it comes to video games. I didn’t start playing games seriously until I was ten or eleven, and I was an avid reader before that. I like to think that I grew a little more imagination than I would have otherwise by leaning to love reading before I got lost in video games. These are the moments you realize you hold certain prejudices about games.
I place them below books in most situations, and I think the wrong games at the wrong time can hinder a child’s development. For now we’ll stick to soccer on the weekends, trips to the comic book store every now and again, and making sure we get homework done before anything else.
This isn’t how I was raised.
While I keep a strict eye on the clock when my kids play games, I fondly look back on the afternoons I spent gaming with no care for the length of my sessions. I don’t let the kids take video game systems to school, but I remember playing four-player F1 Race on the original Game Boy during lunch and at recess. I make sure the kids have all their school work done, and clean rooms, before they can play on the iPad, but in high school I skipped day after day of class in order to beat Final Fantasy VII. I’m a hypocrite of the highest order.
My kids grew up around gaming, and they’re used to hearing no. “Is this something I can play, or are you working?” My son would often ask. Work was the most common answer. “Am I old enough to play this?” No, this is rated M. Sometimes they would sneak into my office without me hearing, and I’d find one or more kids behind my office chair, staring in slack-jawed wonder as I killed soldier after soldier in the latest first-person shooter.
They’ve just discovered Minecraft, and spend much time playing with each other, building houses together and exploring the game’s world. They’re drawn to Angry Birds clothing at the store. I can remember a time before I played games, but they grew up surrounded by games and systems. I’m almost painfully aware of how immersed in this culture they have become simply due to proximity.
The more you know, the more you avoid
I was the manager of a now-defunct video game store for five years before I became a writer full-time, and in those five years I would often explain the rating system to parents and try to warn them off the more graphic or violent games. Nearly all attempts were met with hostility, if not outright defiance. Who was this clerk who was trying to tell someone what their kid should or shouldn’t play? You could calmly try to point out the rating descriptors on the copy of Manhunt a parent was buying for their nine year-old, but it almost always led to stony looks and a tired voice telling you to just ring it up.
There were parents that asked about content in the games, but they were few and far between.
Sending a child out to get their parents in order to buy an M-rated game usually ended with a parent frustrated they had to waste their time dealing with this bullshit. These are the years that made me cynical about video game legislation; there is nothing that will keep M-rated games away from children due to the fact that in most cases their parents are buying it for them. There is no law that will stop that. Hapless retail clerks aren’t letting kids buy M-rated games as if they were selling cigarettes to minors; the supply chain goes from retail store, to the parents, to the children. This is the part that politicians either ignore, or refuse to believe.
If you want to see the ugly side of the violent game debate, work for a year in a video game store. Wait until you have a parent come in and ask for the Grand Theft Auto game that doesn’t have “all the niggers” in front of their child. I dutifully exchanged San Andreas for Grand Theft Auto 3.
After a while you give up and stop trying so much.
This is the part of the video game business I want to keep from my kids. I want their world to consist of fun games in the basement and friendly comic book store clerks. I don’t want to have to explain why some people may want a mutilated woman on their desk or on display in their game room. I’ve deleted angry e-mails where readers have threatened my family due to review scores. You meet amazing people in this job, but you’re often exposed to the worst in people as well.
This is why I limit their time playing games and I take away the systems before they leave the house. Video games are almost too powerful, and they can take you over. It’s important to be a well-rounded person first, and then let games in.
It’s likely that I’m more strict than I need to be, but almost every job I’ve ever had has been somehow involved with video games, but I’ve seen so many great things and so many bad things that it all evens out in the end. You lose that perspective with your kids and you become overly protective. For some people that means not letting their children out of their sight. For me it means giving them 30 minutes of video game time a day, and then pushing them outside to get banged up trying to ride a skateboard, or making sure their head is pushed into a book.
I’m a tyrant when it comes to homework and grades. I realize that the largest influence I’m having is to make this content irresistible, as the comic book hidden like a Victoria’s Secret catalog proved so eloquently.
As a young child I spent too much time in the basement playing games, and I don’t have much experience with what it means to be a father who is a positive influence. So I’m strict, and I yell, and I limit their time playing video games. I also remember the good things I took away from the books I read growing up and the games that shaped how I think about things. So I’ll load up their iPods with the best games, and curate their experience with the games they do play. My son and I have learned the simple joy of Atari games as well as modern fare. If you want to see imagination at work, show your child a few pixels and tell them it’s a dragon. They’ll see it clearer than you see the great wyrms of Skyrim.
So I’ll leave a copy of The Hobbit on my son’s bed, and I’ll buy my daughter a copy of Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. We watch The Rocketeer together, because sharing these parts of me is much easier than talking. If I’m going to limit their time with the culture I was immersed in, I at least want to make sure that time is spent on high quality work. They enjoy these relics from my youth for now, but I know I have limited time before they find my suggestions tragically uncool and I lose them to the whims of their peers.
For now I’ll guide these things to them as one pushes a paper boat onto a calm lake, and I pray that the books, games, and movies that made me who I am reach them, and help them get through the hard parts of growing up. I hope that once they are adults and I’ve made all my parenting mistakes they do fine in the world. When they look back at the games and books we did share I hope it feels like a voice in the dark saying that I was there, I was their father, and I tried my very best. I want them to be good people first, and gamers second. I’ve seen too many people go the other way.