Gaming, ethics and the new responsibility of parents

A week or so ago I wrote a series of tweets about my seven year-old playing the video game, Assassin’s Creed. I was tweeting about how much I enjoyed sitting with him whilst he played. I’m not a gamer, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I probably never will be. But just cos I’m not a gamer doesn’t mean I know nothing about gaming. I’ll get back to this point in a little bit. My tweets prompted a response from a very savvy and generous educator who I have much time for, Andrew Miller. He was keen to chat further about my thoughts on gaming and how I engage with games as a mum and a teacher. As a consequence, I sent an email to Andrew and promised him a follow-up blog post. Below is the email I sent to Andrew and then my further reflections on this issue … one I am thinking much more seriously about as my two sons develop a greater love of video games and the world of gaming. 

Hi Andrew,

I haven’t got much for you except to recount the experience I had with Balin, my seven year old.

He loves to play video games and was happily playing Assassin’s Creed whilst I sat on the lounge with him writing chapters for a book on spelling, lol. He always gets so excited about playing and loves to ask me to watch things he can do. I love watching the cut scenes which he says are boring – haha. I like to ask him questions about his actions whilst he plays to check that he is comprehending the cause and effect of actions in the game – especially violent ones. He was telling me that the guards were bad guys and I asked why. He told me they were protecting a bad king who was stealing children and trying to destroy an innocent land. We chatted about guards in ‘our world’ and if they were good guys or bad guys. He could tell me a lot about corruption and abuse of power – even if not in those words. I think the game he’s playing might shock some parents because it is violent, I think they would ‘ban’ the games but that isn’t the right course of action in my opinion because the young people miss out on some super important real world knowledge and skills. Balin was saying before, ‘They’re running away from me because they think I’m bad but I haven’t done anything wrong’. I asked him why they might think he is bad, and he said, ‘Because I am an assassin from another country’ and I said, ‘How do they know this?’ he could tell me it was because of the way he dressed and behaved – his character also has a different accent. This was a great way to start talking about prejudice based on appearance etc. I hate violence and some of the actions make me sick to hear the sounds but I don’t stop him playing – I just talk to him about the behaviours and how they might differ in our real world.

Pretty valuable opportunity to discuss ethics. From a video game. How many parents sit and talk about the morality of people’s actions in films that they are watching as a family? Probably not as often. I think teachers could easily bring video games into the classroom as an opportunity to discussion decision-making and morality.

There is always a lot of talk about violence in popular culture. We know that violence is nothing new – it has always been part of the human experience and no doubt always will be. What seems to upset some is that this violence is now exposed daily to our children in their ‘virtual play’ through video games, online, television and films. People seem to forget that our perception of ‘the child’ has been reshaped dramatically since the 18th century thanks to those wonderful advocates of childhood, William Blake and Charles Dickins. We have a very clinical, almost anesthetised view of the child – their innocence is a given and we assume that there is a level of ‘purity’ which young people must retain until it is socially acceptable to ‘break out’ – around about 15 or 16 is acceptable for most people. But I think innocence and purity have been misconstrued and we now actually see children as impressionable, vulnerable, weak, needing guidance and protection. What an epic fail! Kids are resilient, clever, creative, witty, strategic thinkers and epic problem solvers. Conflict is central to human experience. If we spend all of our childhood having adults ‘conflict avoid’ on our behalf, how will we learn to be understanding, empathetic, critical and resilient adults?

I used to worry about my boys playing video games that were too violent. I even had a mini-meltdown when Balin was playing Skyrim and had the responsibility of deciding whether to assassinate a villager or spare his life. It distressed me greatly that my 7 year old was making these decisions without me there to talk it through with him. And there is the clincher! Parents have a massive responsibility to co-game with their kids. It doesn’t need to be immersive co-gaming – although this would be (and is) a fun and rewarding experience for both parents and children – but can be as simple as sitting with your child whilst they game and chat about what’s happening. Why did they make the decision to kill that thing or person? What is their character’s place within the wider game world? Who are their enemies and allies? Why? Why are there more male characters than female? Are children powerful or powerless in the game world?

Like I said in my email to Andrew, lots of parents allow their kids to watch films that have violence and fail to engage in any discussion about the causes and consequences of the behaviour of the protagonist/antagonist. I guess the same can be said for music videos in which women are all too frequently represented in an appalling, over-sexualised way. Do parents use these texts as an opportunity to discuss the valuing of women, power, gender stereotypes? Probably not. I know it sounds ridiculously geeky, but shouldn’t we be engaging our children in discussions about appropriate behaviour, right and wrong, social expectations, individuality … and more?

Of course, this also opens up the discussion about the new responsibilities of teachers. If our students are spending an increasing amount of their time (at home and at school) playing games, shouldn’t we feel obliged to engage with this form as well? We must concede that many parents will not engage with their children’s gaming. They may lack time or inclination. Surely this presents a need that teachers today must address? There is something really special about conversing with young people about the games they are playing. You should try it some time … even if you don’t play the game, get ’em to explain it to you and make it your responsibility to ask questions that force them to think deeply about their gaming experiences. Maybe.

Video games are here to stay. They bring with them wonderful learning opportunities for your kids and for you as a parent. They also bring new parental responsibilities. If you’re willing to spend 50 or 70 bucks on a video game for your kid, do them a favour and spend some quality time with them learning how it works, watching them navigate the game world, the characters, the conflict … help them make the best decisions or at least think about the decisions they are making and why they are making them. Have fun with your children, laugh at their mistakes and cheer at their successes. I don’t game … I find it insanely frustrating and I spend too much time complaining … but I do know a fair bit about video games. How? My children taught me.

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7 thoughts on “Gaming, ethics and the new responsibility of parents

  1. Hi there, I’ve only just happened upon your blog and found this post very interesting and insightful. Previously if I was asked on my opinion of kids playing violent video games, I would immediately come out with a very quick, very opinionated answer. But that is because I haven’t ever had reason to think it through. I think you raise some very interesting points, and although I would prefer for those conversations about prejudices, etc. to come out as a result of a less violent game, I think you are doing a very good job of making sure your son is aware of the stark contrast between games and what is acceptable behaviour in real life. Thank you, this is a subject that’ll stay in my mind for some time.

  2. Struggling with this one, Bianca. I do love the image of you co-playing (or at least sharing physical space) with your son, but I’m still having trouble with the concept of a 7-year-old playing Assassin’s Creed. I’m not sure any 7 year old is ready for the concept of deciding who to kill, and who to let live. I know that the reality is that a ton of my primary and junior students are playing Skyrim, and I know that all my intermediate boys are playing Call of Duty and MW3, but is this not accelerating the desensitization to violence? So that my primary kids are going to see Hunger Games, because it’s not anything they haven’t seen in their video games? As a teacher, I see part of my role as talking to them about why they love the violent games, because I genuinely want to know, but also figure out if they’re making the connections between killing Nazi zombies and World War 2, or if it’s just gaming.

    If the sounds coming from my child’s computer are making me uncomfortable, is it poaaoble that they’re making the child uncomfortable at some level, too?

    Thanks for making me think.

  3. I see where you are coming from Bianca and as a parent with a very similar concept of sharing experiences and talking to your children rather than banning everything, I trust in how you are handling your situation. In my case, my kids grew up watching Comedy Channel shows like the Daily Show and Whos Line is it anyway under my watchful eye. They have grown up with a sophisticated sense of humor but also know when it’s inappropriate to swear. They are very respectful kids because of the trust my wife and I had in them and the mature conversations we had. They never watched the shows or the Simpsons unsupervised and understood when I said this episode is not for you.

    I suppose this is where I am with lisamnoble a bit as well. While they watched the shows above regularly because they were only occasionally inappropriate, they never laid eyes on South Park or Robot Chicken. The overall vibe of those shows went too far. I’m a bit the same with violent video games. While Wiley Coyote died on average 12 times an episode the nature of his deaths weren’t in the graphic detail of video games today. But then I have a different take on video games anyway. My son had too many brain dead friends from 5 onwards who stared at screens. While he could watch the Simpsons at 5, I had a no video game consoles until you’re 10 rule in place. I wanted him to make more creative use of his time before he became addicted to Wii or XBox. At 14, he now makes balanced choices between learning, sport and Wii/iPod touch.

    But I still see what you’re doing as the same as what I did with the comedy channel and basically agree with your premise. Direct involvement with your kids is the key with anything. Parents need to start doing that now with the use of the Internet instead of blocking and banning everything ( or doing nothing). There would be a hell of a lot less cyber bullying if they did.

  4. Great post Bianca, very thought provoking. I’ve had similar discussions with parents about video games and their children’s obsession with them. Part of it is having them realize the incredible literacies & skills in games, which provide the teachable moments – moments teachers should be integrating too. The other is about the content – one parent lamented their 10yo child’s addiction to MW3. The answer was simple – they’re too young to be playing a MA rated game. I know of a PhD student doing their thesis on the Assassin’s Creed universe & finds some aspects unsettling. I suggested some good ‘addictive’ alternatives (eg. Portal2) & it seemed to work. So I think you’ve identified both aspects here. Games & books share one thing in common – parents aren’t getting involved enough with good choices. Not to say you havent experienced some great learning experiences through AC – you’ve both come away with new understandings that can leave a lasting impression.

  5. I am challenged by the issue you discuss regularly. My 5 and 8 yos play Skyrim with me and it is debatable, in my own mind, if the should be experiencing this game at their young ages.
    What concerns me more, much more, are the tween mag images, at the newsagent and shopping aisle, displayed so prominently. Our family position is to discuss issues honestly, with a healthy dose of irreverent humour and growing sophistication, as the girls mature. Our society is so non-stop and there is little escape from the reality of what children are exposed too in the most innocent of spaces. Best to look outwards, best to be honest.

    NB My kids have not watched any commercial tv and have seen precious few minutes of advertising. We have the ABC to thanks for this.

  6. I think this is a wonderful idea. I grew up playing slightly less realistic video games (Crash Bandicoot, various Mario games) so the opportunity was never really there for my parents in that regard. As a child, I loved watching ads – I even had a tape! I enjoy studying the media (thus the degree!) and why I believe it is so important that we teach children about the media-saturated world around them, rather than hiding them from it. I think advertising poses a wonderful discussion point about media, manipulation and techniques, as do magazines. Too often you hear about all these things that are simply banned; including darker video games (and music for that matter), advertising and even the news. These are things that should be explored, explained and discussed rather than banished. They are not things that can be avoided long-term which is why I believe we are better off teaching them about it than shielding them from it (within reason, obviously).

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