You played: Why can't your kids shoot 'em up?
I was playing a round of Gears of War, trying to redo a level on "insane" mode, and the walls were painted with guts. I slaughtered my way to the boss, revved up my chainsaw, and sliced into his chest– releasing a fractal fountain of gore. Woo!
At that instant, I heard the front door to my apartment open, and in walked my nanny... with my 15-month-old son, his eyes agog. "Daddy," I could see him thinking, "what are you doing?"
Oh, nothing, son. Just kicking back with a mass-murder simulator. That's all!
So I hastily clicked off my Xbox 360, and avoided the nanny's eyes. But it got me thinking: Eventually he's going to want to play video games. And then I'll have to face the traditional child-rearing quandaries that games present. When will I hand him his first controller? Will I let him play the gory combat games I love so much– and, if so, when?
Gamers like me have spent years railing against ill-informed parents and politicians who've blamed games for making kids violent, unimaginative, fat or worse. But now we're in a weird position: We're the first generation that is young enough to have grown up playing games, but old enough to have kids. So it turns out that, whoops, now we've got to make sober calls about what sort of entertainment is good or bad for our children. And what, precisely, are we deciding? I started making calls to my gamer posse to find out.
As you'd expect, I found that joystick-wielding parents are much better than Hillary Clinton at parsing the nuances in various types of combat games. Brian Crecente, the editor of game blog Kotaku, takes an approach that most gamer parents described to me: They treat games as they would movies. If they're too adult in content for his five-year-old son, he won't let his child even watch them being played.
"Everybody knows, as an adult, that the world is not always a nice place," Crecente told me, "but I don't want him to know that yet. I want him to have a childhood."
So he disallows games with "realistic" combat, like World War II titles, or Resistance: Fall of Man, but permits highly cartoony shooting, like Starfox on the Nintendo DS– since he regards it as essentially as abstract as playing cops and robbers with your fingers as guns.
Chris Anderson– the editor in chief of Wired magazine– suggests an even more intriguing strategy: the "Lego Rule."
The Lego Company, it seems, has a policy of not producing toys that replicate 20th century weapons. "You can have swords, and you can have laser guns in space, but no actual 20th century guns," Anderson says. So his four children can play games like Halo, since it contains only futuristic, fantasy war, where you're killing only green- or blue-blooded aliens. The same goes for Roman swordplay titles. But it clearly walls off "Grand Theft Auto."
(I e-mailed Lego's spokesman Michael McNally, and he confirmed the company's Solomonic logic. Lego, he wrote, agrees that good-versus-evil combat "is at the root of children's play scenarios, and we believe is an important part of a child's exploration of the world." But they don't want it infecting the children's perception of the real world around them, so the solution is to place it decisively in the realm of fantasy.)
Personally, I love that idea, and will probably try to remix it with Crecente's guidelines. But the truth is that violence in games is, paradoxically, one of easier issues to deal with, because you actually can make distinctions from game to game. (And as scientific research is finding, games are unlikely to make your kid a killer; recent studies show that violent games only increase your kids' aggression if they already have pre-existing behavioral problems.)
The bigger dilemma is inherent in the nature of video games as games. Are they simply too addictive for kids?
After all, they're play systems. They're designed to tease us with situations that are almost, but not entirely, under our control. That's catnip to our order-seeking prefrontal cortices. I still grapple with the narcotic effect of games; my wife and I once sat down to play a few minutes of Bookworm– then remained in a wall-eyed trance for five solid hours, skipping dinner. "When you go to bed after playing something even like Tetris, those shapes are dancing in front of your eyes. And that doesn't happen if you spend the afternoon looking at, you know, paintings," says Bret Dawson, a friend of mine who reviews games for the Toronto Star, and who plays casual games like Wii Sports with his five-year-old daughter.
The obvious solution is to strictly limit game-time, and simply endure the whining for more. Most gamer parents told me they don't allow more than an hour a day, and some allow gaming only on weekends. Personally, I'm hoping I can parlay my own game addictions into the smokey, wisened authority of a former heroin addict, as I warn my son about the college-degree-wrecking appeal of World of Warcraft. Trust me, kid. I know what the streets can do to you.
Though who knows? Probably I'll just seem like your average, nauseating ex-hippie boomer parent– sternly lecturing about the evils of marijuana while keeping a stash of Columbian Gold in my desk drawer at work.
Mind you, I'm still willing to navigate this minefield and find some way to let my son play appropriate games. I'm convinced it's a net good for children's psyches. Video games let them explore complex systems; they learn how to spot invisible and unspoken rules. That's useful not only as a life skill, but as an aesthetic experience.
Then again, it's easy for me to say now. I have six months before he'll figure what the Xbox is for.
A former Knight Science-Journalism Fellow at MIT, Clive Thompson is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.