Editor's Note: Zach Rosenberg is co-founder of 8BitDad.com, a site for fatherly opinions. He's been a gamer for close to 30 years and is a former game reviewer. He lives in Southern California with his wife and 4-year-old son. You can also follow him on Twitter.
When I was a child of maybe 7 or 8, I was fresh off of a game of Duck Hunt on my Nintendo and took my “zapper” with me outside, where my father and his friends were sitting. I held up the zapper to one of my dad’s good friends and pulled the trigger.
What happened next was nothing less than a lesson about guns and the importance of thinking through my actions while holding a weapon (or something that looks like one). My dad’s friend, who had been in Vietnam, grabbed my hand and told me to never point a gun at someone unless I intended on killing them right then and there, and that if I point a toy gun at someone, they can’t possibly decide whether it’s real or fake in the amount of time it takes them to take out a real gun and kill me.
And so I’ve never pointed a gun, real or fake, at anyone else (outside of Laser Tag).
Comedian Joe Rogan recently tweeted that “This country has a mental health problem disguised as a gun problem.” This is very true, but I’d open it up even further in saying that we’ve got a parenting problem disguised as a gun problem. Parents aren’t prioritizing a conversation about guns with their children, so children are having that conversation with their friends off- and online, and while they blow bloody holes in each other in the latest Army shooter.
Someone out there on a social network made a graphic saying, “If guns don’t kill people -- people kill people -- then why do people say that video games kill people?”
Great question. U.S. Senator and NRA “top gun” Lamar Alexander says that games are “a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people.” Despite the vague statement, I know what he means: I get a particular kind of “high” from playing violent video games. One that I don’t get from playing, for example, Katamari Damacy, a game where you play as a little prince and roll a progressively-bigger and bigger ball around town, picking up items until it’s a size that pleases your father, the King of All Cosmos. Sure, I get a delight from playing Katamari Damacy, but not a rush like I get playing a game from the Call of Duty series.
I’m supposed to be demonizing violence in gaming, but I can’t. I love violence in video games. What I don’t like is that kids are being raised without a circle of people around them who are able to teach them the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, games and reality.
I don’t let my 4-year-old son play games with guns in them. Not even hunting games, which to many Americans are more about lifestyle choices than violence. But it’s my family’s personal preference to exclude those titles as well, and that’s the important thing. Parents are the gatekeepers, and as long as there’s a thoughtful conversation going on in the house, it doesn’t matter which games make it through -- hunting games, zombie shooters, over-the-top cartoon violence or war shooters. If parents are involved and talking, the choice is up to them.
Studies have never found a “magic bullet” that links video games and violence, try as they may. And the shallowest argument still rings clear: Violence has been around longer than violent games. The way we portray guns is just different, and that’s why it’s important to have parents looking over their kids’ shoulders. Do gaming kids with involved parents only glean the good effects of gaming, including increased creativity, while kids left with their Xbox as a babysitter get the ill effects? I’d think so.
I was raised with thoughtful parents. I never owned toy guns when I was little, and though I was disappointed frequently when my friends all got pellet guns and I wasn’t allowed, I understood, deep down, that the decision was logical. I did, however, get to play violent games. My father and I played Wolfenstein 3D -- one of the original first-person shooters based on a real war -- but we talked about its unreality, which helped a 12-year-old me when I’d lay in the dark at night, afraid that Nazis would break down the door.
I’m part of the video game generation. I’ve stood in line for games and consoles. I’ve played through almost 30 years of Mario games. I was a game reviewer for print and online outlets. I’ve gone to game conventions and posed next to gun-toting women covered in fake blood. I’ve watched the gaming world grow pixels into polygons. I’ve stabbed, shot, ripped out spines, decapitated and blown characters to bits. I’ve saved little blocky princesses, and I’ve shot realistic-looking civilians as they begged for mercy. The gravity of the things I’ve seen in games is astounding. But they’re all games.
Once my son can demonstrate a thoughtful separation between games and reality, he’s free to play them. And I’ll continue to talk to him about those games to ensure that when he turns off the game, he leaves that high within the game. He can be excited about his achievements, and he’ll even get a high five from me if he says “I killed 25 people without getting killed!” But he has to know that those “people” aren’t really humans. They’re pixels with no value and consequence.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some guns to level up in Call of Duty before my family comes home.