A Gamer Parent’s Opinion on Violence in Video Games


Similar to how we refer to younger generations as Digital Natives, I suppose you should refer to me as a Video Game Native. Video games have existed throughout my life, though in my earliest years, they very rudimentary, by today’s standards.

I grew up hearing opinions that video games cause violence and that they desensitize people to it. Before you start firing up your comments, hold on a moment and let me express my full opinion.

Video games, by themselves, do not cause people to be violent.*

Yes, there’s an asterisk. The major studies have not found a correlation between playing video games and violence. And many have tried, very hard.

There may be an argument to be made that games, just like books, guns, movies and poverty encourage people to be violent, but that’s a depth I’m not going into detail here. Encouragement requires many conditions, and often tragedies, to already have occurred. The difference between “cause” and “encourage” is significant. What encourages one person, may not encourage another. Perhaps “entice” is a more appropriate word? None of these things “cause” a person to do anything.

Alas, you didn’t come here for my opinion on everything.

I’d caution any parent to not interpret any study as a free pass to expose their children to just any video game, regardless of the published age ratings. Nor would I suggest interpreting any as advising you against allowing your children to play games. As any parent knows, the maturity of a child can vary greatly from one child to the next.

As a life-long gamer, and also a parent, it’s a topic that I think about quite often. Am I exposing my child to the proper games? What level of violence is appropriate for a specific age?

When someone refers to violence in games, it can fall under a very broad definition. For example, something that causes one thing to hit another, whether it’s a game character or a couple of inanimate objects, is a form of violence. Yet others may only think of violence as things that include one character hitting another, killing, or numerous other acts that would be taboo in real life.

There are some games that I will not expose my child to until he’s well into his teens, due to language, gore and actual violence depicted in them. Those are the easy ones.

Video games can be very fun. They are a valid past time, if you enjoy them, and they’re not unique to any age group or other classification. There are many different formats and genres, just as with printed words and moving pictures. PC games, console games, mobile games, etc.

Many of you probably don’t consider yourselves to be gamers because you’re not shooting things, but if you play puzzle games on your phone, you’re a causal gamer.

There’s really no easy answer to any of these questions, despite the media’s attempts to find them, except when you’re looking at extremes. The media often highlights the extremes, while ignoring the positive aspects of gaming, because it fits into their two minute segment or their allotted number of words. We hear a lot about games that depict murder and sex, and, sadly the very real perils of bullying, shaming and tragic incidents of swatting. Sex, despite the occasional headlines, is rarely depicted in any substantial form, when compared to what’s available on TV, movies or various other sources.

I will conceded that I suspect this will change in the future, especially as virtual reality becomes more common in the household (and it will happen with or without the support of the major players, like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo).

There are many positive aspects to gaming. Eye-hand coordination can be a proven benefit, solving puzzles, understanding strategies and many more.

You rarely hear about the positive social interactions that occur every single day, across the world. For most of us, playing games with others is a very social experience that has lead to numerous hours-long gaming sessions with friends. These can be significant bonding activities for the vast majority of gamers.

I have many, many fond memories of spending late nights playing Doom over dial-up, four-player Mario Kart 64 battle sessions with friends (across more than a decade, and sometimes over 100 battle sessions in a single night) and just goofing around and trying to break a game by doing things that weren’t intended. The most fun I’ve had playing video games was always when playing split-screen (on the same TV or display) games with friends, in the same room. Yes, we often trash-talked, but it was always friendly; never hurtful or serious.

But what about a game that depicts explosions, even though it’s cartoonish and does not resemble reality in any way? That’s a tough one because it’s difficult to know how well a young child can determine when something is real or “just pretend”.

There are other factors that studies cannot adequately address. Like anything else absorbed in excess, I do think that exposure of too much violence in games can be harmful. That’s not to say that a child playing a violent game, a few times, will have any desire to reproduce what one sees.

A critical factor that cannot easily be studied is a child’s whole environment. Are the parents involved in the gaming? Are they moderating access to games and their content? Do they even know what their child is doing?

If you’re a toddler in a household frequently watching people play Grand Theft Auto V or Gears of Wars (both of which are games that I enjoy, but never when my son is around), while movies laced with profanity and violence are often played in front of you, I suspect this will have a negative effect, if it’s constant. It may have an amplified impact if there is violence in, or near, the household itself.

That being said, if you have children that play games, regardless of age, make sure that you know what they’re doing, just as you should endeavor to do the same with their use of the social networks and the Internet in general.

But, all humans are different. I would not claim, even under those conditions, that it would always have a negative effect. Some people, when exposed to something negative, are negatively impacted by it. Others may be positively impacted by something negative. Humans are confounding, generally unpredictable, and react in different ways to stimuli.

So, no, I don’t think that games, movies or other fictional depictions that may involve violence, cause violence themselves. It would be an easy answer, if that was the case. The entire context of one’s environment, and psychology, must be considered.

Teach your children how to stay safe and avoid bullies. If someone is harassing them in a game, teach them to disengage from that session or even that game. Block offensive people and, if justified, report them. Don’t assume that a game that appears to be kid-friendly is safe, by its nature. Many games have messaging features built-in; review them.

Experts are sometimes offended when people make comments using “anecdotal evidence”. But unfortunately for the experts, sometimes the community knows something before the experts can identify it, scientifically.

I play games in which I shoot other characters and blow things up, sometimes laughing at the carnage I have caused, yet I have zero impulse to replicate these actions in real life. I don’t steal. If I catch a lizard in my home, I gently put him back outside.

In the Burnout series of games, my objective was to ram as many cars off the road as possible, or to cause the largest wreck, yet I’m probably one of the most cautious drivers that you know (if you see me on the road, it’s probably as you’re passing me).

I’ve done all sorts of crazy and wild things in Grand Theft Auto games.

Yet, never in real life. My perception of what I do in a video game is very compartmentalized. It’s not associated with real life, in any way. I may vent real-life frustration by playing a video game, but the frustration that I experience never carries over to real life (yes, I might be annoyed at the game, for a moment, but I don’t walk around in a bad mood because of something that happened in a video game). The difference between a video game, and real life, is well delineated, in my mind.

Yet, perhaps my generation had an advantage that later generations may not have…

There’s a very interesting difference between my generation, and that of my son’s, which I think merits investigation in future studies. The ability to depict violence in games has evolved, as I aged. The first games that I had access to were little more than moving pixels on systems, like the Atari and Commodore, when I was my son’s age.

By the time Mortal Kombat appeared, I was a teenager; Doom arrived when I was in high school. Video games began to more closely resemble real-life (in detail) when I was in college, but they still possessed a cartoonish or “uncanny valley” characteristics. Only in the past five years has the realism truly reached a point where it could easily be mistaken for reality, if one was provided with a video from a game and was not informed of the source.

What will this difference mean over time? My child could see something in a game (if I allowed him to) that might be mistaken for reality, at an age that it was not possible for me to experience it in the same way, when I was his age. This also applies to the movies and TV shows of today. So there is a wild variable that has yet to be understood.

I’m not suggesting that children shouldn’t be permitted to play video games, but I am reiterating that the results of studies shouldn’t be considered a free pass. And keep in mind that scientific results should be reproducible; one or two studies simply isn’t conclusive for this matter. It’s also more difficult because our definition of what is acceptable is always shifting and the technology changes more rapidly.

Everyone knows how these kinds of things work; a year from now there will be a new study with a different conclusion. It’s similar to how eggs, wine or coffee are declared as being good for you, one week, and then bad the next. My best advice is to be diligent, consider your child’s personality and maturity and don’t rely exclusively on the parental ratings.

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