Earlier this month I came across a post on Explore the Gaming World! about video games and violence. In it, author Claudio explains that games don’t always have to be violent and can be a form of art with well-written stories. There was a paragraph in the article that stood out for me:
Every game has an age: if you gift to a kid an 18+ game, it’s your fault. Instead buy him something colourful or take him out to play something with you in the park. It isn’t the kid’s fault if they play this kind of game. But it’s the choice of a lazy parent.
I completely agree: strictly speaking, video games aren’t toys. They’re media with plenty of content – not all of which is appropriate – and so parents need to make informed decisions when purchasing titles for their child. Unfortunately though, it isn’t so straightforward when that child comes from a split family.
My other-half Pete has a nine-year-old son from his past marriage. Ethan is a not-so-little-any-more boy with a very inquisitive nature, always full of jokes and various songs he’s made up; and he’s currently trying to decide between whether he should become a maintenance man or a game developer when he grows up. He just isn’t quite sure which he’d enjoy the most.
I’ve become rather attached to these two lads over the past few years and gaming has always played a big part in our relationship. It’s definitely something Ethan and I have bonded over from the beginning. He was surprised to find that ‘girls play video games’ when we were first introduced and there was an initial period where I had to prove my credentials, but now he’s started to add female protagonists into ideas for projects he’s going to make when he’s older. He gets that I’d rather play as a character the same sex as myself, and I love him dearly for that.
Parenting where the responsibility is shared between two families is one of the hardest cooperatives I’ve ever taken part in. At times it can be even more difficult and confusing than that damned goat puzzle in Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars. It’s like being part of a four-person team where everyone wants the controller: multiple views on Ethan’s wellbeing come from Pete, myself, my stepson’s mother and her new husband, and even the smallest decision requires coming to an agreement.
It’s impossible for all of us to be completely happy with every decision made but we generally manage to get along. Unfortunately though, the subject of video games has recently started to cause some friction within our ‘team’. Where Pete and I are gamers ourselves we’re aware of the content of what’s being played and can make sure it’s appropriate. Yes, we’ve made some mistakes (like the time that Ethan caught me sneaking in an hour of BioShock after we thought he’d gone to bed and was scared witless) but on the whole, I think we handle the subject of gaming with my stepson as responsibly as possible.
Our teammates however don’t have much existing knowledge of video games, although they were recently given an Xbox so Ethan could continue his hobby when he’s at his ‘other’ home. This means he has begun to play with his stepdad – which is great, because I know myself how much if can facilitate bonding – but the choice of titles gives us cause for concern. For example, he recently revealed that they’d bought a Tom Clancy game to play together, and there’s also been a mention of Grand Theft Auto.
You would have thought that PEGI’s bright-red 18-rating symbol on the box would have indicated that these aren’t things suitable for a nine-year-old. Titles are given such ratings for a reason: they provide ‘a reliable indication of the suitability of the game content in terms of protection of minors’.
As Ethan’s friends start playing Call of Duty after school or are given a copy of Five Nights at Freddy’s by their older brothers (both of which have happened), it’s time for our team to have that conversation. Experience tells me that it’s going to be a tough one and Pete and I will have to word our opinions very carefully. There’s a real danger that what we say will be misconstrued: instead of hearing the warning that the games he’s playing aren’t age-appropriate, there’s a chance it will be taken as though we’re saying we don’t want him gaming with anyone other than ourselves.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of any decision or actions taken lies with Ethan’s mum and stepdad purely due to logistics. While we’re able to monitor what he’s up to when he’s with us on the weekends, that becomes harder to do when he’s at his other home during the week. Does that mean we should give up and hand over a copy of GTA V though? No, it bloody doesn’t.
Regardless of how the conversation with our teammates goes, what we will do is continue trying to teach Ethan and be the best parent-and-step-parent we can. I’ve taught him practical things such as how to tie his shoe-laces, how to do the front crawl, how to round numbers to the nearest ten and how to make a cake. And I’m also trying to show him that games don’t have to include guns and violence to be fun; that they can be enjoyed responsibly; and experiences such as Journey can be beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time.
For the record, he loved Journey. After climbing the snowy mountain and reaching the final cutscene, he said:
So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.”
Yes, it’s definitely cool.