Once school is out, many kids turn to video games to fill their extra free time. The question of
what games are OK has taken on new urgency in the past year. A Harris Poll, taken after the
shootings in Newtown, Connecticut , found that over half of all Americans believe playing violent
video games is linked to violent behavior.
Unfortunately, deciding which games are unacceptable has the potential to create family conflict
not only between parents and kids but also between spouses. The same Harris poll found that
mothers were much more likely than fathers to make rules about video games, perhaps because
they were less likely to be gamers themselves.
Many gamers believe that violent video games can be a healthy outlet for aggressive feelings.
They point out that during the twenty years when video games have been popular, the rate of
violent crime has actually decreased. Although it’s true that most gamers do not become
criminals, it is also true that these decades have seen a rise in other types of aggression including
Dr. Craig Anderson, Director of the Center for the Study of Violence, in Ames, Iowa, believes the
link between video games and aggression is indisputable. After analyzing 130 research studies,
he found conclusive evidence that exposure to video game violence increases both aggressive
thinking and behavior and reduces empathy and kindness. “All games teach something,”
Anderson observes, “and that ‘something’ depends upon what they require the player to
At the same time, violence turns out to be surprisingly hard to define. Is it harmful to have an avatar
that slays dragons with a sword? Is it damaging to pretend to be a football player who flattens
another player? What’s the effect of taking the point of view of a soldier shooting enemy
combatants? Obviously, the rules that make sense for video game violence change as children
mature. For kids under 12 who are still developing a sense of right and wrong, it makes sense to
exercise tight control. Seek out games that have educational value and, whenever possible, pro-social values. The non-violent games section of CommonSenseMedia.org is a good place to start.
Around middle school, many children, especially boys, will lobby hard to play games that are
popular with their friends. Although it’s tempting to ban certain games, that approach doesn’t
necessarily give your son the tools he’ll need to evaluate games he encounters at the homes of
friends or, eventually, in a college dorm room. Instead, talk to your child about what he or she
hopes to get from the game he wants to play. A sense of comraderie with friends? The thrill of
doing something forbidden? The challenge of conquering difficult obstacles? Have your child
make a case for why the game is a good way to spend free time.
Then express your own concerns, being as specific as possible about why a particular game
worries you. Does the game endorse gang culture or criminal behavior? Promote use of drugs
and alcohol? Include language that is coarse or obscene? Encourage disrespect toward women
or minorities? Include violence that is unnecessarily brutal or gratuitous?
Talking through these issues won’t be easy and, in the end, you are likely to decide that certain
games have no place in your home. Still, research suggests that the conversations are
worthwhile because they help young people think critically about the content of video games and
that, in turn, makes them less susceptible to their influences.
Here are other things parents can do at every age.
Play games together when you can. If you aren’t a natural gamer, let your child walk you
through the game. Pay attention to things that are constructive—cooperation among players to
get to a goal, strategic thinking, coordination. Notice the effect that the game has on your child.
Does he or she become animated, aggressive, confident, discouraged, withdrawn?
Use ESRB ratings. They aren’t perfect, but they will protect kids from some of the most
violent games. (For an explanation of the ratings, visit www.ESRB.com
) Supplement the
ratings by talking to other parents and reading reviews from organizations that respect the
values you are trying to instill in your children. If you have doubts about whether a game is
suitable for your child, rent before you buy.
Teach healthy conflict resolution. From a young age, help your child express feelings and
develop empathy for the feelings of others. Actively encourage your kids to resolve
disagreements through creative compromise. Teach them how to release anger and frustration
without violence. If your child is having trouble resolving conflicts peaceably in real life, restrict
access to video games.
Enforce time limits. Research suggests that the aggressive spill-over from video
games is less serious when kids have the self-discipline to step away from the
game. Help your child develop that kind of self-control by establishing time
limits for video games. If necessary, enforce the rules with parental controls. (A
detailed step by step guide to controls for all gaming systems can be found in the
Finally, it’s important to remember that the powerful teaching capabilities of video games can be
enlisted to promote cooperation and goodwill instead of aggression and mayhem. As an
example, the award-winning Journey explores the human longing for companionship and
provides a great game experience with arresting graphics and Grammy-winning music. If
parents can encourage video game companies to develop more games like that, everyone in the
family will be happy!
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has written Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses conflict. Other columns are available at www.growing-up-online.com