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Constructoid:Big Daddy and the Katamari King on parenting

4:00 PM on 03.01.2011 // Jonathan Holmes

[Constructoid is a little animated video show about Destructoid editor and pixel artist Jonathan Holmes and his featured guests delivering constructive criticism to game developers, characters, and players.]

This week's Constructoid features not one, not two, not three, but four guest panelists. I do believe that is a record. I don't want to give away who all of those panelists are, but suffice it to say that there is some Academy Award-caliber stuff going on here. If you thought last episode's Black Swan reference was a hoot, you're going to love the King's Speech.

Actually, that's not true. It's just a coincidence that both the 2011 Oscar winner for Best Picture and this episode of Constructoid feature kings giving speeches. Still, if one of you wants to give me an award, I'm all for it.

OK, the gallon of caffeine I just ingested is clearly causing me to lose focus. Time to get back on track.

Let's talk about parenting!

I'm hoping we're in the last generation that has to even think about parenting as it relates to gaming, or at least, the last generation that looks at the topic in the ways that we do now. There was a time when books, movies, comic books, and "rock and roll" music carried the pariah status in our culture that videogames currently hold, but over time, they've all grown to be seen as beneficial at best, or "mostly harmless" at worst. I'm sure that in time, videogames will become accepted by everyone as well, but we'll need a new pariah to take their place first. Maybe the new pariah may be something really amazing, like direct-to-brain download of information, experiences, or even energy. For now, though, we've got to settle with videogames for our "art form that the mainstream media and middle-aged people don't care about and/or actively dislike."

There isn't much I could say to anyone out there to try to get them to stop scapegoating videogames. I'd have more luck explaining to someone with self-diagnosed ADHD that the bottles of Ritalin they buy off the street every month might be a sign that they're addicted to stimulants. People hate to lose their excuses and scapegoats, and trying to get someone to do something that they hate almost never works. Thankfully, people seem to love being given advice from random strangers, so let's go with that.

We can start with advice from an expert. I've been lucky enough to meet with Cheryl Olsen (co-author of Grand Theft Childhood) in the past, and she had some particularly enlightening things to say about parenting in the age of gaming. The main thing I took away from both her book and our conversations is that like comic books, TV shows, and action figures, videogames can be powerful things in the lives of children, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. That power can be used just as easily to enrich a child's life as to damage it. Toy therapy is a common technique in child psychology. Videogame therapy could be just as effective, if not more effective, if people only chose to explore it.

As recent studies have shown, videogames can be used as a coping mechanism for people going through difficult emotions. As recent studies haven't shown -- but every gamer knows from experience -- video games can also be used to explore different themes and narrative concepts in a way that's more involving and engaging than other media. They can build problem-solving skills, confidence, and -- depending on the game -- even social skills. Perhaps most importantly, at least to parents, videogames can be used to help get to know people -- specifically, their children. The games that kids choose to play reflect their interests, and in some cases, their psychological needs. If a kid is obsessed with violent videogames (or violent anything), a parent shouldn't worry so much that the games are damaging the kid. They should be worried that the kid is expressing some unresolved anger or other potentially damaging emotion through those games. Instead of taking the games away -- or worse, dismissing the kid's interest in video games (and in the process, dismissing the kid) -- why not find out why your kid loves those games in the first place?

A little while back, when I was getting my Masters degree in social work, I did an internship at a school for "Special Ed" kids, but probably not in the way you think. These kids didn't necessarily have any developmental disabilities. These were kids who had refused to go to school, refused to take tests, assaulted their teachers, destroyed school property, pooped on their desks -- that sort of thing. As you might have guessed, violent videogames were a big hit with this group. I can't remember which Grand Theft Auto had come out that year (I think it was San Andreas), but whatever it was, it was all the kids were talking about; about the game's "gangsta" characters, the game's sexual and violent content, and a lot of times, how they knew they weren't supposed to be playing it.

The two major controlling forces in these kids' lives (their school and their homes) both had strict rules against kids playing M-rated games. Generally, though, these two forces had two distinctly different attitudes toward dealing with those rules. At home, the prevailing attitude was to try to stop the kids, to force them not to play the games they were most interested in. It didn't matter if the the kids lived at home with their families, or at residential programs funded by the state. In either circumstance, it was the norm for the kids to be constantly barraged with rules and commands, and for someone to always be monitoring (and correcting) their behavior.

Obviously, that technique didn't work. If anything, turning GTA into forbidden fruit only caused the kids to love the games more. Just like smoking in the boys' bathroom, half the draw of GTA for this group was the fact that playing it made them feel grown-up. The other half came from the fact that grown-ups didn't want them to play it. Rebellion against adults and assertion of adulthood in one package; it's attracted millions, maybe billions, of teenagers to drinking alcohol, sneaking into R-rated movies, and stripping in front of webcams. It's also done wonders for the sales of the GTA series.

But I digress.

At school, things were a little different. When you're trying to actually teach people something, it's important to pick your battles. Trying to get the kids to not like M-rated games was the least of our problems. Just keeping the students physically in the school, but not physically assaulting each other, was our number-one priority. Bonding over a mutual love of crime simulators wasn't something we encouraged the kids to do, but it was a hell of a lot better than witnessing them try to kill each other.

Being the risk-taking dumbass that I am, benign neglect wasn't enough for me. I wanted to acknowledge that our kids were playing violent videogames, and try to make that work for them. One kid in particular (let's call him Bobby) really, really loved GTA. He'd go on and on all day about how much he loved the music, the violence, the way that it felt when he killed people, and how all of it was "so baller." I felt like he was trying to get a rise out of me, but I didn't bite. Instead, I asked him if he'd ever played Resident Evil 4. As I recall, his response was something like, "What? Evil? THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!"

I let him borrow the game. I found out later that I had violated the rules of his residential program by doing so. Luckily, neither of us got in trouble for that, but Bobby still wasn't too happy with how the situation played out. He didn't get punished by his program, but he did get punished by Resident Evil 4. He hated the game. He said he hated it more than any other game he'd ever played.

As a huge fan of that particular game, I thought that was really interesting, though not entirely unexpected. As anyone who's played both games will tell you, the "action" violence in GTA sets a very different tone than the "horror" violence in Resident Evil 4. That difference in tone struck a chord with Bobby, and that chord gave both of us the opportunity to better understand Bobby as a person.

Bobby told me that Resident Evil 4 wasn't fun because there were always more people coming at him, and that they weren't afraid of him. He said that he felt angry and guilty when Leon inevitably got his head cut off by the chainsaw guy, and that he never felt like he was safe or fully in control. The game didn't really seem to scare him, but it definitely made him feel bad. He said he was tempted to play it again because he hated the characters in the game so much that he wanted revenge on them, but that he doubted his own ability to ever take that revenge without getting killed in the process, and that pissed him off.


Now it probably goes without saying, but Bobby bullied the other kids sometimes. Every kid in this school did, even those at the very bottom of the pecking order. These kids would bully inanimate objects if they had to. It didn't matter, as long as it made them feel better. It also goes without saying that in a school of bullies, everyone also gets bullied, but very few of them seemed to understand that cycle. They were so out of touch with their behaviors and their emotions that they didn't even notice how their behaviors created their experiences. As it turned out, Resident Evil 4 was the perfect catalyst to help change that, at least for Bobby.

I tried to explain to Bobby that in GTA, he was like the bad guys in Resident Evil 4: a relentless killing machine that the normal people were powerless to stop. I explained to him that when he hurt people in real life, scared people, or made fun of people, he made them feel as powerless as the villagers did in Resident Evil 4, and that making people feel powerless starts a potential cycle of abuse that will always come back to bite you. Just as he wanted to go back and kill the villagers in Resident Evil 4, a lot of the kids whom he made feel powerless wanted to come back and kill him, and that's maybe why he got a chair thrown at him the other day. Linking his virtual experiences in videogames to his real-life experiences seemed to help him make sense of himself and his life.

At least, that's what he led me to believe. Whether I "got through" to Bobby or not, he definitely seemed to appreciate the effort. More than any sort of simplistic counseling or insight-building, I think what was important about my time with Bobby was that he felt that we connected. When you're trying to understand someone, it goes without saying that it helps to not make them feel judged or otherwise threatened. I think that's the part of counseling, and parenting, that most consistently makes a difference in people's lives: the part where you try to put the other person first, and understand them.

There is obviously a lot more to parenting than that, but it's still a key to dealing with the generation gap, especially when it comes to something as divisive as videogames. Parents, don't make your kids feel judged for being gamers. Don't make them feel inadequate based on their interests. That will only push them farther away from you, and closer to whatever it is that you think they should be avoiding. The directing and censoring aspect of parenting is important, too, but more so with kids ten and under. After that, it's time to stop connecting with your kids like a little alien army that you command, and more like fellow human beings -- or you won't be connecting with them at all.

The one thing almost all the chronically violent people I've ever met have had in common is a feeling of emotional disconnection from those around them. Sometimes that's because they're sociopaths -- they simply aren't capable of forming real emotional connections with others. Other times, it's because they just don't have people in their lives whom they can connect with. Whether you have a "problem child" or not, I think it's sensible to make sure your kids don't feel alone and/or unsupported in whatever they're doing.

That's just common sense, right? Or is there something big I'm missing here? Parents, how do you go about relating with your kids when it comes to gaming? Those of you still living with your parents, how do your parents take to your interest in gaming? Do they accept it, judge you for it, or just ignore it?

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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