I gave my son his first controller when he was six months old, an old Xbox brick that he could pound on while he was sitting in his high chair. The shiny buttons didn’t fascinate him as much as I’d hoped, but like any delighted gamer mama, I snapped photos whenever he picked up the controller, and dreamed of a future playing side-by-side with my little one, just as I’d grown up playing with my dad.
As Jack grew older, he often sat with me while I played. He clocked a lot of lap time during my brief flirtation with World of Warcraft (he called my lady characters by the collective “little man,” as in, “I want the little man!”) and loved to make my avatar jump and move. Another favorite was Beautiful Katamari; his laughter echoed through the house when I rolled up wiggling cows and protesting people. But it was a long time before we found a game he could play on his own.
It wasn’t until we moved across the country and bought him an iPad so we could chat easily with family back home that he found his way. I downloaded a number of kid-friendly titles, games meant to encourage reading and math skills, and he took to them right away. I confess I breathed a small sigh of relief: my son was a gamer at last. Jack, though, wasn’t completely satisfied. He still wanted to be like mama and his stepdad, and play games on the television with the controller.
We’re very careful about what we play in front of him. We have daytime games and nighttime games, and anything that involved violence against realistic-seeming creatures was off-limits. This doesn’t mean we fully shelved games like Mass Effect or the Elder Scrolls series during the day, but we limited our play sessions to running around exploring, or fighting a Skyrim dragon or two. Jack loved to sit next to one of us, holding the extra controller so he could be “the lightning hand” as we fought across Skyrim. But every game he tried on the Xbox was a failure. He was four then, and he still could not master the controller.
Jack has always gotten frustrated easily. Patience is something we’ve had to continually work on. He doesn’t like to fail, and he doesn’t like it when technology fails him, as sometimes happens when we play Kinect or Wii games, for instance, and he’d always had a fairly short attention span in general, which didn’t help. So we would let him try any Xbox game he wanted that fell within our aforementioned rules (or at least had play that could be adapted, like Skyrim), but he couldn’t play anything as well as he wanted, and he would get angry and have a mini-meltdown. It was so hard to watch him want to play, and we were at a loss – everything we’d tried had been a no-go.
Everything changed one night when he climbed out of bed and walked into the living room while my husband and I were playing Left 4 Dead 2. The L4D series is high on my list of all-time favorites, and since it’s one of the few games that offers a really rich same-console co-op experience anymore, we often played together. This was a game firmly in the nighttime category, off-limits to the munchkin, and we’d had to pause it before, and often, when we’d hear his little running feet down the hall. But this time we were embroiled, or he was quiet, and the hall was dark, and he was there in the living room before we noticed. “What’s that?” he asked, totally in awe. “Are those zombies?” Instantly, he was hooked.
Jack had always loved monsters, zombies most of all. Kids pick up on what their parents like, of course, and zombies were our go-to instead of werewolves or vampires or monsters who live under beds and in closets. So seeing all the things he craved, zombies, on a game, and on the elusive Xbox… well, it was a cocktail for obsession. He asked us about the game for days. Weeks. “Let’s play that one game, mommy. With the zombies,” he would wheedle. “Can I see it?” And I confess, reader, I was weak. I caved. I told myself that the graphics were kind of muddy and there wasn’t that much gore, so what the heck. I gave in and loaded up Left 4 Dead 2 as my son settled in on the couch.
Of course, he took to it instantly. He was like an entirely different kid. He struggled with it for a few minutes, looking from the screen to the controller and back, but he was so determined that he played past his initial frustration and then away he went.
Jack has also always loved toy weapons, and that hasn’t been an easy thing to handle. I’ve read so many treatises on kids and fake weapons, but one that really stuck with me came from Heather Shumaker’s It’s Ok Not To Share and Other Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids. Don’t take the weapons away, Shumaker says. You don’t want to train your kids to think they have to do the things that interest them in secret, especially if what interests them is weapons. Teach them, play with them, and let them know that their interests are important to you… but set guidelines. I think that’s good advice, and it applies to a lot of considerations here. I know my allowing him to play such a violent game is a controversial decision. It’s something I struggled with then, and I’ve continued to question whether or not I did the right thing. There’s no clear path through the challenge of parenting. I can’t bounce onto GameFAQs when I get stuck. When I decided that day to sit down and play L4D2 with him, we took an alternate path, and we’ve had to find our own way.
One thing I wonder is: where should we draw the line on violence in children’s play? A lot of kid-games are naturally violent, and not just those that involve the frequent “bang-bangs!” Should we only be concerned about violence in video games? I’m not convinced. I will say no one but me has, to my knowledge, ever told my son to stop crashing his cars together or derailing his trains. Watching him send a car tumbling off a cliff made from a box makes me a little uncomfortable, I have to say, and I am always the one who will bring him the Hot Wheels ambulance and fire trucks. “Are the people okay?” I’ll ask him. “They should sure be more careful.” It’s become standard now for him to bring in the search and rescue teams when his car-play goes awry, as it so often does, and it pleases me to see he’s thinking now about these things, about how it’s probably bad to drive full speed into a wall. I challenge him to think about similar things when he’s playing Left 4 Dead. “Be careful there,” I’ll tell him. “You want to help keep your teammates safe.” Maybe it’s not the most traditional way of protecting him, but it’s part of the path we’ve found.
I’ve read a lot of the research on violent games and what effect they might have on both adults and children, and there are a number of warring conclusions and gray areas. No one really knows if children become desensitized to violence simply by playing games, though I’m sure it can be a factor, as can television or exposure to anything else. But child-rearing is a holistic experience, and there’s more to Jack than his fascination for Left 4 Dead. We have always played with him, from that first day. That day, I spent time explaining everything that was happening, from strategy to more philosophic considerations (how did the zombies get there? Were they people?), and have set limits both on how long he can play and what he can do. Once he figured out friendly fire was possible on the harder difficulties, he decided it would be fun to shoot his teammates. We had a long talk after that one, about not shooting your friends and the importance of teamwork (and, y’know, not being an asshole). And there are still some games I don’t let him play or watch. Dead Island was a definite nighttime game, for not only the violence but the exploitation-style treatment of characters, as was Dishonored. We’re careful with movies, too, though this past weekend, Jack chose the original Night of the Living Dead for family movie night (he’s been trying this one for months), and I finally allowed him to watch it. Most of it, of course, went over his head, but we spent a lot of time discussing the ending.
I talk to my child, and always have. I know his understanding of the world is limited by both age and experience, but that doesn’t stop me from approaching him with sophisticated concepts and trying to help him engage with everything around him. One night this past April, Jack got out of bed and came into the living room to find me crying, listening to online radio. He came immediately to comfort me, and I explained, in simple terms, that I was concerned for friends in Boston who were in locked-down neighborhoods while the police searched for men who had been involved in a terrible bombing. We talked for a long time, and I let him listen to the police chatter. I hesitated, but thought explaining was better than lying to him. I shield my son… but not, perhaps, as much as some, or as much as some people think I should.
In the end, I can’t know if what I did was the right thing, but I can say this: once Jack found a game that he could play, and play well, he became a different kid. His attention span grew and he was able to focus more. His fine motor skills improved, and he quickly developed a pretty sophisticated (for a then-four-year-old) idea of strategy. There’s also a lot of research, after all, on the benefits of playing games, and I watched those abilities blossom as Jack played his game. It didn’t really matter what game it was; it was that he was focused, thinking, interacting, and it was changing him. It was rather amazing to see.
After several months, he stopped playing Left 4 Dead. He got more into PowerUp Heroes, a Kinect game, and we bought Lego Star Wars. We played the haunting and beautiful Limbo, though I turned off the horrifying deaths. He adores Portal. He plays Haunted Hollow on his iPad, and every Angry Birds incarnation he can find. Recently, though, his love of all things zombie brought him back to Left 4 Dead, and at age five, we’ve allowed him to watch (but not play) State of Decay a little. His fascination with the games has spread all over the house, and even when he wasn’t playing the video game Left 4 Dead, his own version dominated some of his play hours, when I’d frequently hear him yell, “I need some help over here!” in his best Coach voice (it almost made me want to let him watch the Walking Dead, since Coach’s voice actor showed up as Tyrese, but that one’s firmly off limits). “C’mon, mommy,” he’ll say to me. “Get to the safe room!” And then he’ll blast the hell out of the nearest wall with a toy rifle, or wrestle his giant stuffed reindeer (who makes a great zombie stand-in). We bought him a plush tank from the Left 4 Dead store, too, and I think its giant purple body and ridiculous face has helped keep the game firmly in play-land and not real-world areas.
As for whether or not Jack is desensitized in some way from his exposure to Left 4 Dead and zombies in general, I don’t know. I can say that he’s a sweet, caring child. Recently, he lost a pet goldfish, and he was so torn up that he could only lie on his bed and cry for hours. We buried Mr. Fishy around the side of the house, and we talked about decomposition and how his fish would help feed the earth. He checks frequently on the gravesite, reporting back with excitement on every new bit of flora in the area. The other day, when we were cleaning up after Independence Day fireworks, he took the water I’d laid out for emergencies. “I’m going to pour it on the fishy,” he said. “He might want some water.”
He’s a good kid, this one. And, hey, come the apocalypse, he’ll never argue about the importance of boarding up the windows and stockpiling supplies.