A little disclosure here: I haven’t bought Grand Theft Auto V. I’ve never been a huge fan of the franchise (I can take ‘em or leave ‘em), and my husband and I are so busy these days that neither one of us has had much time for games anyway. I’ll pick it up eventually, or it will arrive in my mailbox in a GameFly envelope in approximately February 2014, when their supply catches up with demand, and until that vague future date, I’m not fussed. But even if we did have a shiny new copy? There’s one person in my house who wouldn’t be playing along, and that’s my five-year-old son.
A few months ago, I wrote about my decision to let my son — then four — play the Left 4 Dead games. Since then, we’ve let him get into Halo 3 and the other games on the Orange Box (he was already a Portal aficionado). These were similarly drawn-out decisions, discussions of length between me and my husband. We knew he was getting bored with his games, and we were having a hard time finding something he liked. We tried a few recommendations (including Ni No Kuni), but nothing really gelled with him. He got into Half-Life immediately, and we’ve played through most of that with him now. Between that and Halo, we’ve had a lot of discussions about good aliens and bad aliens and saving the world.
Halo’s a funny thing, though, and something I may write about in the future. He’ll play the game, but he’d rather go into empty multiplayer levels either with me or my husband, or with him manning both controls, and just run around. We turn on crazy options and he treats the Spartans like electronic dolls, bouncing them around, racing the vehicles, and having a non-violent blast with his violent game.
Kids, man. Nothing like them.
So if I’m so free with what my son is allowed to play, why not GTA V? Why not any of the other games I’ve kept aside from him, like Dead Island, or Killer is Dead? For our family, the criteria isn’t as simple as rating, and not even easily defined by content. I didn’t let him in the room while I took on The Last of Us because the storyline seemed too sad and adult. Killer is Dead is too absurd, too hyperviolent, too jiggly. Dead Island is the same, and the zombie screams and yells seem too human. I’m not ready to cross those lines with him.
In GTA V, it’s all just folks. How do I begin to explain nihilism and the antihero to my son? While I don’t doubt those are conversations we’ll have some day, the closest we’ve gotten to such concepts are a few episodes of Firefly and Finn and Jake’s questionable moments in Adventure Time. How would I explain to my son, who isn’t terribly good at driving video game cars, that it’s okay that he just ran someone over so long as he avoids the police? How do I separate the in-game police — people to avoid — from the real-world police, who I want to believe are there to help people in times of need? Is he capable of this level of nuance at his age? My gut says no, and my experience with him agrees.
With games like Left 4 Dead, Halo, and Half-Life, we can discuss survival, the role of the hero, and strategy (same as we do when we play board games). “Gotta try to keep your teammates alive,” I tell him, as we’re navigating the bridge at the end of the Parish level. “We want to get everyone out on the helicopter. Keep everyone safe from zombies.”
This is easy. Coach, Ellis, Rochelle, even rude, foul-mouthed Nick, these are the good guys. They help each other. Someone goes down, a teammate gets them up. The zombies are a ravening horde. They’re the bad guys. Alyx Vance might not share her pistol (he’s bitter about this), but she’s there to help Jack-as-Gordon in the fight against the aliens. When we play Halo-the-game instead of Halo-the-dollhouse, we’re fighting aliens. Yes, there are nuances in these narratives we can talk about when he’s older — what the symbol of zombies might mean, in different interpretations, for example, or why we’re so quick to assume in these stories that aliens (different) are bad. But these enemies aren’t real. They’re created.
Recently he told us he would like to take some different foods to school in his lunches, like his beloved fishsticks (sigh). They’re no good cold, we said. But he was adamant, and reminded us there are microwaves in the cafeteria. Okay, we said. You’ve got to learn how to use them so you don’t get sick or blow up your food. No, no, he said. There are lunch aides who will do it for him.
At this point, there were many directions we could take the conversation, and while we decided to stick out the course of promoting independence, it’s no fun if it’s not funny, so I said, “Well, what if everyone’s arms and legs were broken and they couldn’t help? What then?”
“That wouldn’t happen, Mama,” he said. “Not all at once.”
My husband said, “What if the school is attacked by giant cheese monsters from outer space and the only way to defeat them is to put them in the microwave and melt them?”
“The lunch aides would do it,” Jack said, but he was giggling so hard it wasn’t quite clear.
“But what if they were busy? What if they needed help?” said husband, and I added, “What if the teachers were busy fighting off a huge zombie horde that attacked at the same time, and you and your friends had to melt all the crazy space alien cheese monsters?”
“But that wouldn’t happen either, Mama.”
“Because zombies aren’t even real.”
Cheese monsters, though, might be. Who knows what comes from space? But the point is, he knows these games are not real. He knows when we play-fight and wrestle that it’s not real, that if someone ever actually hits him, it’s a bad thing. If he hits someone, it’s a bad thing. Real guns are a bad thing, and we treat sharp objects with respect. But how do I explain that it’s okay to shoot people in a world that looks real, but isn’t? That you mistrust the police who look just like our police? That it’s okay to hurt people, to steal, if it helps you make money in a game? That the sorts of stereotypes presented in GTA V are possibly okay because some of them are satirical and we can talk about the wealth of narrative that came before, and how the game fits into it? Hardly. Here, the nuances are different, the path rockier, and details more finely pointed.
I may let my child play a lot of games other children his age aren’t allowed to play, but I’ll never be that parent in GameStop shrugging my shoulders, unconcerned about content and ratings or the inevitable conclusion that my child will “play it anyway,” like the parents in this guest editorial at Kotaku. Every time we open a game box, we’ve had a discussion, we’ve considered the options, we’ve determined what we need to do as parents to make sure this wonderful, gentle child we are blessed to have has the tools he needs to understand the game reality and how to operate within it, and what bearing it has — or doesn’t — on the world outside. Grand Theft Auto V and games like it aren’t likely to enter our world for a long, long time. In the meantime, though, we will be kicking some serious zombie butt.