In response to a posting I had put on the internal buy-and-sell website at work looking for kids' games for the XBox I got free with my TV and Internet service, a colleague gave me a copy of Halo3 that he was done with. This FPS game is rated M for Mature because of "Blood and gore, violence and mild language", and my first reaction was to give it away as being inappropriate for a kid Thing One's age (he will turn 11 this month). However, aware of my prejudices against games in general, and rather than make a snap judgment in ignorance, I decided to ask fellow parents on Twitter and Facebook whether a game like Halo3 would be appropriate for an 11 year-old raised on a diet of LEGO Star Wars and EA Sports titles.
The responses I got ran the gamut from someone whose son played the game from 5 years old and isn't a serial killer yet, to another who thinks that such games are a cause of mental illness in children, with some responses from people I know well that were not what I would have expected (in both directions). One of the more interesting comments was from someone who thought that the leap from LEGO Star Wars to Halo3 might be too much at once. Does this mean that I am failing to introduce my kids to blood and gore at the appropriate pace? I am being flippant of course, but it does raise an interesting point: we take pains to introduce our children to alcohol, relationships, movies, sex, driving and a host of other adult things in ways that won't overwhelm them or get them hurt - why not video games? As in so many things, total abstinence may do more harm than good.
On the advice in another comment, I also looked at some YouTube videos of live game action, and apart from recognizably humanoid bodies crumpling to the ground with repetitively robotic cries of anguish, and the rather off-putting references to "killing sprees", I didn't see any of the blood and gore the rating label promised. Doom was way worse in that regard. Interestingly, many of the people who responded to my question pointed out that the bodies where aliens, and the blood was green and purple, as if that made it better.
The whole issue got me thinking about my attitude to violence in my children's games. Games involving crime or violence against police are a no-brainer. So are games with "real" people in them. However, how is shooting aliens in Halo3 not OK, but smashing little LEGO men to pieces is? Toy guns, indeed replica weapons of any kind, are verboten in my house (as they were in my parents'), but not toy soldiers, or models of military aircraft. With some disgust, I removed an all too realistic deer-hunting game from Thing One's iTouch a while ago, but I cannot wait to take him to play laser tag again. Where is the line between bits of LEGO and purple blood?
I guess all I can do as a parent is trust my instinct. Much like the Supreme Court's interpretation of pornography, "we know it when we see it" and, if an FPS game makes me uncomfortable, then there is probably good reason for it. But there is always the risk that I allow my prejudice, ignorance and disinterest to make for an overly rigid regime in this area (and many others, if Thing One's grumbling about bedtimes, TV viewing times and so on is anything to go by!). As a parent, I have a duty to educate and inform myself so I am equipped to deal with issues that hadn't even been invented when I was the age my kids are now, but also so that I'm not overly strict where it is not warranted.
At the end of the day, however, my job is to parent. Kids will always say that "everyone else is doing it" (didn't we do just the same!), and unless I teach my children that a) they probably aren't and b) those that are probably shouldn't be, I equip them poorly for when the thing "everyone" is doing is genuinely harmful, and they have to make that judgment call for themselves.
Oh, by the way, does anyone want a copy of Halo3?