When my 11-year-old and I went to the videogame store to buy the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 game on the day it was released publicly, the cashier asked me if I knew about the level in the game in which players looking down the barrel of an automatic weapon calmly walk through a shopping mall shooting as many unarmed shoppers as possible. There is an easy way to eliminate that section, she explained, that leaves the rest of the game undisturbed.
Walking out to the car, I thought it through and settled on an approach that is consistent with my wife and my parenting style. I have found my son to be a responsible boy who has listened to me talk repeatedly about fantasy violence and real violence and instances in which videogame playing kids have mixed the two up (read: Columbine High School). My wife and I generally feel that it is best to deal with most sensitive, controversial issues openly. If possible, we let them get a taste of whatever is at issue to open up a more advanced discussion based on direct experience. I want my kids to know about hot-button issues and why society treats politics, religions, sex, violence the way it does. We present both sides of any argument, answer their questions and pose questions of our own to them to gauge where they are at. What we don’t often do is prohibit or shield them from getting information. We figure that our children, like most children, are resourceful enough to find out about prohibited stuff from other sources, such as friends, the internet, or television.
Sitting in the car with the new Call of Duty game, I first asked him what he thought we should do about the section the cashier mentioned to us. I wanted to hear his honest answer before he got a whiff of mine. He said he wanted to “see how brutal it is.” I told him I objected to a game that included this kind of violence against civilians but that we’d make a deal; he’d do the shopping mall shoot ’em up once when his 8-year-old brother was not around and then that would be it. He and many of his friends play Xbox live and they would all soon buy and begin playing this new game (at the game store, this particular game’s pre-orders were ten times more popular than the #2 game of the season). I calculated that if he didn’t get the opportunity to shoot up the shopping mall in his own bedroom, he’d eventually get it a friend’s house during a future sleepover. I told him that I understand M-rated videogames depicting the violence of combat, but that shooting regular people in a shopping mall seemed like a stupid thing to include in a game for kids his age. (When I was a journalist 20 years ago, I remember interviewing a counselor at juvenile justice facility who said that the gangbangers involved in guns and drugs in their care even see one scene of violence on television, they go apeshit and want to fight each other right there in the tv room.)
That evening my son invited one of his videogame-playing friends to try out the new game. Sure enough, that boy, also 11, knew all about the killing unarmed civillians section and wanted to play that right off the bat. I told the friend about the deal my son had made and to not play that level now. They agreed not to play.
A couple days later, I conferred with my wife to ensure she agrees with the approach I took. I also sought out the opinion of my brother-in-law in Seattle who plays online with my two sons. He told me that the controversial section is not actually shooting up a shopping mall, but rather an airport. The section was a part of a loose narrative plot that runs throughout the game in which players infiltrate a Russian terrorist cell and kill tons of civilians in a Russian airport to prove their bonafides to the Russian terrorists who the player hopes to eventually defeat. He sent me a youtube link that walks through the entire jarring sequence.
I watched it all and it is indeed brutal as hell. I gotta hand it to the game designers for creating a realism that does a good job of conveying what it feels like to spread terror among a civilian population. It made me queasy that the game designers set the airport in Russia as if to say that it is semi-okay to kill civilians when they aren’t Americans.
And I’ll also admit I cringed a bit at the thought of my son actually playing this level.
But I stuck to the original deal I made. As a parent, I feel most comfortable knowing that he and I discussed the violence of the game, he understands my concerns and I understand his natural curiosity and that we both accommodated each other’s needs. I agreed to let him play something that I object to and he agreed to limit himself to one time only. Such an agreement only works because I trust my son to stick to his end of the bargain when I am not around to monitor him. And the reason I can trust him is because we deal with many issues in this manner. He knows that betraying the trust I have in him will cost him much more than just the opportunity to shoot up an airport on his Xbox, and that losing his parents’ trust is a real price to pay for some fantasy violence.