Something interesting happened over the winter break. I'm not naming names, but a certain 5 1/2 –year-old whose name rhymes with “Benson” turned into a gaming fanatic, addicted to playing Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga on our Wii.
It wasn't his first time using the gaming system, but previously we played more innocent games such as bowling and tennis via Wii Sports. Sure, we've also allowed him to play thinking and puzzle games on our iPhone and iPad, but now my son Ensen (which rhymes with Benson) was engrossed in being a Jedi and slaying every enemy in his way. I'm not too sure how I feel about this.
On one hand, I think it's utterly intriguing that a 5-year-old kid has the ability to pick up the concept of using a complicated set of controllers with way too many buttons and use it efficiently in a matter of an hour. It's also cute to see how he can coach his parents on how to play the game after a few days, guide the team successfully through a new level and rejoice in the fact that we defeated the enemies.
It got me thinking and questioning whether this new gaming passion was good for him. Are video games a positive or negative stimulant for young kids still developing in many ways both mentally and physically?
I vaguely recalled reading a story on the Men's Health website last year titled, “Are Video Games Dangerous,” by Kevin Donahue. The story provided some great insights and suggestions on how parents can best manage kids who love their video games. Donahue gets to the serious point by interviewing Jedd Hafer of the Love and Logic Institute. Hafer notes that while children can tell the difference between make-believe and reality, there is a lot more to the issue at hand. The realities shared by Hafer in the following paragraphs certainly got my attention:
The bad news is that violent video games have been shown to have a cumulative effect on things like mood and empathy. Think heavy metal poisoning—a little bit won't kill you, but too much and you have problems. When you see a person die violently in a movie, you might have an empathetic reaction. I even wince when the bad guy gets impaled at the end of . . . well, every Bruce Willis action movie from the 1990s.
But when you play a violent video game, you are the one doing the shooting and your internal reaction when the bad guy gets shot is “Yes, I win!” There is a reason that the police and military use simulators. They do prepare us for and de-sensitize us to the real thing.
Love and Logic believes that kids should make lots of affordable mistakes. The question becomes “what is affordable?” Can an average, healthy kid play some military games in moderation without much effect? Probably. Have kids with violent tendencies rehearsed horrific acts that they later carried out in real life? I live less than 45 minutes from Columbine High School and I can tell you the tragic answer. The Columbine shooters literally practiced for their attack.
Reading this story again certainly has me thinking twice about allowing Ensen to play Lego Star Wars again. We were pretty lenient in letting him play at will during the break, but now that school is back in session, it's only on weekends that he can enjoy this entertainment. But is that still too much and what will happen in the long run? Who knows?
Like Hefer, Kelly and I also believe in being practical and for the time being will still allow our son to enjoy the game under careful supervision. Our plan is to continue regular conversations with Ensen on his interpretation of what's going on in the game, in his mind, and certainly ensure priorities of socializing with others, doing his homework, getting a good night's rest, and remaining empathetic to others is a priority.
I'd love to hear from other parents who have gone through, or are currently going through, this parenting dilemma. More importantly, how they dealt with that certain someone who created the little video monster sitting on your couch. ;-)
Nathan Kam is a Honolulu public-relations executive, husband and a proud daddy of two incredible kids, Ensen (5) and Avery (2), who enjoys cooking, gardening, traveling, blogging and golfing. You can reach him via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or via his personal Kam Family Blog.