Gaming Violence and Children

I grew up the son of a liberal Mennonite pastor. My dad was, and still is, a conscientious objector. Instead of serving in Vietnam, he did mission work in Brazil.

I recall conversations at the dining table about people struggling with the idea of paying taxes that went to the United States military complex. I knew of people who had refused to pay huge chunk of taxes, withholding the amount that would’ve went to the military. They would instead give that withheld money to organizations that promoted peace and justice.

My parents discouraged me from playing with guns. But when your primary toy is Lego, guns are easy to make. My parents discouraged me from watching violent TV, but I would sneak in an episode of the A-Team or later the Dirty Dozen.

The summer before my 6th grade year, a friend introduced me to my first RPG: Star Frontiers. I was immediately hooked. I loved the thought of reenacting Star Wars and Star Trek. To explore. To pilot a ship through a dogfight.

My freshman year in high school, the first Gulf War was beginning, and I recall many brave students standing up in chapel – I attended a private Mennonite high school – and saying they were not going to register for the draft. This meant no federal aid for college.

By this time, I had been playing Rolemaster and Dungeons & Dragons, games that placed a tremendous amount of rules explanation on combat and fighting.  And I maintain that by placing emphasis on combat, combat is more likely to occur.

I also began playing Axis & Allies, Civilization, Diplomacy, Magic the Gathering, and Warhammer. All of these games had abstract combat, but the means to victory is always through conflict.

When it came time to register for the draft, I wrote “Conscientious Objector” all over the draft card. I also wrote a letter, which I assume is still on file at my high school, stating that my conscientious objector status was not something that came about on a whim.

And over the years, I’ve continued to play role-playing games; Some sessions are full of combat, others are very light on combat. And while combat can be memorable and exciting, I have always looked upon it as something somewhat competitive.

Combat rules, more than anything, seem to receive the most scrutiny. It is in this arena, where two or more players engage the rules with little concern for the mechanics. Hit points are abstract, just as the damaging attack is.

But violence, that is a different thing from combat. When I am playing, I am not looking to channel some untapped unpleasant destructive urge through my role-playing games; I am simply looking to engage with the game and seek an escape for me and my friends around the table.

There have been times during a game of Diplomacy, where violent thoughts most certainly crossed my mind. And there have been role-playing games where heated arguments turned somewhat ugly, but even then violence was not part of the equation.

Trying to then frame this all in the context of children, I have to look back with my paternal eyes upon my experience. I have always felt physically and emotionally safe playing role-playing games. I know this is not likely the case for everyone, but I believe that is more a function of who you end up playing with than the system you play.

Role-playing games are ultimately a framework for telling a collaborative story, with a focus on providing a means for conflict resolution. RPGs are simply structured “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers” or “House.”

For myself, in middle school and high school, I gained a tremendous amount of self-confidence through the mastery of the rules systems.

Here was an arena in which my friends and I were in control. We were the strong and athletic, the movers and shakers of the world. There was a comfort in having this control, as my country waged war and my parents divorced.

In my rather intense studying of games and rules, I learned about probability, subsystems, abstraction, mental arithmetic, project management, communication skills, managing meetings, planning, writing, drawing, expanded vocabulary, and likely a whole lot more. A long list of things to learn at the expense of engaging in fantasy violence.

This post is in response to Jeremy Garber’s winning comment in my 202nd Post Competition.

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2 thoughts on “Gaming Violence and Children

  1. Very nice entry – thanks! I like the biographical reflections here. I think the most important point in your entry is, ” I have always felt physically and emotionally safe playing role-playing games. I know this is not likely the case for everyone, but I believe that is more a function of who you end up playing with than the system you play.” Speaks to the importance of a connected, safe, and fun community for whatever activity you engage in. I grew up in similar circumstances, played similar games, and am now a professional theologian with an explicit commitment to nonviolence – and I still play similar games, both myself and with my daughter. As my Mennonite pastor in Minnesota said, “I’m a pacifist for real the rest of the week. Tonight, I’m Germany in Axis and Allies, and I’m going to kick your ass.”

  2. I am a Quaker (another peace oriented faith) who is married to a Methodist who served in the recent Iraq war. I create games, I see the world in differing colors. I too believe in the significance of Jeremy’s comment about feeling physically and emotionally safe in the world of role-playing games. I also believe as Johan Huizinga said: “Culture arises in and out of play”. Then I add my layer that humans to survive must be adaptable to their immediate environments and each person must have a centered sense of self to survive the adaptations.
    Games are more than entertainment, and sometimes due to different layered effects they can just be entertainment.
    A study in the late 90’s looked at children’s response to violent games. One of the conclusions stated that children who were prone to some degree of violence in their behavior exhibited more violent behavior in their playtime after they had played a violent computer game, than those children who did not have violent tendencies.
    Some people might see that as a “duh” response, of course a child with more aggressive or violent tendencies will act out after playing a violent game. It was seen by some as the character of the child and that was that.
    That is too superficial. Why is the child violent? Why would they be predisposed to violence? Violence, is a learned trait. There is aggressiveness in defense, sometimes escalating to violence, but aside from hunting for food, violence is a learned trait.
    It could be that the basis of their lives, their adaptation, is from a culture within their family that uses aggressiveness to gain attention, “to survive” in their family. Or it could be chemically oriented within the brain.
    Yet, there are many people who do not act violently to situations, perhaps because the layered effects in their environments do not allow violence to arise.
    I remember working at a game company where one of my co-workers, a programmer, — had just recently become a new father. He was always playing a first person shooter during his lunch. We worked on a project together and one day as we were going over the game engine mapping, he looked at me with concern. “You know, I have just realized in the last few days, how violent this game is”.
    When you have a future culture (a new baby) to worry about, it’s interesting how other thoughts color our perceptions.

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