originally published December 29, 2013

Yesterday morning I was confronted with one of those pivotal moments in the parental experience, one in which a father finds himself perched upon the precipice of coolness, wavering like a basketball on a hoop’s rim. Do I tilt toward the two points and lock in my status as the awesome dad? Or reject the score in the interest of conservative reason and cautious prevention?

My daughter, who had recently acquired an impressive amount of Christmas cash from relatives who didn’t want to gamble with clothes sizes or outdated notions of what her fleeting interests might be at this moment, told us she wanted to purchase Grand Theft Auto V. The family became immediately polarized: “It’s violent.” “It’s fun.” “It’s misogynistic.” “The city is magnificently rendered.” “Did I tell you about the doctor that performed my hip replacement?” (Grandma has a way of bumping a conversation onto a wholly different track.)

It came down to me. Of course I don’t want my daughter exposed to a negative influence; it’s bad enough that she watches crappy TLC shows for hours on end. But she’s sixteen years old, not at all violent in nature, and apart from a handful of truly flummoxing quirks, she’s an astoundingly well-adjusted kid. So what do I do?

Let the controversy begin.

In 1976, a game called Death Race hit local arcades, stirring up the first controversy on the shelf of violent video games. Players control a car and try to steer over ‘gremlins’ (which look a lot like little stick-people), turning them into little tombstones when they do. The National Safety Council called it sick and morbid. 60 Minutes ran a story about the psychological impact of video games. The technology was still four years shy of Pac-Man, and already parents were alarmed.

In retrospect, any fear that this monochrome blip-fest might unleash a be-mulleted teen’s inner monster is laughable. But now we have hyper-realism in video games. The cars move with some semblance of logical response, and the pedestrians are not stickmen but a multicultural slew of blood-toting human replicas, who splatter and break apart much as we’d imagine an actual person would.

When I was just a few years older than my daughter is now, the western world was breaking apart at its foundation because of the release of Mortal Kombat and its ilk. I was never an avid participant in the ‘savage beating’ genre of games, but I remember chuckling at the cartoonish violence in much the same way I’d later enjoy the ridiculous slaughter scenes in the Kill Bill movies. But for US Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the bloodshed in these games was worthy of legislative hearings.

Andrea Wilson sued Midway Games when her 13-year-old was stabbed in the chest by a friend who was ‘obsessed’ with Mortal Kombat and believed he was Cyrax, one of the game’s characters. The court ruled that the stabbing action was not actually one of Cyrax’s ‘Fatality’ finishing moves, and the game makers were not deemed responsible.

So are violent video games turning our young people into savage, merciless killers?

The short answer is… I don’t know, maybe?

There have been a heap of studies which have attempted to slap down a final word on the impact of video game violence. Some came up with an assertive “yes”, insisting that there is an absolute correlation between teen violence and the presence of gory games in their lives. A number of books have been written by educated voices with meticulously-conceived and well-reasoned arguments. People like former West Point psychology professor Lt. Col. David Grossman, who believes first-person shooter games are ‘murder simulators,’ and condemns the desensitization to bloody violence that occurs – as he sees it – because of these games.

Dr. Craig A. Anderson associates the cause-effect of game violence to real violence with the link between smoking and lung cancer. Sure, there are studies that will come up with nothing more than a shoulder-shrug when it comes to connecting the two, but common sense and a number of other studies show incontrovertible evidence of causality. It’s a they-said / they-said kind of thing.

So with all these experts wagging their accusatory fingers at video game bloodshed, who’s stepping to the other side of the debate? Well, the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health for one. Also the British Medical Journal. Both have conducted studies that have shown no link between game violence and real violence. A US government study prompted Surgeon General David Satcher to declare a minimal impact of media violence on violent behavior.

Even the Secret Service got involved, looking into the histories of 41 kids who brought weapons to school and opened fire. Only 12% of those kids played violent video games and 27% watched violent films. I don’t know how that compares with the norm, but those are incredibly low numbers. A number of meta-studies have procured a more logical conclusion: kids who are otherwise exposed to violence in their lives are more likely to be pushed to act violently due to video games. This suggests that the real cause is not the game itself but the other source (or sources) of violence in their lives.

Also, kids who are already aggressive in nature are more likely to want to play these games to begin with.

As for the sex and misogyny, I’m not really worried. Yes, the Grand Theft Auto series is known for treating women like sex objects and abusable hookers, and that’s awful. But my daughter is well-educated in feminism and gender equality, and I have no fear that a video game will prompt her to reconsider her value as a human being. That’s not to say the game should be exempt from such criticism, however I worry that people might pass off the blame for their children’s perceptions of equal rights on a video game when really that education needs to come from them.

The secret appears to be in simply knowing your kid. If they suffer from a medical condition, something like antisocial personality disorder that gives them a biological predisposition toward fist-swinging behavior, then they’re probably more likely to soak up the influence of GTA and other such pixelated bloodbaths. If this isn’t an issue, then it comes down to ensuring they know the difference between gaming and real life, and maybe making sure they don’t spew too many hours a day down the proverbial gaming drain.

In the end, we let her buy the game. She has been playing it on and off for the past fifteen or so hours, and as yet she has not murdered or assaulted anyone. I’m proud of her. Now if she’d just go to a friend’s or something so that I can get down there and play…

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