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Playing the Blame Game (page 3)

By — Greater Good Magazine
Updated on Apr 27, 2010

Method acting

Olson and Kutner's work also suggests a positive and paradoxical dimension of playing video games with violence in them: helping kids to grapple with life's scariest experiences.

Olson reports that many kids in their focus groups said they liked playing violent video games because they knew the fighting wasn't happening in real life. In fact, many of the kids reported being much more scared by TV news. "They told us, The news is real, and that makes me scared.'" In contrast, they could control the violence in video games. "There are things you can try out in a game that you can't do in real life," says Olson. "Some of the boys in our focus groups really liked the fact that you could choose to be a good guy or a bad guy. They can ask, What kind of person would I end up being?'"

Olson's son Michael says he and his friends do not play games just because of violent content. Instead, they are looking for a compelling storyline, intriguing characters, and interesting choices. "A good game to me makes you feel like a method actor," he says. "It just draws you into the story and draws you into a character."

These insights resonate with research into children's pretend play. In studies of kids with imaginary friends, University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor has found that kids often create pretend characters who do sinister, nasty, and even violent things. (See Taylor's essay on page 28 of this issue.) "Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives children an opportunity to play it through before they encounter the situation in real life," says Taylor. "If something is bothering you, you can control it or manipulate it in the world of pretending. That's a way of developing emotional mastery."

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard A. Posner offered a similar conclusion in his 2001 opinion blocking an Indianapolis ordinance that would have regulated video-game arcades. "Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low," he wrote. "It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware. To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it."

That doesn't mean that anything goes. Olson says many precautionary steps can be taken to mitigate the harm that violent video games might cause. "I would definitely want to show realistic consequences," she says, when asked how she would design one of these games. "There are a number of games with storylines that show the consequences of violence: Kids are getting orphaned or people are suffering." She says the violence should never be depicted as funny, or the perpetrators as attractive, and the players should be rewarded for mercy and moral choices—as they are in the game SWAT, for example.

But to help kids make the right choices about video games, parents and other adults first need to understand what kids are playing. Olson and Kutner urge parents and researchers alike to learn more about these games, and even play them with kids. This will help both groups develop a more nuanced understanding of gaming and be able to tell the good games from the bad ones.

"It's a great thing developmentally for the child to teach the parent something," says Olson. "A lot of kids said they'd love for their parents to play games with them."

Jeremy Adam Smith is the managing editor of Greater Good and author of Twenty-First-Century Dad, forthcoming in 2009 from Beacon Press.

Copyright UC Regents. Reprinted with permission from Greater Good magazine, Volume IV, Issue 4 (Spring 2008). For more information, please visit www.greatergoodmag.org.

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