Tag Archives: Gerard Jones

Kids, toy guns and violent play: The story of one mother who changed her mind


Photo by Flickr user Steven Ha.

In our constant effort to keep kids from growing up to be violent thugs, we do a lot of things. We don’t let them play with toy weapons. We cut back on the first-person shooters. We divert them from “cowboys and indians.” But should we?

Over at The Atlantic, one mom, Christine Gross-Loh, writes about moving to Tokyo with her husband and two kids, and discovering that kids there engage in lots of (toy) gunplay, and adults don’t seem to worry about it. And although violent crime is on the rise in Japan, or at least was two years ago, it’s still much less than we see in America — or even many American states.

What Gross-Loh saw made her wonder if Americans’ choice to restrict kids’ violent play is the right approach. In fact, she strongly suggests that it isn’t:

Although many of us in America worry that gun play desensitizes kids to violence, the research doesn’t bear this out. In fact, it can actually help teach children to read each other’s facial cues and body language, figure out their place in a group, and learn how to adjust their behavior in social settings. Play helps children learn how to signal each other: this is fantasy. As Mechling explains, using the theories of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, when children are playing with toy guns, they do so within a play frame they have created, one in which “a shooting is not a shooting.” Children don’t see their own play through the lens that adults do. To children, gun play is play, while to American adults–especially in the post-Columbine or Newtown era–gun play is violence.

Beyond that, stifling boys in particular from engaging in the kind of play they’re most drawn to may be setting them back, she says:

When children are engaged in play they choose, they are more engaged and motivated to sustain it for longer. Imaginary play hones self-regulation, which is essential for school success but has declined in recent decades. (Today’s five year olds have the self-regulation skills of a three year old 60 years ago). Research has found that incorporating preschool boys’ interest in weapon play rather than banning it entirely leads them to play longer, more elaborate games that go beyond mere weapon play. The British government, in fact, concerned by a pattern of preschool boys falling behind girls in part due to zero-tolerance policies that had led teachers to curb any hint of boisterous play, advised preschools to allow boys to play with toy weapons and other play of their choosing, since the research suggests that acknowledging their interests will help them feel more engaged in school and improve their academic performance.

The whole thing is worth a read. As the parent of a young, boisterous child, it’s giving me a lot to think about. If you’re interested in a deeper look at children’s need for aggressive and violent imaginative play, check out Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters.

Leaders: don’t waste money on violent-game studies

Dear President Obama,

This month, you said two things: First, that you asked Congress to allocate $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control to study the “the relationship between video games, media images and violence.” Second, that “We won’t be able to stop every violent act, but if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try.”

That’s why I’m writing to you today. I’m not an avid player of video games. I don’t work in the game industry. I’m a journalist, writer and mom who has spent the past several years reading and writing about the relationship between kids, violent video games, and real-life violence. So far, what I’ve learned is that there isn’t one.

Yes, there are hundreds of studies, particularly from researchers Craig Anderson, Brad Bushman, and Doug Gentile, suggesting there may be a link between playing violent video games and short-term aggressive behavior immediately after switching off the game. But they haven’t been able to show that video games _cause_ that behavior, or that post-game aggression translates into violent acts later on. Some people are amped up after playing a particularly intense game of football, too, but we haven’t spent millions of dollars researching whether it makes kids bring guns to school.

If you dig deep into each of these researchers’ studies, they say as much.

There are other studies that reveal the positive influences of these games. For example, two studies from Ohio State University researchers David Ewoldsen and John Velez showed that when kids play violent games cooperatively – as many do – they come out of the games feeling pretty good. Canadian researcher Jayne Gackenbach has shown that playing violent video games can help soldiers overcome nightmares induced by the traumas of war, an outcome that seems like it could apply to other gamers trying to make sense of our violent world overall.

In Somalia, video-game-play is on the rise, and many parents are glad, because it’s keeping their kids off the dangerous streets. That’s also true at home: University of Texas at Arlington researcher Michael Ward found that in towns with more video-game retailers, juveniles commit fewer violent crimes – because they’re too busy playing to get into trouble.

By far the best text on the benefits of violent games and aggressive play for kids is Gerard Jones’ book “Killing Monsters.” I interviewed Jones in 2011 for a Wired.com article on why violent video games are good for teens, written at the time the Supreme Court voted against a ban on the sale of these games to minors. He said:

“For the world of adolescents, [reality has] mostly gotten more stressful and bleaker,” he said, citing the dire economy, stressed-out parents, the increasing demands of public education and two lengthy wars in the Middle East. “This is not a cheerful time to be coming of age in America. The need for escape, the need for fantasies of potency, and the need for a community of peers is greater than it’s been in a long time.” He has said, in other moments, that we cannot expect teens to accept forms of entertainment that have been sanitized of the violence they know exists around them every day.

However, one of the most important sources of information on the relationship between violent video games and young players is the players themselves. As a nation we have spent far too much time studying the supposed affects of games on gamers, and almost no time asking gamers questions about why they enjoy them. If you ask, they will tell you that they love the escape, the chance to explore violent ideas safely and without hurting anybody, the opportunity to play the hero, and much more. I interviewed and surveyed dozens of young gamers for a book I wrote for parents – a book that, given our current cultural climate, I believe parents need more than ever, but unfortunately has found almost no support in the publishing world.

So far, Congress has been smart, vetoing just about every bill that proposes a study of violent video games and young players. To start spending money now on such studies would be a tremendous waste of money that could be put to more productive use, such as providing more mental-health support for violent teens and their struggling families. If Congress does wind up putting money into video-game studies, however, please make sure those studies look at the potential benefits of violent games, not just our preconceived notions of harm, which hundreds of studies have already failed to support.

Thank you.

Spector: “stop loving the ultra-violence” in games


Are video games “too violent?” Or are violence critics forgetting who we are?

Another E3 has come and gone, giving the gaming press a taste of video games to come. Since then, a number of folks have come come out against the violence in the next wave of games, claiming it’s just too much.

One of those critics is game designer Warren Spector, who left Eidos in 2004 after being disturbed by some of the plans for Hitman. He also drew a line between the violence in games he’s worked on, such as Deus Ex, and the video games he saw at this year’s E3. Here’s what he said:

“The ultra-violence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it’s in bad taste.”

Spector says the violence in Deus Ex was meant to disturb the player, rather than pleasure them. “The carnage induced on in-game beings disappearing along with the body, erases the aftermath of said carnage from the gamer’s thoughts,” he said.

Everyone has the right to judge for him- or herself how much violence in a game is “too much.” Spector’s tolerances are obviously different than others, and that’s fine. The problem comes when he attempts to tell the rest of the industry what it should produce, and when he tells gamers what they should like. I find the phrase, “We have to stop loving [ultra-violence]” really disturbing. It’s like telling people they should stop loving bacon, or beer, or babies.

Human beings were once relatively wild. We still have that animal side in us. Aggression is part of who we are. Games don’t make us aggressive. Being human makes us aggressive. And we all let it out in different ways: going on long runs, playing hockey, starting bar fights, kneading bread, trolling on the Internet, or playing violent video games are some examples. Anyone who forgets why people (including kids) might enjoy violent games can be reminded by reading Gerard Jones’ Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. Children aren’t the only ones who need it. Adults need it, too. We don’t need to stop “loving it.”

Look at the comments on the Spector article. Gamers know their limits, and if something’s too violent, they won’t play it. This is true of kids, too. We can trust them. Taking away games or reducing the violence in order to protect the tiny minority of mentally unbalanced people who might claim video-game violence as a jumping-off point for real-life acts would likely make the rest of society more violent — an outcome none of us wants.

Are video games becoming more violent? They’re certainly becoming more realistic — and that can heighten the sense that they’re more gory and brutal as well. Why would gamers want this? Even through violent crime is dropping, the existing violent crime is getting more airtime, and in some cases, it’s just getting weirder. We need ways to process what’s going on. And video games are one of the safest ways going.

British teachers say children’s play is more violent than ever. So what’s wrong with that?


British teachers say video games cause kids to play more aggressively. What are they missing? Photo by Flickr user wsilver.

The battle for children’s well-being is never-ending. While American Congresspeople consider a warning label on virtually all video games, a group of British teachers has issued new warnings blaming violent video games for aggressive behavior among their students.

Late last month, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claimed that such games were damaging the “tender young minds” of children. Then, in a speech to the union’s annual conference last week, former ATL president said violent video games (she called them “horrific”) were responsible for an increase in schoolyard aggression.

Let’s look a little more closely at what they’re saying:

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “I think what we are talking about, first of all, is the amount of time children spend locked in their room. The fact that children spend hours locked in their rooms playing computer games, which means they’re not interacting, they’re not playing and not taking exercise.”

Okay. So it sounds like she’s concerned that kids aren’t getting outside to play and roam around. Right?

Mrs. Sherratt, a teacher at Riddlesden St Mary’s CofE Primary School in Keighley, West Yorkshire, says her class of four and five-year-olds was seen in the playground “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” to mimic scenes from violent games.

She adds: “I began to reflect on what children have been playing over the last few years and realised we have noticed a marked increase in the aggression in general.

“We all expect to see rough and tumble but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping etc. in the classroom for no particular reason.”

Hmm. So is the problem that they aren’t getting out and playing? Or is the problem that, when they are getting out and playing, they’re being rougher than the teachers expect? Is the problem that they’re not interacting with other kids, or is the problem that, when they are interacting, they’re doing so in a way that the teachers don’t understand?

There is certainly latitude for teachers to recognize when certain types of behavior — bullying, for example — is hurting a child. However, there’s plenty of latitude as well for kids to play, consensually, in ways that look pretty aggressive to outsiders.

To me, that first description of their play — “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” — sounds kind of fun. It sounds like kids, playing and interacting consensually with each other.

Gerard Jones addressed this issue in his wonderful book, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence:

The benefits of rough-and-tumble play are well documented. It can be annoying for parents, it can get out of hand and lead to head bumps, but most authorities agree that it’s normal, healthy, and generally conducive to more confident kids. Profiles of violent adolescents don’t generally show any exorbitant amount of aggressive play early in life and, in fact, often show the opposite: violent teenagers often had trouble bonding with peers in normal childhood play.

Certainly video games — along with television, film, and books — spark the imagination and inform the kind of playing that kids will engage in. But what these teachers aren’t proving, to any degree, is that this kind of aggressive play is hurting anybody.

It may very well be that these teachers, either disturbed by the kids’ enjoyment of these games or unable to curtail it, are grasping at ways to control what they don’t understand. Until they can show that what they’re seeing is truly harmful, I’d suggest not giving their “warnings” too much credence. From what I can tell, these kids are having a good time — and learning in the process.