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Video Games and the Art of Conversation with a 9 Year Old

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

As I was listening to the 45-minute symphonic sound track audio CD that came with one of the Wii games that my son received for Christmas, I thought, “Music for video games has come a long way from “Mario Brothers”.  the honking, hooting electronic melodies have been replaced by full orchestral productions and often accompany full chorus vocals and soloists.  Pong didn’t even *have* music.

The truth is, a lot of things in video games have come a long way.  Graphics engines and technology can paint lifelike and often breathtaking scenery and even weather, match body movements with environment and mouths with voices, simulate the passage of time and create a virtual world that is so realistic that it can pull you in.  There is some high-quality artwork being done for some of these games (and some of the work is crap, so don’t take this as a blanket statement!).

What becomes a challenge is when the realism of the games lines up with reality.  Many of the most popular games out right now (Modern Warfare, Battlefield, Skyrim, to name a few) are visually VERY realistic – and gory.  They are probably too intense for your grade-school or even your middle-school student.  R-rated movie language, blood splatters, and the psychological effect of “doing” the actions oneself earn these games a rating of “M”-for “Mature” or 17 years old and up.

I became sad and confused when my 9 year old came home from school sad and upset that when his friends were talking about these games, he had no frame of reference.  He felt left out and “lame”.  I wanted to help him, and I considered getting one of these games for him so he can be “cool” again.

And then I woke up.  There is no way I would let me son watch a violent action movie like “The Expendables”, so there is no way I am going to knowingly expose my son to the violence and blood of “Modern Warfare”.  He is not ready to interpret and process witnessing scenes like those, much less the mental and emotional training that enacting the scenes would create even if in a limited fashion. He’s 9.  He does not need to be knifing people or going for the “head shot”, even if they are “just” pixel people.  This ain’t “Super Smash Bros.” anymore.

We developed a compromise.  I sat and talked with my son about my concerns regarding the games, and explained why Mom and I wouldn’t allow him to play them.  We talked about the importance of “cool” and of feeling accepted or left out, and what it was like for him, and offered some ways to think about it differently. Then we talked about finding some “cool” games that he could play and not feel as left out when he was hanging with his buddies.  We looked online together and researched some newer games (within his age range), and then added them to the Christmas list.

We also talked about the differences between families.  Some families allow their 9 and 10 year olds to play these games, and some (like ours) don’t.  We can’t make anyone else do things differently, nor in this case is it our place to tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing.  This subject is not a question of right and wrong, it’s a question of wisdom.  Mom and Dad are responsible to make wise decisions for our children, and to teach them how to make wise decisions for themselves.

We can only do this by modeling it and talking about it together.  We have to make the decisions, and explain the why behind it in a way that the kids can understand.  This takes (gasp) work.  It takes time. It takes Mom and Dad staying connected and involved with their kids.  We have to work at creating a language and a pattern (context) with our kids that makes reasonable conversations possible.  Training our kids takes more than “Because I said so!”.

So start small.  If you don’t have small conversations with your kids you won’t be able to have big ones.  Ask them questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”.  Practice really listening to them. Have a LOT of positive, interactive conversations about what seems like nothing.  Enter their world and be a part of it.  Be interested.  What their character did in “Zelda” might not matter to you, but it does to them.

If your kids get the feeling that you are just nodding and grunting a response at them but not really listening, the context for conversation will wither.  They will stop talking, and you will stop knowing them.  If they know you are interested in them (even when you’re not terribly interested in the subject), it will be easier to talk about the “heavier” subjects when the time comes.

So keep the conversation going with them, about them, on their level and about their thoughts, feelings, desires, and dreams.  And yes, about video games, too.

(For some more good thoughts on video games and compromises, check this out: http://www.allprodad.com/blog/2012/01/05/a-good-compromise-on-video-games/)