At 37 yrs old I’ve been gaming for over 30 years and have seen almost every gaming-related moral panic that has happened during that time. I saw when Doom was blamed for the Columbine killings. I saw the rise and fall of the litigious Jack Thompson and his attempts to use gaming as a scapegoat for everything wrong in society. I’ve seen politicians from the US and the UK lambaste videogames as a dangerous and insidious force that threatens our children while we’re not looking. I’ve seen Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and many other games with ‘mature’ elements held up as examples of the moral rot that gaming inflicts upon our young.
Now, for the past nine of those gaming years I’ve also been a parent. Being a parent has definitely made me look at videogames with a different perspective. I can no longer just defend them offhand without looking more carefully at the effects that they may have on my own children. Videogames are now popular with my children, thanks in no small part to my own love of them. I have introduced games to my children just as I have introduced them to books, boardgames, tv, movies and comics. They are young enough that I control most of what they are exposed to and it’s a responsibility I take seriously.
It is that parental responsibility that I want to really get into because recent news articles give me the impression that not everyone realises the important role that we are supposed to take in safeguarding our children.
In 2018, the current target of media outrage is the popular online competitive shooter, Fortnite. Fortnite: Battle Royale is a brightly-coloured, cartoonish game where players suit up in a variety of costumes (referred to as ‘skins’) in order to enter a multiplayer arena based on a remote island. Armed with guns and explosives, players take each other on in a rapidly shrinking space in order to eliminate each other until a victor is declared. Players must also use pickaxes to destroy their environment, turning it into usable resources for building their own structures that can make the difference between a Victory Royale or an early defeat and being dumped back to the lobby.
By modern standards, even considering the game is predominantly about shooting, it is not inherently a ‘violent videogame’. Unlike a lot of realistic shooting games there is no blood and there are no bodies. When players are defeated they drop and they disappear like a hologram leaving nothing behind but a pile of items for surviving players to grab.
The first story I heard about was back in March when a mother was campaigning to get Fortnite banned because it had turned her 10 yr old son Leo into a surly, aggressive nightmare. A previously angelic child had begun transforming into a monster after spending hours upstairs in his room playing the popular shooter. The mother felt this was a jumping off point to make sure this evil game did not damage any more young minds. The current popularity of the game shows that she has not yet been successful.
Sadly, but perhaps predictably, this was not to be an isolated incident.The next big story was of the 9 yr old girl who wet herself rather than stop playing the game. The report also states that she had been violent towards her parents and stayed up all night playing games so long she was unable to stay awake in class the next day.
Most recently was the story of Zoe Godber whose 9 yr old son Jacob had been made so aggressive by the game that he actually smashed his television when he lost a game. The story echoes the previous ones and tells a story of an uncontrollable situation where a child is being sent off the rails by a ‘dangerous videogame’.
These are all examples of how the media is sensationalising the ‘dangers of videogames’ in order to sell more newspapers and build a campaign around alarmed parents so that they can make advertisers happy. They do it under the guise of ‘public information’ but the angle never tends to be particularly analytical of the parents’ responsibility. It is much more entertaining to attack something new and popular. But this situation isn’t new and it’s disappointing that we’re still so easily swayed by this kind of reporting. But that’s not the focus of this particular rant.
The observant among you will have spotted that Fortnite is not the only element that is featured in all three of the stories I mentioned. In fact they share a lot of key points and that’s where we can start to unpick the real issue here.
The children are too young
Firstly you’ll notice that all of these children are 9-10 yrs old. This is about the age where children really start to reach beyond the games that their parents have shown them and begin developing an interest from discussion they have with their friends at school. Fortnite is quite the talk of the playground right now so it’s not surprising that these young children are curious. More important however is the fact that 9 yrs old is THREE YEARS BELOW the recommended age rating for the game. Fortnite is designated as being suitable for children of 12yrs and older (12+) as set by PEGI. Their description states that “Video games that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy characters or non-realistic violence towards human-like characters would fall in this age category“. That is absolutely dead-on for Fortnite considering the stylised nature of the game. The children in the news items I’ve mentioned are playing games that are not recommended for children of their age.
The children do not have sufficient boundaries
Next is the issue of boundaries. In all of these examples the children are playing unrestricted and unsupervised for hours at a time. Two of them played for so long that they were incapable of functioning properly at school. This behaviour is not outside the parents’ control. As parents we are responsible for setting limits for the media our children consume whether that’s videogames, TV or movies. Whether it’s in the living room or upstairs in their own rooms. Whatever they do it is our responsibility to make sure that the content they consume is appropriate and that they have clear boundaries that are enforced. This teaches children to manage their time and their expectations accordingly. A child who is given an hour on a videogame and a timer knows how much time is left and when their gaming time will end. A child without that structure will always complain that they didn’t get long enough.
The children are becoming aggressive
Aggression is also a huge factor in all of these cases but that is absolutely not surprising and it’s absolutely not being driven by Fortnite specifically. Firstly, these children are still developing mentally and emotionally. At their age losing at a videogame can be devastating. The impact of even minor, seemingly inconsequential failures can be hugely damaging. The frustration is incredible and they simply do not have sufficient perspective to process it maturely. These are things that come with time and it is not something you’re well set up for as a child.
I can remember getting incredibly angry at videogames at various points in my life. Not just in competitive games but in games I was only playing against the computer-controlled characters, even in games that didn’t even have characters at all! As I grew older I was able to process my frustration more maturely and I knew when to step away to allow myself to calm down. A 9 yr old doesn’t know when to step away. It is our job as parents to see when a game is upsetting our children and to stop the activity until they can calm down and gain a little perspective.
Also, these children are all reportedly deprived of sleep. Nothing, absolutely nothing will undermine a child’s emotional stability more than a lack of sleep. I know from personal experience that when my own children don’t get a decent night’s sleep they are often far less able to deal with things that stand in their way. Routine issues like not being able to find a shoe or a spat with a sibling can escalate into crying, shouting and physical aggression. It is our responsibility as parents to make sure our children are in bed asleep as much as we are able. Everyone has their own situation and I know better than many how hard it is to get some kids to sleep but there’s no excuse for letting a child play videogames all night until they are physically and emotionally incapable of dealing with day-to-day life.
The parents aren’t talking to their children
This is a really important one. As parents we’re not always going to immediately know everything that our kids are into. As they get older and spend more time with their friends we’ll have less and less idea of what they might be into. Luckily we have the best resource of information on that topic; them! If you want to know what your child is into, talk to them about it. If it’s a videogame, download it yourself, play it with them, play it after they’ve gone to bed. Inform yourself about what the game actually is instead of relying on sensationalist journalism to give you all your information! As I’ve already mentioned, those editorials and news items aren’t there to inform you, they are there to sell newspapers and advertising space.
The best thing we can do if we’re worried about what our children are into is to talk to them and share their interest in the things they’re spending their time on. This will also help them trust you enough that if they encounter something that worries them whilst playing online, they’ll come to you first to talk about it. These early years are our best opportunity as parents to set our children up with the knowledge, self-control and maturity to make good choices.
Total lack of parental self-analysis
Maybe I’m too critical of myself but when dealing with issues the kids are having, but questions always bubble up in my mind like “Could I have caused this? Is there something I can do differently or better? Am I doing enough? These are normal questions that we should all ask ourselves (but not obsess over) and the parents in these articles have singularly failed to do so. Instead of looking to themselves to be better parents they have chosen to go the press and contribute to a media campaign that seeks to blame videogames for society’s ills. It is irresponsible for a parent to point to any outside influence and say ‘that’s the problem’ without first exerting any and all power they have to control their child’s access to it.
If you suspect your child has access to content that is changing their behaviour, upsetting them or is otherwise unsuitable then it is your responsibility to learn about it, talk to your child about it and, if necessary, remove it. We are the first line of defence against any potentially damaging content and it is vital that we take that responsibility seriously.
The elements above are common to all of these articles but they can all be considered part of a more concerning problem. These parents are not doing their job. No-one’s perfect but these parents have tried to relieve themselves of the responsibility for their children’s welfare and place the blame at the feet of a videogame publisher. That is neither fair to Epic Games (creators of Fortnite) nor to the children who deserve better. These stories all show a staggering lack of parental engagement and instead of taking responsibility they have chosen to use their frustration to launch yet another moral panic at a videogame.
These types of moral panics are nothing new and before long Fortnite will be old news and a new game will take on the role of being the target of parental fear and frustration. What we need to realise is that this isn’t an issue about videogames. Before videogames became sophisticated enough to be big news parents did exactly the same about movies and music. With those, as we see now, the issue was that the parents didn’t understand these new things well enough and were easily swayed by the media into collective outrage. The issue is still that parents are picking an easy scapegoat over having real involvement in what their children are into.
Talk to your child. Understand their interests and spend time learning about them. Use your power as a parent to monitor and control their use of these things. Help them understand perspective and context. Teach them about winning and losing (this can be done in a variety of ways that don’t involve videogames). Help them build the emotional maturity to respect limits and know when to step back from a stressful activity. Perhaps most important of all, take responsibility for the role you have in controlling and informing your child’s consumption of these kinds of media.
Next time the media declares a popular game ‘evil’ or ‘destructive’, take it with a pinch of salt and take the opportunity to learn about it with your child. Videogames are not the enemy and considering they are are a huge industry, they are not going away anytime soon.