Violent videogames
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Dubai: Video games have been around for over 40 years, so you would think that by now, there would be an end to the debate about ‘good vs. bad’ of gaming.

But the discussion is still very much alive.

Over the last two decades, a slew of studies has been released claiming to find a link between violence in video games and real-world aggression. Then again, countering research has found no convincing connection. The American Psychological Association stated, in 2015, that a correlation between the use of violent video games and aggressive behavior was observed. However, in 2017, the Society for Media Psychology and Technology within the same association claimed that "Scant evidence has emerged that makes any causal or correlational connection between playing violent video games and actually committing violent activities."

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Many passionate gamers believe that politicians, the media and parents are using violent videogames as a scapegoat whenever a tragic event takes place. “The shooter spent a lot of his time playing violent video games.” We’ve heard it on the news before.

However, there’s no denying that some video games are, in fact, very violent and they do normalise and desensitise people from visuals of blood, gore, strong sexual content and use of drugs.

But that wasn’t always the case. Video games started out very simply and innocently.

When the first-ever home video game console, ‘Magnavox Odyssey’, was released to the public in 1972, it was used to play an at-home simple 2D graphics version of the arcade machine game Pong. In the late 70s, the Atari burst onto the scene, then the Nintendo in the early 80s.

Magnavox Odyssey
Magnavox Odyssey Image Credit:

The 1980s were dubbed by many gamers as the ‘Golden Age of Video Games’. Graphics had improved significantly and genres were innovating. This decade gave us Pac-man, Mario Bros, Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda and more.

Pacman
Pacman

As consoles, graphic cards and televisions evolved technoligically, so did the games. They had storylines, more complex tasks, challenges and high calibre 3D graphics. Eventually, with all of these resources, game designers started becoming more imaginative and slightly... violent with their creations.

Mortal Kombat is considered one of the first violent video games ever created. The blood-soaked 2D fighting game showcased decapitations, painful punches and characters being thrown down into a spiky well. One could argue that Mortal Kombat opened the floodgates to the mainstream consumption of violent videogames.

Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat

In fact, after it’s release, if you fast forward to the early 2000s, you may remember that it was the peak decade for the creation of the most violent video games that ever existed. The most notorious of them all was Manhunt 2, which was released in 2007 and has been labelled as possibly the most violent video game ever made.

Manhunt 2 is an urban horror style game, where players survive levels by executing enemy gang members. Players can earn up to five stars; one star for completing the scene under a certain amount of time, and one to four stars based on the brutality of the executions carried out during the scene.

Manhunt 2
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The more brutal, the more stars. These killings can be done by using plastic bags, baseball bats, crowbars and a variety of bladed items. Manhunt 2 is one of only four other games in history that have received an “Adults Only” rating because of how violent they are. The other three are The Punisher, Hatred, and Agony. While thousands of other video games are labelled with a “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behaviour."

One very popular “violent” video game that is thriving is Player Unknown Battle Grounds, more commonly known as PUBG. The videogame phenomenon took the world of interactive entertainment by storm in 2017. Basically up to 100 players are dropped via parachute onto a remote island to battle in a last-one-standing showdown. Players must locate and scavenge their own weapons, vehicles and supplies, and defeat every player in a visual and tactical battleground that forces players into a shrinking play zone. In fact, the game is so popular that their PUBG World League Finals drew a record audience of over 1.1 million concurrent viewers for the one event.

Many young children have the game app on their phone, as it allows them to play with their friends in one group and aslo talk to each other via the apps mic features. A perfect game to play during the pandemic, where children couldnt go out to see their friends.

What about the kids?

PUBG Mobile
PUBG Mobile

This worried some parents. Check on any Internet forum about PUBG and parents are asking if the game is too violent for the kids. One mother responded, “it is a little violent but my eight year old boy loved it.” While another parent was not a fan. “Players inject themselves and consume drugs to restore their health. When you are shot a mist of blood splats around you for about two seconds and it is a very realistic game. I prefer that my 13 year old wouldn't play this particular game.”

These parental worries, or lack thereof, apply to many games out there in the market, not just PUBG. Call of Duty,a first-person shooter video game where players shoot enemies, or Grand Theft Auto, where players steal cars and can simulate sexual intercourse with exotic dancers. These games are very accessible. The year is 2020 and video games are almost inescapable.

Whether it’s at your home, at a friends house or at dedicated gaming cafes, kids are just drawn to them and will find their way to them. “I feel like computer games are a normal part of childhood and adolescence,” Louisa Kiernander, a Psychotherapist at Mind Solutions and a mum of three said to Gulf News. “I lived in Canada in the 80s and we had an Atari and some other game consoles, then eventually a Nintendo. So, I don’t have an issue with computer games generally. However, many of the games kids like to play today are very violent – it’s not Tetris and Super Mario Brothers, it’s stealing cars and running people over in Grand Theft Auto and intense, adrenaline-pumping shoot outs in Fortnite.

I allow my kids to play the games their friends play within reason. The ten-year-old is not allowed to play GTA – the drug references and other criminal activities are totally inappropriate for his age and mental development and maturity. However, the two older children are allowed to play it. I figure that they will play it at their friends’ houses anyway and they are at an age where they can understand that a game is a made-up scenario – also, they seem to have the emotional development to know that the game is based on unethical, illegal behaviour and they have sound family values and know my views on those things.

Tabitha Barda, Gulf New’s Parenting Editor and mum of two boys aged 6 and 4, and a 15 month old girl, is just beginning to deal with parenting little gamers.

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Wii

I am on the brink of having to deal with the question of whether kids should be allowed to play violent video games for real in my own life. And to be honest, the whole thing terrifies me.

My oldest son is 6 years old and, although the only games console we have in the house is a Wii with innocuous sports games on it (a lockdown cave-in), I was enticed into the living room the other day by the sound of a bizarre chant: “Head! Chest! Peanuts! Legs! Head! Chest! Peanuts! Legs!”

Unable to contain their excitement, my son and his friend were playing the Wii’s only boxing game, each spurring the other on with shrill directions on where to lay the next punch on their virtual opponent.

Of course. The only activity on that otherwise-wholesome sports game with anything remotely resembling violence and they’d zeroed in on it. (Just don’t ask about the peanuts).

So I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m going to get serious pressure to let my kids play progressively nastier and more realistic video games. And I’m currently scrabbling for an answer.

If I ban them, the games become all the more salacious and attractive. I’d be kidding myself if I thought I could control their access to that sort of thing forever.

But if I allow them - what if they’re desensitised to human suffering during this crucial time in their emotional development? Could they be triggered into unhealthy habits, gaming addiction or much worse, as the New Zealand mosque killer apparently was by playing the video game Fortnite?

But if I quash my maternal panic for a moment, as someone who has worked in the parenting industry and spoken to countless child development experts over the past six years, I know that the answer has to be in educating myself about the games themselves.

Currently I’m totally ignorant – although I grew up in an era of video games and I knew of people playing GTA and the like, I was too caught up in being a book and theatre nerd to ever be remotely tempted.

But it looks like my children are going to be a bit less geeky and a bit more mainstream. And since I haven’t been a big gamer myself, I am coming from a place of fear rather than knowledge.

Connection with kids is always the answer. Rather than leaving them to pummel peanuts alone, I should be involved, learning what motivates and excites them and giving them the full story from an adult’s point of view.

It’s a delicate and precarious balance, and it takes time and effort - like most of parenting. I don’t know if I’m going to get it right. All I know is that I have to try.

Seyyed Llalta, a Gulf News Designer and father of two boys, one aged 22 and the other aged 7, and a girl aged 19, has a bit more experience dealing with kids and video games.

Fortnite
Image Credit: Epic Games

There is but one primordial task as parents, that even bypasses any other instinct: To keep your kids safe. That is not just about their physical being, it does expand to their intellectual, economic, psychological, moral, and spiritual well being.

Action video games represent a veritable challenge to parents in our moral comfort zone, these are an emulation of violence and we want our kids to be decent human beings.

If your kids like them, allow me to put your mind at peace: There is sizable psychological research about their effects, the vast majority points to positive outcomes about playing them according.

I allow my sons to play action games because there is a significant advantage between first-person shooter games and the rest, the first emulates a high-wired part of what humans have done for thousands of years: The survival in life-or-death scenarios.

Life-or-death situations, create in the brain what psychologists call "The Zone": A period where you are focused in the absolute present time, it is you and the task and nothing else exists, no past, no future. The zone leaves a powerful imprint on the mind and is the perfect moment for guidance and insight into who your kids are growing to be.

I will take as an example one of the most successful shooting games ever: Fortnite.

Fortnite's main objective is to eliminate all the other opponents, who are real people playing against you online. Let me tell you about those life lesson opportunities I found resonant with my way of teaching my sons how to be kind people.

Empathy: Often, more experienced players or teams would not only spare but even give the victory to obviously "weaker" opponents. Semi-pros or older players do this especially if they think they are playing against kids.

Generocity: Some items are very precious to have in-game, some players will spontaneously give them up for team members and even rivals, in good spirit.

Perseverance: No matter how low are your possibilities of achieving something, don't give up. With everything against us, resilience had taken us to legendary (for us) victories.

Teamwork: "One stick can be brake easy, but to break the many is hard" The game (and many other games like this) includes team match, good chance to teach watching each other backs, go to the rescue, share resources, plan strategies, fast communication, be the hero, lead, shield, make sacrifices.

Handle greed: The game offers shiny rewards, it represents "fool's gold", you may get it at a high cost, and there are not great benefits to it. It is a valuable long term life lesson.

Humility: It is a hyper-competitive global environment, sometimes you win, most of the time you lose. Get over the lost and try again.

Blow steam: It is an essential need of humans to have an outlet to let go of daily frustrations; teaching our kids where and how it is right to vent out that pressure for a balanced life.

Leadership: We take turns on leading our teams, and get used to quick and smart decision making over a (literally) moving target. Victory builds confidence and defeats a learning opportunity.

Culture: Many of these games are inspired by Mythology, Science, pop-culture, sci-fi, etc this area where you can start great conversations off-screen and that creates a stronger bond and opens channels of communication.

Reaction time: The game is based on the speed and skills reaction; learning how to react in time and not to freeze in any situation is usefully at any circumstance.

Alex Abraham, Gulf News’ World Editor, and father of a 15 year old boy, however, decided not to allow violent video games in his house. Here’s what he had to say.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

This was how I was greeted when I visited a friend’s home a few years ago. The shooting came from a six-year-old brandishing a toy gun. I was expected to stagger and fall at his feet. Thankfully, by the time I realised this, his mother came and shooed the boy away.

Although it was a seemingly harmless incident, I came home that day wondering what was going on in that boy’s mind. Was it the impact of the films he saw or the games he played that made him act like a hero?

Over the years I have asked myself why we let children dabble with violent toys and games in their free time, even if it is on the screen, and then expect them to grow up loving peace. It just doesn’t add up. You may say that children understand the difference between right and wrong, but not everyone does.

We have also found in the newsroom that most readers do not like to see pictures of blood and gore in the media. The reason: ‘We do not want our children to see this first thing in the morning.’

Why, then, do we encourage feelings of hate and violence in our own homes, albeit through games and toys? What is it about guns that we love and loathe them at the same time?

At home we took a conscious decision many years ago that we would not buy violent video games for our son. Yes, we have had many discussions and arguments about it, but we have stuck to it. It has also meant that his collection of video games is limited, considering that many of the popular games today are violent.

It is not surprising that mental health specialists and counsellors often find themselves fielding questions from parents who are worried about the impact of violent video games on their children.

Organisations such as the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) believe that exposure to violent media (including video games) can contribute to real-life violent behaviour and harm children in other ways, according to a Harvard Health review. But other researchers have questioned the validity or applicability of much of the research supporting this view, arguing that most youth are not affected by violent video games.

Whatever side we are on, the fact remains that we have glorified violence - in films and in video games - and expect children to believe that ‘it is just a movie or a video game.’ Every time there is a major shooting incident in the US, there is an outcry to ban guns. But we are still comfortable letting our children play with toy guns at home or shoot the enemy on screen. There is no doubt that children learn from what they see around them. It is our responsibility to oversee what is best for them.

Back to Louisa, who elaborates on when kids should be pulled away from the virtual world.

When do the problems arise?

Problems arise when the computer world is more present in a child’s mind than the real world. We have found that if the kids have access to computer games every day, even if it is just for an hour, it seems to take over their thinking. During home isolation, we have tried different methods of controlling their screen time while also understanding that they were bored and actually benefited from gaming as a means of staying connected to their friends. At first, we tried a daily ‘allowance’ of taking time and TV time. But their conversations when they were not gaming seemed to centre around the games and what had happened and what they were going to play later.

How to make it work?

We adjusted the gaming schedule so that they have a longer time to play but they have two or three days off in between each gaming day. This seems to work better for our kids because they have days where they have to entertain themselves without using a screen and we have noticed that they talk about gaming less as a result.

Louisa explains that gaming is a treat in their house, not a human right. The kids have access to gaming because she recognises that it’s a standard part of childhood these days. But that privilege is dependent upon behaviour, doing schoolwork, helping out with chores, taking part in family activities and excursions and generally showing us that gaming is part of a balanced life and that they have other interests and hobbies.

Hearing from a gamer

Falah Gulzar, Gulf New’s Social Media Reporter and Seasoned gamer continues to play during quarantine, No violent tendencies here.

Grand Theft Auto
Image Credit: Rockstar Games

Coming home, sometimes still wearing my uniform, logging onto the computer on the last day of school, and playing Barbie dress up games for the rest of summer '05 and the years to come after were all about for me. But a few years after that, the video games I chose to play became less about dolls and more about reckless driving, combat fighting, and even shooting and robbing.

While some would say these games were not the right choice for a young child, I grew up playing them and in my mid-twenties, I can happily say I recently bought a new gaming system to curb my quarantine boredom.

After a long day of work and having no evening plans thanks to the coronavirus, my entertainment of choice has become grabbing my gaming controller and zooming through the city in an edition of the notorious game - Grand Theft Auto (GTA).

The action-adventure game series has been long debated about for being inappropriate for children and I’ll admit – it probably is. And that’s why its latest edition, Grand Theft Auto V, comes with an age restriction and a ‘mature’ content warning.

But has the game instilled violent tendencies in me? In typical gamer fashion, I can get loud if I don't get through a mission but that’s about it. My point is, I don’t see such games translating to actions in people’s real lives.

I have never had a thought about driving my car on a pavement (or worse) just because I have done it countless times in these games. I think that like me, most people understand that it’s an alternate reality and nowhere near what people should do in real life.

So aside from my sister occasionally joking: “This isn’t GTA”, when I take a quick turn on the road while driving, these games have not made me violent in any way.