I have been turning these questions around in my head for weeks. Seriously. I have been telling myself that I don't have to write about everything that perplexes me. I don't have to question everything, either. But this, THIS, this bothers me so much. And I know some of you are going to be mad that I even thought about all of this, even madder that I wrote about it... but what does one do when something is so maddening and frustrating and no matter how much time goes into the the thinking about it, it still makes no dang sense.
So, you have been warned. Might make more sense for you to click on something else. Heck, you don't even need to leave my blog. Looking for a recipe? I have written lots of stuff that won't irritate you.
But this might.
So, I have two teenagers. I love them dearly and honestly feel blessed. I was afraid of the teen years, even blogged about that, but all the stuff I had been told about what happens to a kid on his 13th birthday was untrue. Teens can be nice, polite and mostly clean. Teens still love their mommas and eat with their families and love their siblings and come home at the end of the day. And they are funny. Sarcastic. Thoughtful. And I love of all of that. So our adjustment to teen-dom was really no big deal. For the most part.
One thing that did adjust slightly is that my teen boys found that playing video games would matter some in connecting to others. (Seriously, I told you that you should read something else.) Mark and I understood that this sort of cultural common denominator builds a shared language that kids use to communicate. They play similar games and talk about what they're doing and its fun and communal and so, okay, we can work with that. Even though we have traditionally been a low-screens family, once those teen years rolled around, we set some boundaries and said yes and our teens ended up with a game system that they purchased. We placed it in an area where they would have the ability to play without our younger kids being subjected to the games teens want to play. Still public. And it started off well.
Because we have been screen-stingy, our kids are pretty happy working with guidelines on such things because they know that our yes did not come easy. So they played with permission and we were aware of the games they purchased and we researched new games and said no to some they really wanted. Because we do have one strict rule. I do not want my children to kill people, even in a video game, for entertainment.
(I told you that you would not like this. Perhaps I can interest you in one of these posts?)
Drawing this line in the sand led to conversations like this:
"Are we against first person-shooter games?"
"Are they shooting at people or aliens?"
"Well, alien killing might be okay."
"What if the aliens look like people?"
Seriously, I hate these conversations.
So, initially our boys played games where killing aliens was deemed okay. They also played sports games, especially FIFA soccer. There was strategy to the games and they could play with their friends through on-line connections and we did not LOVE the shooting games but we were FINE with it. And all was right in the world. Well, sorta.
For Christmas one year, we were hunting for games that fell within our parameters. After a pleasant chat with a gamer/Gamestop sales person, we were introduced to the game Portal. My boys loved it. Seriously. There was no killing of humans and it was a cerebral game. You had to, you know, think. And, I know this is shocking in today's world of gaming, but my boys, brothers only 18 months apart, could actually PLAY TOGETHER! (If you are new to the world of gaming, games are no longer created to be played together in the same room. You can play with others, but not someone sitting next to you. You can play with a stranger, a school friend, but not a sibling. Well, unless you have two of the same game system...) With Portal, we would find them down there laughing and strategizing and working with one another to solve the game. Now, even as someone who does not love screens, I could work with that. They played Portal and Portal 2 and even heard that another Portal may be created. Except I do not now believe it will ever come to be. So, let me tell you why...
Fast forward to this Christmas. Mark and I head out to do some Christmas shopping and while we wandered around Target, I found myself standing in the Leap Frog aisle. You know this company, right? I was lost in a nostalgic moment as I watched parents of children far younger than mine sort through whatever was left in the display of educational electronic games. But, given the fact that it was less than two weeks until Christmas, the pickings were really slim! Truth be told, the entire aisle looked abandoned. Target was almost sold out.
I stood there remembering how my four children had loved those games. I remembered how I enjoyed the fact that they were learning math, reading, even art, while they played games, read books, used devices. Even then we were careful with how much screen-time our kids enjoyed but this seemed like a good use of those precious minutes. They felt like they were playing a game and we got to keep our eyes on our long-term goal of raising well-educated kids. It was an easy win-win. By the looks of that pre-Christmas Leap Frog aisle, it must continue to be this for parents today.
(Are you still with me? I know this is long but that's what weeks of thinking will get ya.)
After leaving Target, we decided to stop at Gamestop again for game suggestions for our boys. Our oldest had been intrigued by a game that was coming out soon... but not soon enough for Christmas. So, we were idea hunting and naively optimistic. Thinking that we could get another suggestion, somewhat like Portal, Mark headed in to ask.
Several minutes later, he came back out. Empty-handed. Dejected look on his face.
Mark described his exchange with the Gamestop salesperson like this:
"I am looking for a game for my teens that is not a first person shooter game."
"Hmm... How about this one?" said the Gamestop guy.
"Looks good. Why is it rated M?" Mark questioned.
"Totally because of the explicit sexual content."
Stunned, Mark said, "We would prefer to not have explicit sexual content..."
The Gamestop employee responded (demeaningly), "Sir. You have to have one or the other. You know that, right? If you don't want heavy violence, you have to have graphic sexual content. You know that, right?"
After we talked a bit in the van, we went back in together to give it another shot. Mark told me who he had spoken to (we will refer to him as "guy in hat" from now on) and knowing that he would not be helpful, we sought out a different person and began again.
"We just don't think killing people should be entertainment for our kids. And our kids like a game with strategy. They loved Portal."
Stumped, they guy just stood there. Staring at a wall with HUNDREDS of video games. Aside from sports games (we have) or lame and somewhat juvenile superhero games, this trying-hard-to-be-helpful salesperson was unable to point to one teen-appropriate gamethat doesn't kill humans or have explicit sexual content. I am not kidding.
After a few minutes of rubbing his chin in thought, he said "Um... let me get some other guys to see if they have any ideas." He started calling to other employees. He went to call on "guy in hat" but I stopped him.
"He doesn't know." I said.
When we explained to our new helpers that we were looking for a game that does not portray humans shooting humans or explicit sexual content, all of the workers now helping audibly said, "Oooooh..."
And then silence.
Now, we are standing in a video game store with 3 gamer/worker guys who are all staring at the boxes of hundreds of video games with only these parameters for a game for teens: Don't shoot humans. No explicit sexual content. And they were stumped. (Please, PLEASE, if this bothers you, tell me. Because after this whole experience I gotta tell you, we feel pretty alone in our stance.)
A solid 20 minutes we stood there. And finally, they came up with ONE workable (and actually really perfect fit) option. One. One age-appropriate game where my boys would not spend hours pretending to shoot people or watching blood gush from bullet wounds. One game where my children would not either pretend to have sex or watch others have sex or see people in sexual situations. One.
Don't get me wrong. I am thrilled with the one. I really am. It was cerebral but not hokey. It does have shooting but you are trying to save the world, for goodness sake! But, it is aliens who are being shot and you cannot just play, you have to think. You have a team of people working with you and you cannot just regenerate them so you have to protect them. You have to be careful. With the people. Because humans matter in this game. And, you know, in real life.
And so for weeks-on-end I have thought about all this and here is what I cannot figure out. I just cannot make sense of that empty Leap Frog aisle.
When my kids were little, we worked so hard to have them learn important things. We were deeply aware that our time was limited and we needed to use whatever we could to teach them well. Yes, we wanted them to have fun. But, if we could slip some learning into that fun? All the better! We understood, when they were young, that everything that went into their little heads had a purpose. It taught them a lesson, good or bad. We read to them, drew with them, took them outside to play. We talked about the world, our faith, the importance of family and friends. We taught them to use their words and not their fists and to treat others with respect. We did it, for the same reason you did. Because it mattered. Because they were young and impressionable. And honestly, it was easy because other parents were doing it, too. We shared ideas and encouraged one another. We spoke the same language. Not always. But often.
And as we drove away from Gamestop that day, I just could not figure out where all that hope and planning and intentionality begins to fall away. And maybe it hasn't. Maybe I am just so confused that I cannot see straight. Feels that way. But, the Gamestop was full of parents buying games for their kids that are bloody and violent and sexually charged. And they seemingly have no issue with it. So maybe I am the one who is wrong. Maybe it is just plain crazy to want to keep my kids from killing as entertainment. Maybe there is no value in teaching them that sexual acts have a sacred quality to them. Maybe... but maybe not.
And so I just keep thinking that we change our minds about what we want for them somewhere along the line. And I am not sure what the motivator for that change is but not knowing bothers me. And I swear I am not trying to be judgmental and I totally get that the odd-man-out here is me. This is most obviously a non-issue for nearly every parent who is not me. But, I am left wondering about the impact that social norms have on our parenting.
Because the games in that store are totally the social norm.
And maybe social norms tell us what is important. And we just listen. Even about Leap Frog. Except the impact of those Leap games is potentially very different from the impact of the games made for teens.
I keep wondering about how long we have to try to pour into our kids all things that are good and helpful. How long does it matter and when do we loosen our grasp on this basic desire and tell ourselves that the expectation has changed and some things, even things that bother us, might just be okay?
Because it is just a game.
And they are going to be exposed to all of this anyway.
But, I look at the faces of my two teen boys and their toddler faces shine back at me. These are still those boys. The boys that made me cry with their tears, who's giggles made me belly laugh, who's talents leave me speechless, who are entrusted to me to raise. And I so want to do this well. I make mistakes often and there is so much that we miss but I want to do right by them. I want to use all these minutes of all these years to pour into their lives before they head out the door carrying whatever we were able to pack in their hearts for the journey ahead.
And, I look at the faces of my two teen boys and I see that they are becoming the men that they are meant to be. And I am stuck wondering about what will matter to them as they grow up and foster friendships and relationships and start families of their own. I wonder if watching explicit sexual content will really impact their lives with their wives... but the truth is that I believe it will.
And yes, I want them to understand and participate in current culture. And I want them to understand what their faith has to do with their choices and I want them to see where their belief systems intersect with what happens around them.
But I also want them to see that sometimes, the disconnect is so great, that we must make another choice. Even when it is hard. I want them to use their faith to choose their path. I want them to know that we value life and it is not fun to pretend to take that away.
The fact that we are careful with screens and with content has been hard for our kids sometimes. Their friends play games together that we choose not to buy. And they can feel left out. And I hate that. I hate it so much. And sometimes, I feel left out too. I know people judge us for our line in the sand and those same people may read this and think that I am judging them. But, the spirit of my words and my questions do not spring from judgement. Because who I am to judge? We know great kids, really great kids, who are gamers and thinkers and are really nice teens. So, all of this angst is not about judgment. And honestly, we do not need, in any way,to turn on one another. This parenting gig is hard. We need to stand side-by-side and not be afraid to ask questions and think aloud and try to figure it out together. The source of my conflict over the nature of gaming comes from a different place. Out of all the world, from all that has been created, it makes me sad that we choose to turn this into entertainment. Violence and sexual content. Is there really nothing else? Game after game after game after game after game... Death. Blood. Sex. Violence.
And what does it say when the game creators have so clearly gotten the message that they do not even create games, save for token sports disks and some lame superhero tale, that are without these elements? There are no educational games for teens (or none that I have found... if you know of them, PLEASE share!) and hundreds and thousands of games that portray humans killing humans...
That Portal 3 game that my boys would love? It just doesn't fit with what is now being made.
Sometimes I want to give in or not care and say yes and just trust that the masses are right and I am thinking too much and its just a game and it doesn't matter in the great, big scope of life. I want my boys to not feel left out and to be able to connect with their friends in the way that teens today choose to connect.
And if you are still reading, I hope that you hear this part...
You know what I want more? I want games that do not pander to the lowest common denominator and come forth from a belief that teens are smart and eager and creative. I want games that my kids can play with their friends (and even with a sibling) that draw from the best that teens are, not the worst that we believe they can be. I want games that are cool and intriguing and visually stunning that require my boys to use the brain they have been given to solve a problem, an issue, a war. So that someday, what they are playing now will lead to something good that they do in real life.
Like respecting people.
Like spreading peace.
Like valuing life.
That's what I want.
As parents, we need to choose wisely and be thoughtful about why we choose what we do. But my issue lies firmly with the people creating these games. Don't you dare tell me who my child is or sell him short and minimize his mind and heart! Can't you see that teens can do more that we think and get ready to do more than we did? Create games that lead in that way!
Because, clearly they need something deeper than Leap Frog but my desires for them have not changed. My dreams for them continue to grow. And these few years remaining are as precious as those preschool days... these few teen years are for spending, not wasting; for learning and preparing and having a blast.