On Gaming and Cultural Literacy

If you are a parent or you plan to be one, you’re gonna need a gaming console unless you absolutely can’t afford it. Sooner than you think.

Gaming has been a pervasive part of the culture for so long, it’s not unheard-of to meet a 50-something gamer. Half of hardcore gamers or former gamers are women. So there’s a good chance that once your kid starts school, he or she will have at least one friend who’s not only REALLY into gaming, but has a parent or grandparent who actively encourages the interest and is willing to share tricks.

The old stereotype of the gamer as a disaffected white teenage boy using the games as an escape from society hasn’t held for at least 15 years, if there was ever any truth to it at all.

basement_cheetos

An old, old line by internet standards. The “serious intellectuals” were calling bloggers basement-dwelling cheeto-eaters when the blogosphere first became a thing.

Lots of successful, well-adjusted people of all backgrounds are gamers. It’s a legitimate, mainstream social activity.

I’m a longtime gamer and I remember the early days. Video games have sucked away untold hours of my life. I have an elementary-age grandson who is a social butterfly and a great problem-solver. We’ve been gaming together for a couple of years now. As I’ve watched him grow and learn to express his own preferences, my attitude about children and gaming has evolved.

When he was a toddler, my view was that gaming should start around eight or nine, and I did my best to delay the introduction to the X-Box for as long as possible. This is partly because I think that level of maturity is good for teaching responsible gaming. It’s partly selfish.

I’d been out of gaming for years before I started back up with the kid. I knew I would need to supervise him closely once he started, and that supervising would entail carving out playing time for myself. I can’t stand to just sit and watch when someone else is playing a cool game. I want my turn, too!

By the time he was done with preschool, though, his friends were already talking about video games. He started asking for a console and for specific games. When he stayed over at friends’ houses, he always came back talking about how he’d played some cool game or other.

A rare internet image of the kid. When he is not gaming, he skates.

A rare internet image of the kid. When he is not gaming, he skates.

By the time he was halfway through kindergarten, my opinion on the appropriate age to start a kid gaming had changed. I’d begun to realize that if he didn’t know enough about games to understand what his friends were talking about, he’d be excluded from a lot of conversations. And if he didn’t learn some skills soon, he would end up being the kid in the crowd who sucked at every game. No one wants to be that kid.

At this point, I view console controller skills to be every bit as important as keyboarding, but in a different way. Where the keyboard paves the way to a lot of professional opportunities and social media empowerment, the controller opens the door to a whole spectrum of in-person and online social interaction ranging from  multiplayer gaming to water cooler conversations.

I also think it’s important for kids to start learning to consume media critically before they are even old enough to comprehend the basic concepts of media and criticism. Gaming is a good teaching tool for that, which makes it an important component of media awareness and cultural literacy.

So we started gaming together with a few specific rules.

  1. The online profile is only for streaming services and product registration. Signing into the online profile without permission and supervision makes the XBox go away for a month.
  2. Gaming time is limited, and severely limited on school nights.
  3. Grownups decide what’s appropriate to play and how often.
  4. Any time a game begins to inform our non-gaming behavior too much, we have to stop playing that game and play others for a week, or a month, or whatever length of time is appropriate.

That last item is critical. Although there is no causal connection between video game violence and real-world violence, even many of the most cartoonish rated-E games involve some form of combat. Since the younger kids are, the more malleable they are, gaming has to be closely supervised. It’s also important to emphasize, over and over, that video games are no more real than movies, and violence is never o.k. except in a couple of very specific circumstances.

So I game with my grandson often. We started out playing Kinect sports and racing games, then graduated to more complex activities. We rarely play competitively. We’ll run street races or jump into the Disney Infinity Toybox and smack one another around with lightsabers now and then, but for the most part, if we’re playing together we’re cooperating.

He started asking for first-person combat games almost from the minute he got the X-Box. Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are definitely out. He drools and pleads when he sees advertisements for those franchises, but they aren’t age-appropriate, and I am not sure when they will be. Which brings me to Halo.

I’m not sure where Halo ranks on the list of all-time most popular franchises, but it’s pervasive. Even as early as first grade, many of his classmates and a lot of his friends knew all about Halo and had played some version of it with older siblings. Until Halo 5, which is rated for Teens, these games are all rated M.

Now, I love a good first-person shooter, but I was clear I didn’t want a FPS in the house until I said it was ok. I didn’t claim the sole right to make that call because I’m the head of the household or the “man.” I claimed it because I’m the only adult gamer in the house and that makes me the most qualified judge of what content is acceptable for a seven-year-old and what’s not. And I stuck to my guns right up to the day Halo: Reach slipped into the house under my radar.

It happened during a period where we were checking out games at the library as a way of sampling different things without spending money. The local library doesn’t have a very good selection, and most rated E games get a “meh” from the kid because he reads the marketing images as babyish. Add in the fact that he’d been feeling deprived for months because we were keeping him away from the combat games, and a meltdown with an adult who doesn’t know gaming very well was sure to occur eventually.

If you don’t know Halo, it’s a series of military science fiction games which play like first-person shooters and have linear storylines. The franchise is known for realistic physics, vivid characterization, and exquisite cut-scenes. It has an engaged, sometimes rabid fanbase. It’s made a ton of money and spawned numerous spinoffs in other media over the last 15 years.

So, when I came in from work back in the fall and saw the grandson playing a Halo game, another grownup got a lecture. Once I regained my composure, I said, “Well, if we have to play one of these, at least it’s a Halo game.” Then I jumped right in.

I could have taken the game away and sent it back to the library the next day, but the boy was so into it and so delighted at this new experience, it seemed cruel to allow him that tiny taste and then cut it off. I decided to share the experience with him and teach him some tricks.

I spent the next three days getting myself literate on the franchise and powering through Reach on easy difficulty while he slept, evaluating the appropriateness of the graphics, the cut-scenes, and the radio chatter. I decided the whole thing was a bit strong, but no worse than a few PG movies he’s seen and no worse than some of the stuff I was watching at his age.

It wouldn’t take much toning down to turn it into a T-rated game, and given how conservative the rating system is, I’ve got no problem with him playing most T-rated games. I decided if we were going to allow the kid to play a military-themed shooter, this one was probably the best bet. After we returned the copy to the library, I went to GameStop and bought one for the house.

Now, six months later (and having had the game taken away at one point for more than three), he knows a lot of things which apply to all tactical games. Like hug the walls and go slowly when clearing a structure. Always reload after a firefight even if you only fired one shot. If you’re on point, pick right or left and stay on that side so you don’t cross your partner’s field of fire. Unless grenades are just lying around for you to pick up any time you need one, hoard them and only use them when you can toss them into a big crowd of enemies.

All that tactical stuff took me hundreds of hours of playing time to learn on my own when I was starting out, and he does most of it naturally unless he gets excited and loses his wits. So I don’t think I made a wrong decision by playing the Halo with the boy. I won’t say it was a right decision, and won’t recommend it for anyone else, though. It definitely would have been wrong to just let him play it by himself as much as he wanted without discussion or context. It’s one of those grownup calls you just have to make and live with, whatever you decide.

I will tell you, though. I’ve paid attention to the effect it’s had on our relationship and on his critical skillset. Here’s what I am finding.

  1. It hasn’t made him more aggressive. He got too much into it before we figured out the appropriate limits, but that was easily corrected.
  2. It’s been good for his hand-eye coordination and it’s really exercised his  problem-solving muscles.
  3. It’s shaved off quite a bit of tv time, which I view as good. Active gaming is better for a developing brain than passively consuming broadcast media in almost every way.
  4. It’s introduced him to the lexicon of gaming. You will not know this unless you’ve been a gamer or know some, but there’s a whole meta-language of gaming which is every bit as complex as academic jargon.
  5. It’s given us a way of spending time together on the weekends (I don’t X-Box on school nights because it helps us limit his gaming time and makes the Saturday gaming special) that requires active communication and coordination. Which is different than watching movies or reading books together.

There were rough patches at times — especially during the first play-through. He had a huge meltdown over the scripted death of a squad member the first time through. But that was no worse than his reactions to sad movies or books we’ve read together. If he ever gets the opportunity to meet J.K. Rowling in person and ask her to sign a book, I expect him to demand a written apology for Dobby. That one was traumatic.

I can toss him into a sandbox with an eleven-year old, and as long as they both have an equal understanding of the game, he can hold his own. So I don’t see much downside, but my consistent involvement is the thing that’s made it work.

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7 responses to “On Gaming and Cultural Literacy

  1. This is such a great post. I have no idea when we will introduce GeekBaby to video games. David and I love to play and I agree it is important to be involved. Because I was the youngest I got to watch some r and pg13 rated movies, but it is not like my mom would let me watch and it was nothing – she engaged with us. I also think that the boundaries depend on the child and it can be difficult if they have access at a friend’s house.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for commenting. I wanted this post to start a discussion about kids and gaming. I can’t tell you when is the right time to introduce Geek Baby to the games. I think it varies from kid to kid. And no one gets to say what is right except the parent or guardians. But do be careful and go slowly. If she gets ready from some rated-M action before you are ready for her to see that stuff, she’ll let you know, LOL.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Weekend Coffee Share: I’m Still Alive! | Just Gene'O

  3. Pingback: On Gaming and Cultural Literacy | oogenhand

  4. Not much to add here because I don’t really game… Except I can definitely say that I feel out of the loop in a lot of conversations. If I could afford the startup costs I’d be madly trying to catch up on the major games. As it is I watch let’s plays and am edging into Steam since I got a better laptop for school last year. (I also play a lot of games that don’t “count” on my Kindle, either because they’re casual games or because they’re just not THE games that everyone knows.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting post!

    I view the paternal influence on building of language, skills, and understanding of any culture to be incredible important for children. Infusing your passions into your children’s views can be wonderful bonding and also education!

    Liked by 1 person

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