Video Games: Mind-Warping or Body-Shaping?

From Just Dance 2 to Dead Space 2, gaming is good for you

There was an ominous snapshot in this week’s Inquirer depicting two special forces operatives—gas masks on, guns drawn, fingers on triggers as they stalked their human prey. It wasn’t a photograph from the front lines of Afghanistan. It was a scene from a video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and it ran with an opinion piece about the effects of violent games on kids (the subhead read, “What is endless mock combat teaching teenagers?”).

[SIGNUP]My first reaction was to cringe. Are we still trying to find answers for senseless killings or teen mood swings in what kids are playing on their Xboxes? Video games are to this era what heavy metal music was in the ’80s, and we all know how Tipper Gore’s crusade against Twisted Sister ended. Like anything else kids are obsessed with, it’s up to parents to set limits and make sure their young button-mashers play in moderation. I had to laugh the other day when I visited a childhood friend of mine and watched him pull the plug on his kids’ Wii marathon. Years ago, when we were a little older than his children are now, one of our Saturday morning Nintendo sessions ran so long that I nearly missed dinner. We were so mesmerized by the virtual world we had no idea the sun had gone down in the real one. Needless to say, my folks weren’t pleased when they called to snap me out of my video game stupor.

But my friend and I also spent plenty of time cruising the neighborhood on our BMX bikes, skateboarding, and playing football or street hockey whenever we could. The good news for today’s parents is that games aren’t all about warfare and carnage; a recent study showed some of the most popular titles actually help kids stay fit. I can testify to this—after my buddy’s kids shamed me in a few sweaty rounds of Just Dance 2, they were still busting out their best Black Eyed Peas moves. I needed a nap.

Games like the Call of Duty series are a different breed, though. Should 12-year-olds practice the art of silently sneaking up behind a Russian Cold War operative and taking them out with a knife? Of course not. But just like those “parental advisory” record labels had the reverse effect, making Judas Priest even more appealing as forbidden fruit, video game ratings won’t keep mature titles out of young, impressionable hands. I know my 15-year-old self would have found a way to procure a copy of Dead Space 2, the hit survival horror title rated M (17 and older) for “blood and gore, intense violence and strong language.” The game’s creators get that, too. This commercial smartly sums up the time-honored teenage appeal of doing stuff your mom finds repulsive.

My generation was the first to grow up with video games in the home, and I have yet to find any credible evidence of the mind-warping, morality-destroying effects of gaming. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Inquirer opinion piece take a broader look at some of the upsides of the hobby, such as real-world friendships that develop when kids play online with gamers around the globe. Over nearly three decades of slaying orcs, honing my headshot skills with sniper rifles, and wiping out armies of alien hordes, my sanity is (relatively) intact and my arrest record is clean. The same goes for my friends, many of whom have kids of their own and still fire up their PlayStations or PC games occasionally. So let’s stop blaming entertainment for societal ills with much deeper roots. And if anyone can tell me how to get past the four-armed regenerating zombie in chapter 14 of Dead Space 2, I could really use some help.