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Violent video games put parental judgment to test

Newtown killings intensify misgivings

Harrison Steier, a pleasant but persistent 14-year-old, has spent the past few months trying, without luck, to persuade his parents to let him buy ­Assassin’s Creed III, a violent video game about a weapon-wielding half-Mohawk, half-European figure who roams the colonial American frontier.Recently Harrison tried a new tack.

“It’s set during the Revolutionary War,” the Marlborough High School freshman pointed out, “so it’s a history lesson.”

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That approach failed, too. “I put it in plain terms to him,” his mother, Melanie Steier, recalled. “I said, ‘You’re mad at me because I won’t let you pretend to kill people.’ ”

First-person shooter and gory ­video games have long been a fact of life, one that parents, often the very people buying the games for their children, frequently wrestle with. But many parents say their aversion to the games has intensified after the Dec. 14 Newtown, Conn., massacre, and a published report that shooter Adam Lanza spent his days in his mother’s darkened basement playing games like the violent blockbuster Call of Duty.

“I’ve seen parents almost cringing as they’re buying the [violent] games,” said Adem Sawyer, a former GameStop manager, now working at ­Replay’d, a used electronics store in Allston. “You can tell they don’t want to, but once it’s on the counter, they’ve crossed the threshold.”

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From his perch, Sawyer ­observed what will be an all-too-familiar scenario to many parents, particularly those with preteen and teenage boys: ­intense lobbying by the child; parental weakening, signaled by a laying-down of rules — “If I see you acting out any of this violence, the game is going!” — followed by children vowing to behave.

“They say ‘yes, yes, yes,’ ­because they just want to get to that prize,” Sawyer said.

Why do conflicted parents give in? Or let children play the games at friends’ houses? Alas, those are questions more easily asked by those who have never faced down a determined tween or teen.

Michael Rich, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, sees parents who are so eager to be friends with their children that they do not set limits.

“What I say to some parents is, it’s sort of like your kid asking you for a chainsaw,” he said. “Maybe your kid is a budding chain saw sculptor and really needs it and understands how to use it safely, but think it through.”

Rich believes parents should not wait for definitive evidence about a link between violent ­behavior and violent games.

“This is one of those situations where you can argue to the end of time [about whether violent games lead to violent behavior], as they did over ­tobacco and lung cancer,” he continued, “or you can take a step back and say: ‘What do I want my kid to learn? And what do I want him or her to ­become? How does everything I do contribute to that outcome?’ It’s not just about sucking up to kids, it’s about helping them ­become the kind of adults you want them to be.”

Just as the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School ratcheted up the discussion on gun control, the shootings have also spurred action on violent video games, in ways small and large.

In Newtown, after attending the funeral of a friend’s young brother, Max Goldstein, 12,­ announced he is giving up violent games and called on others to do the same with his “Played Out” campaign.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, has proposed a bill that would ­direct the National Academy of Sciences to study the effect of violent video games and content on children.

The Entertainment Software Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works on behalf of game makers, says video games do not cause violent behavior.

“Blaming video games for ­violence in the real world is no more productive than blaming the news media for bringing ­violent crimes into our homes night after night,” a statement on its website says. “Numerous authorities have examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between media content and real-life violence.”

Some parents say that they do not worry the games will make children violent; they just hate that they enjoy them. Some almost beg their sons (and they are most often sons) to play Madden NFL 13 or other sports video games, which by comparison seem as benign as playing outdoors.

But the prevalence of the ­violent games makes them hard to avoid. Even if your child does not own “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto” or “Assassin’s Creed,” a friend, or a friend’s older sibling, probably will.

Scott Weiner, of Mansfield, said he buys some games with violent content because he knows his older son, who is 13, will be exposed to them anyway, and he wants to educate himself.

“You might as well deal with it, because it’s going to happen anyway,” Weiner said.

His line of thinking will be familiar to many parents. “The first time my son asked for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 I was like, ‘No way. It will never happen.’ Then you realize their friends are getting the games.”

Weiner, the chief technology officer of Blue Hill Partners, and the manager of a forum for parent-friendly apps, ­parentswithapps.com, plays the games first, then lets his son know which settings he can use. “This way we can have a conversation about it.”

Even as the games are a source of near-constant friction in some homes, they can also cause stress between families — even when children are just having a play date, said Sandie Angulo Chen, a senior reviewer for Common Sense Media .

“Parents of this generation have to deal with screen protocols,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a preschooler watching TV, or tweens and teens and “M” rated videos (which are for players 17 and older). There are a lot of considerations that parents have to deal with when they ­allow kids to go on sleepover or just to a kid’s house down the street.”

Elsa Oberg, a part-time math teacher from Framingham, said the tension she feels over “Call of Duty” has nothing to do with other parents, but rather herself. About a year ago, after her son’s intense lobbying efforts, she caved and bought him the game.

“I’m antigun,” Oberg said, “and I can’t stand the NRA. But then my own son is downstairs playing this extremely violent game.”

And yet, she tells herself, he’s an excellent student, an athlete, and a nice boy with clean-cut friends.

“The game depresses me,” she said, “but I guess I chalk [his enjoyment] up to him ­being a 15-year-old boy.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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