If you’re a parent, chances are there was at least one video game under the tree this Christmas. Even though your kids may be thrilled by a new title, as a parent you may be less enthusiastic. Even those of us who grew up with Alone in the Dark may balk at the detailed level of violence in Modern Warfare and Fallout: New Vegas, at least when considered as fare for kids. Both of these games receive an “M” rating, which means that they are considered unsuitable for players under 17; as with all other things, though, labeling these titles as ‘for adults only’ often makes them more appealing to the unintended youth audience. In addition to the violence question, there remain issues of meaning in videogames which are harder to track but no less important. So how concerned should parents be about indulging their children’s appetite for virtual violence?
For parents, this time of year can feel like walking through a minefield, with ads, decorations and music all aimed at getting kids excited about Christmas. Every year children eagerly ask Santa for the “hottest,” “must-have” toys – and then turn that “pester power” on their parents.
Ever since Cronus the Titan tried to swallow his son Zeus, parents have feared being supplanted by their children. (It didn’t take.) But it’s only in the last few generations, as the rate of technological progress has accelerated, that children have grown up in a world significantly different from the one their parents knew, and it’s only very recently that parents have seen their surpass them while they were still in the single digits. Thanks to digital media, the world is changing so rapidly today – consider that five years ago there was no Twitter, ten years ago no Facebook and fifteen years ago no Google – that even those of us who spent our childhoods programming our parents’ VCRs can feel left behind.
When Marlene Kane’s sixteen-year-old son Andrew asked her to drive him to the nearby town of Midland last December, she was surprised to hear that he wanted to meet with someone he had met while playing the online game World of Warcraft – and even more surprised to learn that the person he was meeting was a 42-year-old mother of four from Texas. Experts on sexual solicitation of youth online were less shocked however. In fact, for them the only surprising thing was Lauri Price’s sex. Everything else about the scenario – how they made contact, Price’s openness about her age, Andrew’s willingness to meet her, and the lack of deception about her intentions – all fit the evolving picture of how youth are sexually exploited online.
It’s a question that most parents of young daughters face: “Has she hit the ‘princess phase’ yet?” Not all parents are upset by this, of course: many happily buy their girls princess costumes, toys and accessories ranging from shoes to purses, all in pink. Some, though, despair of the powerful gender stereotyping this delivers to young girls and each new piece of princess gear can be a source of conflict.
Halloween is perhaps the most contradictory of the major holidays. Though born in Ireland and other Celtic regions, today it is almost exclusively observed in the form that developed in North America; though closely associated with the imagination, it has been thoroughly commercialized, becoming an opportunity for children to buy costumes and then acquire candy (today it is the second largest commercial holiday in the US, after Christmas); and finally, though it is the holiday most closely associated with children, it is also one that has, traditionally, been all about fear.
On Saturday, September 26, 2009, the US network Nickelodeon did something unusual: it switched itself off. This was in observance of the “Worldwide Day of Play,” an event Nickelodeon inaugurated in 2004. The network – along with its sister channels Noggin, the N, and Nicktoons, and their associated Web sites – went dark for three hours to encourage its young viewers to “ride a bike, do a dance, kick a ball, skate a board, jump a rope, swing a swing, climb a wall, run a race, do ANYTHING that gets you up and playing!”
It’s a persistent phenomenon: the faster we move into the future, the more we find it embedded with the bones of the past. Why else, for instance, would we still talk about “dialling” a phone, and later about “hanging it up”? Few people remember the early TV remote controls that worked by sending high-frequency sounds, but we still call remotes “clickers.” We still say “stay tuned,” “CC” (carbon copy) e-mails, “rewind” DVDs, and “post” online messages. Even new media darling YouTube contains an old-media artefact of this kind: the name is obviously meant to make us think of television, the “boob tube,” but few TVs have tubes in them anymore.
With Christmas approaching, video games are the one media industry that seems recession-proof, with games topping many wish lists. Parents, though, can find it difficult to tell just what they’re buying for their children. They may know about Grand Theft Auto, for instance, but may wonder what kind of sins are in Sins of a Solar Empire. Of course, nobody wants to disappoint their children: if parents decide not to buy Gears of War, will little Johnny be happy with Rock Band instead? Fortunately, there are both tools and techniques at hand to help parents identify games they might find inappropriate and also to pick appropriate games their children will like.
Summer is officially upon us, and with it comes the usual lineup of blockbuster movies. Along with the usual cast of superheroes, spies and sexagenarian, whip-cracking archaeologists comes a somewhat unusual hero: Wall-E, the nearly mute robot protagonist of the film of the same name.