For hundreds of years we have been telling children violent stories. Hansel experiences starvation. Gretel watches children being burned alive. Sleeping Beauty has a step-mother who is trying to kill her.
At some point in the parents started cleaning up the fairy tales, but one of the great child psychologists of the 20th century, Bruno Bettelheim, argued that the violence in the fairy tales is important for child development. In his bestselling book The Uses of Enchantment, he argues that the horrific situations of Grimm’s Fairy tales and other popular folk tales are important for the moral development of children. And he shows how violent, often cruel narrative can aid in our greatest human task of finding meaning for one’s life.
Greg Toppo, author of the book The Game Believes in You, applies this analysis to video games. He says, “When I was a kid, I loved Bugs Bunny, in part because he whacked his foes with frying pans and anvils and that was hilarious. But those acts alone weren’t sufficient to help him overcome his tormentors. He had to outsmart them. Above all else, he had to have a plan. He was in control.
As parents, we need to step back and take a good, long, hard look at what is happening in our kids’ minds when they’re playing violent games. Like Bugs Bunny, they’re in control, or at least trying to be. That’s the feeling they’re after—they are literally holding a controller the whole time!”
Toppo reports that one child psychologist says the young teen-aged boys in his practice who are the most anxious about the world are also the ones who seek out the most violent content. They’re screwing up their courage to confront scary, awesomely destructive imaginary bad guys. They’re playing with fear as a way to understand it and overcome it.
When you think about it, a kid who plays a first-person shooter game is consenting to a curious little contract: I agree to be hunted, but I know that eventually I will prevail. That doesn’t make kids more violent—it makes them more gritty, more confident, more self-reliant. They’re better able to face the real threats in their lives.
Toppo says, “When kids play games, they’re not practicing to be homicidal maniacs. They’re not planning massacres. They’re not training to kill cops. They’re solving problems. They’re working through a carefully designed series of challenging, ever-more-complex puzzles and mazes and missions, some of them maddeningly difficult if not near-impossible. They’re pushing themselves. They’re thinking systematically. They are, in many ways, thinking like designers themselves.”
No matter what game they’re playing, they’re also inhabiting a fantasy world. Game theorists talk about “the magic circle,” a kind of imaginary sacred space that surrounds us whenever we play or watch games of any kind, from a World Cup soccer match or Formula One race to an impromptu round of Rock-Paper-Scissors or a level of Assassin’s Creed. Games, religious rituals, plays, festivals, and even legal proceedings—all take place in the magic circle, a “forbidden spot” where special rules apply.
Kids understand this. They always have. And this is why violent folk tales, like Peter and the Wolf, permeated pre-literate life. And fairy tales are a part of a rich and wonderful childhood in the 19th and 20th century. And violent video games will be part of a successful, fun childhood of our new millennium.