Kids like violent fantasy and role playing. It’s normal and healthy.

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.


28 replies
  1. jessica
    jessica says:

    When my kiddo was little, I used to intervene at the playground when the slightest push or pull would happen. In my head it was ‘omg no! no violence!’.

    After educating myself a bit more, and that he’s a bit older, now we go to the playground and they wrestle and push and pull and I just watch. It’s always a huge group of boys that get involved and they end up having the best time.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Where is that other gaming post? Commenter and I were having a conversation. I’m using very old technology… I may have to wait till I get home to catch up here.

      Sorry Jessica, I know I’m interrupting.

      Cheers, all.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      they wanted Call of Duty and I said no for such a long time. Then I finally said okay, play whatever you want. And they played the game for a week and lost interest and went back to Minecraft (younger son) and Plague (older son).


  2. UnschoolingMama
    UnschoolingMama says:

    I can read articles like this countless times, and I can accept that it’s probably factual, but I can’t come to terms with it or believe that I’ll ever embrace these ideas.

    I don’t show my son movies with cartoon mayhem. We don’t even read books or watch shows with storylines about kids arguing at this point. Maybe it’s an age thing. He’s 3. I know that this age learns through example. I’ve read studies that storylines with teasing, arguing actually teach kids how to tease and argue at this age rather than teaching the pro-social behavior intended by the story, like sharing or whatever. I don’t want him to see and mimic this behavior.

    Maybe this information is meant for older kids and I’ll realize that in a few years. But I do know that there’s no one scarier to my son than Goldilocks (she broke Baby Bear’s chair, after all), and he doesn’t want anything to do with the big, bad wolf. I can’t imagine reading him the noncensored fairy tales. He’s really not an overly sensitive child, either.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      My two older girls (I have three girls) are incredibly sensitive emotionally with huge imaginations. I haven’t been able to read them those scary fairy tales because they induce nightmares at night and anxiety during the day. Some of the cartoon versions of these stories are even too much and they are 8 and 5. My 3 yo is not sensitive like they are, very adventurous and brave but since her sisters aren’t interested in those stories then she isn’t either. I’m not sure how that translates to video games, the ones they play don’t have that level of violence in them. Actually they are more into certain apps than they are into video games at the moment…. it ebbs and flows.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      Moms (and dads!) still have that basic intuition stuff.

      We can generally tell how our kids are being affected and if it’s a positive association or not. Besides research and studies, I will listen to my gut. My kid is pretty self-regulated in watching violence at the moment, but he is older than your son. We chat about what is scary and why, and how to take himself away from something/stop reading if he has a bad feeling about the story and if it’s making him anxious. (btw- have you seen some of these ads on youtube?! One minute he’s watching his favorite minecrafters, the next there are horror film adverts).

      His best friend, who lives upstairs from us, parent’s banned video games during the week. I’ve watched them play and their kid gets no greater joy than playing these insane games (I don’t mind!). It’s actually quite cute to watch because he JUMPS around and yells and is so excited throughout the whole ordeal. He seems to really think he is in the game. I asked his mom why he can’t play during the week and she said it’s because he would play too much, if he had the option. I’m not sure if that’s an issue really, but I guess his excitement would eventually annoy me too if it was all day everyday ;)

      Most of the time when it comes to my feelings/thoughts about gaming, it is a matter of questioning my assumptions, researching a bit, and getting to the root of why I’m thinking a certain way and if it’s in the way of my child’s development. I mean, everyone was preaching about video games and induced violence a few years ago and that turned out false.

  3. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I’ve been revisiting old books on my kindle, like Viktor Frankle’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s about his observations on happiness while in a concentration camp.

    He says that the men used their bread to exchange for a game like chess to forget their hunger and fear. The children played gruesome games taking turns being nazi officials and Jews (kind of like Cowboys and Indians). It was their way to process and confront the fear of their current situation.

    I found that interesting.

  4. marta
    marta says:

    I totally agree with you on this. Violent videogames don’t make a child more violent and can be part of the whole violent play kids go through, enjoy thoroughly and then grow out of (or not !)

    However, there is a difference between violent videogames and violent real play. In rough and tumble play kids set their own rules and get the physical consequences. Plus, their minds and bodies are involved, so it is a true wholesome experience. In violent videogames (or any videogames, for that matter), the rules are set out by an adult or a corporation of adults, with no actual physical engagement but totally artificial engagement of the mind. That’s why you get addicted to videogames (just like you get adddicted to illegal substances or to gambling) and not to rough and tumble, cops and robbers, truth or dare or any other violent play.

    That is why I limit the time my kids play videogames but I don’t limit their rough and tumble play (unless furniture or another person gets damaged by their actions).

    Funny enough, while the older one (14 years old) plays GTA or COD at friends’, he’ll still rather play the only game we have at home, the FIFA soccer game… The younger one (10 years old) doesn’t even play the violent ones at friends’ because, like YMKAS’ girls, he is very sensitive to any kind of violence or rough content and has nightmares with Indiana Jones and the inadventarily watched Michael Jackson’s Thriller…

  5. marta
    marta says:

    Having said that, and this is curious too, the younger kid is a tough looking boy who enjoys rough and tumble play and daredeviling… He just doesn’t like being told, read to, or watching anything to do with blood, death, violence or body manipulation, like loud/desfiguring make up, excessive tattoos and the like… (Why’s that?)

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      My sensitive kids are also into violent play, but it is almost always in the context of vigilante justice, like batman or some sort of hero who fights crime. They can handle light violence, like Lego movie stuff or watching creepers explode in Minecraft. What they can’t handle is dark themes, or any kind of gore. Watching my oldest cry during How to Tame your Dragon 2 and then having to constantly reassure her that her father wasn’t going to die was a reminder that she is quite sensitive.

      The difference for us is that they self-regulate very well so I don’t limit screens. Recently, with a friend who was going to show her a video on his phone I overheard her ask if it was something ok for her to watch. Meaning, at 8 she is already knowing what she can handle and letting other kids know what her limits are. For her it means no gory dark stories, games, or shows.

      So maybe I don’t know the reason for one kind of violence and not the other, except that maybe he knows his limits and that includes limited amounts of violence. It’s a sign that he is self-aware, I think.

      • marta
        marta says:

        Yes, I also think so. When we’re going to watch a movie as a family he always asks whether it is na ok movie for him. Now he can handle Indiana Jones ;)

        When I said I limited screen time I meant all screen time, not just violent screen time (I’m talking about games; they do control themselves tv screen time, it is less engaging).

        I don’t really believe they can control their own time when gaming (I know, because occasionally I let go of the screen curfew for various reasons – sometimes pure benign neglect, really – and they.just.won’t.stop.playing) because most games are (superbly ) designed to be addictive.

        • jessica
          jessica says:

          Here’s a story or two.

          My husband’s best friend was ‘addicted’ to gaming throughout his teen years. He sat in his room, all day, every day playing. So much so, his mother began to worry that he would accomplish nothing in life. Even s0, she didn’t stop his play and left him to his devices. He went on to graduate from two Ivy’s with honors, participated in rowing and various clubs, and now works at a top tech firm doing high level projects across the world.

          One of my best guy friends was a roommate of my brother’s in college. He sat in his room most of the time playing violent video games. By most of the time, I mean all of the time. I thought it was odd at the time. He’s now a decorated Army Ranger that has served 4 deployments and runs a rental business on the side, volunteers in his community, and is an all around great human being.

          The point is their habitual borderline obsessive gaming didn’t change who they were even when other’s were concerned for them.

  6. Purva Brown
    Purva Brown says:

    Once when my middle son was little and he was confronted by a bully, I told my son to look at his shirt that had Batman on it. (It even had an attached cape! Ha.) I told him he was Batman and not to be afraid. My son was old enough then that he knew he wasn’t really Batman but it was amazing to see the transformation in his body language. He then assumed control of the situation and suffice it to say he wasn’t bullied. Video games provide that same experience, which is why I will always be a huge proponent of them for kids and adults.

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    But… fairy tales were not originally the stories told to children, but were stories handed down for generations from adult to adult with kids just sometimes listening in. I doubt, despite the claim that the violent first person shooter games train reflexes and whatever – that watching violence, and a lot of casual violence is the only way to train those abilities. If we see around us, be it game, or TV or movies the less sensitive we become. The story allows us to imagine what is going on and we can decide how far we let our imagination run, the same for the rough and tumble play – the violent game rarely give that level of control. I don’t mind if people love to play the first person shooter games – it is your decision to play them, but I just don’t think they are a wonderful teaching tool.

    • marta
      marta says:

      No, they are not teaching tools, they are just entertainment, (violent or non violent games alike). It’s just like that crappy tv show we like to watch when we don’t have anything else to do/or are too tired to do anything else. It won’t hurt us in anyway if it is just for those few times…

      That’s also one of the reasons I won’t let them play violent videogames at home. I know they have to do it sometimes because they are curious and want to try what their friends try etc, but I believe in limiting screen time, so in the time they have to play with the PS, I much rather let them play non-violent games.

      Playing real (ie physical) violent or dangerous games seems more like a teaching tool to me. All kids in all human societies have been playing violent games since the dawn of times, it’s a way of taming and confining violence, I think…

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        How are you drawing your conclusions? I’m just curious. You’re pretty adamant that video games are bad for kids to play. How much time is OK, then? Do you even know? Or do you set an amount of time the kids can do certain activities and that’s just the way it is? If so, what types of games are appropriate for your kids ages?

        If I was to say most people I know that were gaming addicts in their younger years are wildly successful adult individuals, would you change your mind and let your kids play?
        I’m hoping this doesn’t come across offensive, I’m actually curious about your thoughts around gaming.

        Watching TV is a different brain process than playing a video game, sort of like listening to music and playing music. My kids don’t watch much tv, but neither does my husband or I.
        My son normally uses youtube to watch another gamer play the games to figure out new techniques. That’s pretty much where his screen time ends.

        • marta
          marta says:

          I read the two stories about people you know who are good adults and human beings despite the borderline obsessive playing while teenagers. Yes, it is great to hear those stories and feel the world is not collapsing because of teenager boys playing videogames all the time. I am 45 so there aren’t many adults around my age (35-50) that I know who were gaming while young (specially as there weren’t that many computers around here…) but I do know some dope “addicts” who are now productive, healthy adults.

          However, I choose to limit the amount of time my kids spend gaming to control the risk of addiction, just like my family showed us the difference between drinking socially and drinking just for the sake of drinking, or most parents only give their kids their driving licence around 20 (permission is at 18 here, but we’re not so dependent on private transport as in the US).

          You can only limit the risks and inform, inform, inform, according to age and ability. You cannot forbid – the forbidden fruit…

          And, yes, I am comparing gaming addiction to drug/alcohol addiction. Doctors and researchers (neuroscience, psychiatry) are doing it too.

          • marta
            marta says:

            Clarification: I’m separating screen time from gaming time.

            My kids pretty much self-limit their non-gaming screen time. The boys basically watch youtube to perfect their gaming skills, but then they move on to the actual gaming, just like your son. My older girl (the youngest is just 2) is not into gaming but she likes to watch tv series on the computer and when she gets too much (like the whole morning) I tell her to do something else in the afternoon and she doesn’t seem to have a problema with it (she’s 13).
            As a family we all watch a movie on Fridays and/or Saturdays. Occasionally we watch Brain Games or other non-fiction/non-reality tv shows. And that’s about it. (And sometimes all this time put together is far more than what I’d like us to, but that’s how things are…)

            Ultimately, time is not limitless. If I want them to experience and engage with different things I have to make time for the things to happen. They can do it on their own with almost everything. They can’t do it with gaming.

          • jessica
            jessica says:

            Thanks for taking the time to reply, Marta. I understand your perspective. I wonder if addiction of video games is correlation or causation from prolonged use. I have a hunch it’s correlation, but I really haven’t read enough on addiction and gaming to have a scientific answer.
            We’re all trying to do what is best for the kids at the end of the day.

  8. redrock
    redrock says:

    oops = “If we see around us, be it game, or TV or movies the less sensitive we become. ” should be “If we see more and more violence around us, be it game, or TV or movies the less sensitive we become.”

  9. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    “They are, in many ways, thinking like designers themselves.”
    Yeah right, that’s a real stretch. When I read a blog post in many ways I’m thinking like the author. When I live in a house in many ways I’m thinking like the architect. Consumption is a far cry from creation.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Donyou sit next to a kid who is trying to win a violent game? right now one of the most popular games is Five Nights of Freddy. The YouTubers who do videos about winning the game are obsessed with the game designer’s style, intention, tricks, etc.

      My older son knows everything about the game designer – including his style for creating the game- so he can decide in an approach to winning the game. When kids talk about “beating the game” they are competing against the game designer. He is the opponent.


  10. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    Now that there is so much portable technology, people no longer need to cope with ennui. Advocates of gaming think the experience is edifying and beneficial. There are others who think that is essential to know how to dig into one’s own resources to cultivate and occupy oneself. Having the company and stimulation of an intelligent but inanimate experience may develop some skills, but it undermines others. The frustration of not having that interaction is problematic for many people. For some parents, helping kids develop a strong inner world and ability to generate interesting things to do and think without external stimulation is important. If violent gaming is healthy, according to researchers, I am going to buck the system once again and my kid will be raised in an environment where we foster strength of character by finding our own way of dealing with ennui. Humanity hates boredom. Our consumer society and economy is banking on it.

  11. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    What do you think about violent games, stories make kids see violence as normal like how our society is now? I try not to let my 6 yo son watch, say, power rangers, other fighting cartoons, then I saw your post.

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