In Loco Parentis
Posted on Tuesday, November 11 2008 @ 11:22:39 Eastern
in loco parentis
Or, simply, ‘in place of a parent’. Cutting to the point this month: Should games teach our children?
No doubt if I went out onto the street and asked this, I’d be subject to ridicule from passers by; they’d claim I was insane, that videogames breed hatred and glorified violence for children, as well as probably suggesting they demonstrate how to host a rainbow party or something. We all know that these misconceptions hail from deviancy amplification spirals* caused by a mixture of mass media hype, crowd psychology and my previous blog entries, but can if we ignore all of those things for a minute, and play on the fact that games teach children.
I’m not necessarily talking about ‘Brain Training’ for the DS, either. When I was a kid, I’d watch adverts on television that promoted independent consoles and PC games made by Disney or some crap, like ‘Learn The Alphabet With Timone And Pumba’. Mother dearest saw my interest in such devices, but also noted that I was beyond the age of needing to know what noise a cow made, or the lyrics to Lion King songs. Instead, she went out and bought me a Super Nintendo. Almost two decades on, I still find myself defending my parent’s decision to buy me a games console, instead of something that which has been founded to be educational to kids, or at least make the Disney Corporation that little bit richer. The SNES did so much more for me than a simple learning toy would have; the endless reams of written dialogue in Breath of Fire II taught me how to read faster, Super Mario World perfected my hand-eye co-ordination and Super Mario Kart showed me how to be a competitive arsehole. All the while, my mum would encourage and play with me whilst feeling secure that I was having a good time, wasn’t going to go rampaging out onto the streets and I was actually increasing basic skills I’d need for later in life.
The epitome of these experiences was embodied perfectly when I graduated to the N64 and got my large, bony hands on a copy of Ocarina of Time. I feel that most of the Zelda series’ hype comes from reviewers and fans alike having a similar experience to mine: We were entering the golden age of videogaming, as well as beginning pre-teenage years myself. Not only did me and my friends spend hours discussing the many ways to progress through the challenges that the game faced (providing some sort of social lubricant for high school years) but also me and my mum used to play the game together; her dictating what route to take with help of a guidebook and I would take action on screen. They were good times indeed and Ocarina was able to introduce themes and emotions into my life that both my parents and teachers had neglected to talk about directly. Alongside giant spiders and disembodied hands came topics of unrequited love, jealousy and hubris**. Ocarina was, at heart, a coming-of-age tale which happened to reflect exactly what was going on in my own life at the time. Whilst it is difficult to claim that a single game alone shaped my teenage personality, it definitely taught me things about life that – otherwise – I certainly would not have considered until years later. Movies and television often attempt to convoy these emotions and messages, but these media forms remain ineffective to the average 12 year-old. Ocarina was able to show me and thousands of other children my age the values of loyalty, compassion and honesty; ethics that are essential to be a functioning member of society, but are notably overlooked by most children, especially since most of the time these themes are merely presented to us in the form of rants at sermons or boring school sessions.
Questions of morality have been reprised in recent years; the last major title to dabble in such gameplay that I certainly played was Mass Effect. Such games are cited as a way for children and adults alike to test out their own ethos on life, as well as aiding immersion. All the same, this element of choice doesn’t promote an exactly positive way of thinking as the good old linear classics once did. Seriously, who ain’t gonna choose to blow up the Council during the final space battle; because I certainly did! The fact that negativity in games is permitted and even encouraged for better rewards really makes such titles less of a learning tool, which could also give reason to why the mass media’s in-house ‘experts’ loathe them so much. Instead (if developers want to proceed with my idea of a moral-enforcing tool) games should make the good choice more obvious and realistic. With Mass Effect, there really isn't a 'bad' ending: Blow up the Council and you'll take it over and save it and you get a place anyway. The effects of blowing up the main leaders of intergalactic government should have been shown more clearly and accurately than 'oh, well, looks like we'll lead it instead then!'. At the same time, its still important to give the player freedom and the grounds to do whatever they wish, but harsher consequences should be enforced for those who opt for negative actions.
That being said, I'm not saying that all games should aim to teach children about life. Ocarina didn't even intend to, but its ideas were presented in such a way that they were subtly woven into the game. There is a huge amount of plotholes in the first third of the title alone: Why does Link accept his fate and proceed with what the Great Deku Tree says without questioning it? Why does he delve into a strange series of unfortunate events optionally? Why does he sacrifice his own innocence to save the land? Because Link is a silent protagonist, we never really know his motivations for getting caught up in the craziness; we never know his opinion on any of the many strange situations the player encounters, or why he still continues to fight. Link does not have to justify his choices, which is something that many games end up focusing their entire story to doing, usually for dramatic effect. Emotional exposition on behalf of the character can have the adverse affect to what many developers believe. Take Tommy in PREY (one of my favourite FPSes): Due to some great voice acting and timing, he usually reflects what the player is thinking (like shouting 'woo!' whenever a boss goes down or '****! Oh ****!' when, y'know, his girlfriend gets turned into an abomination) but many fans of the game believe Tommy is a bit of a selfish, reluctant arsehole due to various points of the game where he displays such characteristics, despite them making him be more 'human'. Children are using game characters as their role-models, and although many will criticise that Link's silent nature and willingness to go along with whatever people tell him as two major personality flaws, the negativity that the likes of Tommy spurts out explicitly dwarfs Link's pitfalls. The latter hardly lives a positive impression on our young, but it is at least better than influencing them in a totally evil way. Sure, we can understand the sacrifice and pain Tommy is going through and therefore expresses his emotion through anger. When a kid sees that kinda behaviour, they don't read as deeply into it as we do. Whilst Tommy is a violent, misunderstood fellow who has to resort to violence to battle genocidal man-eaters, children see the following, simplified equation:
Guns + Swearing = Saving The World = Cool
It is on these basic principles that children gain their moral grounding on. As such, whilst games are a great way to teach children the ways of society through a fantastical and interactive setting, it is also imperative that we monitor what kind of influence our children are exposed to without being too restrictive about their fun. While basic principles can be recommended to developers of how to make their games more beneficial to those who end up playing them, we definitely can't dictate that they should include only mentally productive content. I could have ended up with arachnophobia from Ocarina of Time, after all. By demanding companies only include features, storylines and characters that support a benevolent and cheery cause would ultimately detract from the fun factor of playing games. Besides, why would a kid be playing a FPS with a foul-mouthed main character? Why should the entertainment value of the game have to suffer because pre-teens may decide to convince their irresponsible parents to pick it up? These folks only make up the minority of the overall gaming population now, so why should we deliberately concentrate on making games to satisfy them or increase their morals? As I said in the beginning of the article: The stuff we learn from gaming experiences is often as an indirect result of them. Brain Training doesn't appeal to me (and wouldn't as a child, either) but learning the delicate workings of Human Nature through character interaction in Breath of Fire definitely does. Deliberately aiming a game (and, even worse, marketing it as such) as a 'child-friendly' experience can produce very 'unfun' results so even their target audience will be put off from picking it up.
Adults should moderate what children learn from gaming – from any genre. They should judge reactions to what their kids are playing and decide for themselves whether or not their child will be affected in a negative way for continuing playing, not simply expect for the developers to include a reflection of humanity's good side. In loco parentis should not exist with gaming, but rather the stories and morals that certain titles teach can be a helpful guide for children which isn't presented to them in lecture format, as well as a tool for parents to help teach, but sole dependence on games to teach your kids is an absurd idea which will probably result in them growing up as Duke Nukem as their idol, or something***.
*God, I ain’t half laying in on the big words this month, eh?
**Love: Ruto’s lust, platonic between Saria and romantic with Zelda. Jealously is presented behalf of Ganondorf, with his sole desire to possess all three elements of the Triforce. Hubris is shown throughout, ranging from the main antagonist, to figures such as Talon or the Zoran king who believe themselves better than their peers and close their eyes to the growing darkness; in each case it comes back to whack them in the face.
***Fox McCloud man maself.
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