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Rated M for Middle School

By Chris Fredrick

Sound travels from the basement up the stairs to the kitchen. I can hear our son because he yells into his headset microphone. “So, what are you using?” Then he pauses, and laughs. “No, I mean are you using Bad Juju or Thunderlord?” I catch myself smiling, wondering, How does a thirteen-year-old interpret Bad Juju? I hear our neighbor’s muffled response over the speakers, then gunshots in the background. Our son shrieks, then laughs again. I shake my head and try to focus. I need to scrape something together for supper.

I began my journey into the world of video game parenting when our son started middle school. At first, I resisted the purchase of a gaming system outright. Being outside its world, it was easy to believe what I’d heard: that play violence leads to real violence. Plus, it was hard to ignore the blame hurled at video games in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The idea that we would somehow offer him up to “violence” terrified me.

But on the other side of my abstract concerns was our son’s reality. We had just moved to a new city and a new school. He had left his trusted friends and needed to begin again. It was a lot to ask of anyone. And it felt larger, somehow, to ask it of a small boy on the threshold of middle school. “The boys at school talk about all these things I don’t understand,” he said.

He studied. He reasoned. He pleaded.

I decide supper can wait a few minutes. I tiptoe partway down the stairs and see him engrossed in play. His eyes are intense. “I just need one more. I just need one more. I just need one more.” He is off the couch, jumping up and down. “Aaaaahhhh! You just got downed!”

Once we bought the system, the change happened quickly. His free time was no longer where I felt it belonged, with his books, science kits and the Star Wars Clone Turbo Tank he’d built out of Legos. He was drawn—body and soul—to the aura of Xbox.

My worry went into overdrive. “You won’t play on Live, right?” I asked with unflinching naiveté. Playing on Xbox Live meant playing online, where he could chat with players anywhere, of any age.

“Well, yeah. That’s the whole point. If a friend hosts a party, I want to play.”

I vented to my husband. “What about the hackers? Or the stalkers… or the pedophiles?!” My husband thought I was overreacting. But, to me, our son seemed vulnerable, especially when I saw him alongside the younger versions of himself. When he was in preschool, his teacher pulled me aside and told me she thought he was mute. In elementary school, I went out of my way to describe him to his teachers as shy. But when they nodded too casually, I added, “Not just shy, but sensitive and conscientious.” It was my please-don’t-yell-at-him code. He has always been small for his age. We’d enrolled him in several sports, hoping one might stick, but every sport made his tummy hurt. “I’m too nervous,” he’d said.

I watch him groan, hands in the air. He yells into the mic, “I was hoping you would kill the oracle so I could get the relic! But what happened?” He holds his head in his hands, and I feel an urge to hug him. But then he rallies before I have time to react and he is back in the game.

After we bought the Xbox, our conversations shifted to the kinds of games we would buy for the Xbox. I thought Just Dance or the Star Wars game seemed good. But he had other games in mind, games his new friends played. They all had an ESRB rating of M. I gritted my teeth, knowing that games rated M were for a mature audience and included blood, swearing, nudity and sex to varying degrees of realism. They weren’t recommended for anyone under seventeen. “How about this rule,” I suggested. “You can have any T-rated game you want.” T stood for “teen” and was sort of the PG-13 equivalent in the gaming world.

He looked at all the T games and said he couldn’t find one that was any good. Good to me meant wholesome. Good to him meant high quality gameplay and fun. “I’ll pay,” I added, trying to sweeten the deal. Then he hauled out the reviews in GameInformer magazine. In his mind, games with good reviews in GameInformer were the only ones to consider. I followed his arguments and eventually agreed to Assassin’s Creed. He’d been reading me various game summaries and its story line sounded more interesting than the others.

His first favorites were Assassin’s Creed 3 and Borderlands 2. (I’ve been told the numbers are important.) Then there was Dishonored and Gears of War 3. Even the titles made me cringe. But our son worked hard. He researched them all, telling me their plot lines and promising to skip the optional scenes that involved brothels. Night after night, I followed him downstairs and watched him play the Assassin’s Creed 3 campaign. I paged through the guidebook while he learned the controls. The game’s storyline was a series of framed memories; the historical detail and graphics were phenomenal.

Several months later, early in the Dishonored campaign, he ran up the stairs breathing hard. “The weepers!” he exclaimed. The game had rat swarms and plague-infected weepers who walked around like zombies. He paced back and forth in the kitchen, torn. He wanted to play the campaign—badly—but he was scared. For a moment I saw him as the second grader who couldn’t go down to the basement unless I held his hand. After a few minutes of pacing, he collected himself. Then, defiantly, he sank into the weeper-filled darkness.

Some days I felt like the Xbox was an alien force that had invaded our perimeter and was poised to attack our foundation. But, more and more, I remembered how our son had connected to Star Wars. It wasn’t an accident that he owned the Clone Turbo Tank and not the Millennium Falcon. When he was six he loved Darth Vader. At seven, he loved General Grievous. He was drawn to characters of intrigue, not necessarily because they were dark but because they were interesting. So it made sense that he tended toward games with interesting characters and compelling story lines. He played Black Ops 2 when his friends played it, but he preferred Borderlands 2. While they are both shooter games, Borderlands is open world and role-playing, set on the planet Pandora.

It wasn’t long before our son made a friend on Xbox, someone who lived in a different state but shared his love of Borderlands.

“You didn’t tell him how old you are, or where you live, did you?” I asked.

“Mo-mma!” He groaned. “Of course not.”

Along the way, I gradually loosened the reins. A big part of that change came when I read an article in American Psychologist called “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” in which the authors argue that the majority of research on video games has focused on its negative impacts. It goes on to summarize research that has shown the benefits to people who play video games in cognitive, motivational, emotional and social measures. Reading the article made my chest swell with emotion: it quantified and articulated what I’d seen happen for our son. Some of his best friends are the ones he meets online. Most often they are friends from school, but not always. I’ve seen his fear and inhibitions replaced with confidence and poise.

The study also said that making a sweeping assessment about video games is like saying the same thing about food. There is so much variety and complexity, and the industry is changing all the time. Extending the food analogy, a good video game is highly complex and forces its players to think and act quickly. In other words, violent shooter games like Grand Theft Auto are the broccoli and spinach of gaming.

Our son is in eighth grade now. When I see him wearing his headset and virtual hip waders, I know that the best argument for video games is the one he never made. In this dark but open world, he isn’t shy or small. He plays with the same intensity he once had for other toys. He researches. He earns armor and uses teamwork. Sports can’t deliver this to him, but the Xbox does.

The game he’s playing now is Destiny. He’s made it level 27 in a relatively short time, which I’m told is pretty good. It’s similar to Borderlands 2, but in its highest levels it requires him to recruit his own team of six. He also collects obscure relics on different planets.

I quietly turn to head back up the stairs. I still need to cook supper. But then I hear him say, “Way, way, wait…” I think he is talking through the headset, but then I see he is looking at me. “I’m looking for spirit blooms,” he says with a smile.

“Can I join you?” I ask.

“Yeah. I think you’ll like them.” He unplugs his microphone. “When you find one, it glows on the inside… then it sort of opens in your hand.”

I walk down the stairs and sit next to him. We can order pizza. Right now, I want to see a spirit bloom.

Chris Fredrick lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband and their two middle-schoolers. A work-from-home mom, she writes between client projects, loads of laundry, CC meets and band lessons.


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