Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Inside Job: Getting Real about Kids and Games


When I heard Wil Wheaton punctuated his keynote address at PAX with the cry “don’t be a dick,” I was wildly enthusiastic. Finally, I thought – he must be talking about reaching outside the gaming community with a positive message.

By the end of the speech, he was, sort of. The problem is starting a keynote by telling Jack Thompson to suck your balls isn’t exactly going to get you the nod from Miss Manners. In fact, it’s going to make a lot of people immediately stop listening – the ones who need to listen the most.

Oh, I agree with Will’s sentiment; if I had balls, Jack Thompson could suck them. He’s a hateful, abusive, violent human being – utterly unlike all the gamers and game developers I know personally. But responding to his negative energy with more negative energy isn’t ever going to shut him up, and what it is going to do is cause more people to view the videogame community as abrasive, violent, thoughtless, uneducated and dangerous.

I’m really not even going to get into the censorship issue, because it’s complex, under-researched and thorny. What I do want to talk about is a critical audience that has been somewhat reassured by Nintendo’s positive branding: parents.

I played Primal Rage (with the blood setting on) when I was in that dangerous early teen phase, yet I can’t watch gory movies without getting nightmares, and I’ve come close to passing out at the sight of my own blood. But while we, as a gaming community, have a more direct experience with the dangers, or lack thereof, of videogames, the parents of the current generation don’t, and they’re terrified of them. This doesn’t, however, make them bad parents.

Good Parent, Bad Parent

The most common counterargument to the videogame censorship force is that only bad parents would allow their children to have violent videogames. Obviously, good parents don’t need censors, because they’ll protect their kids themselves.

This argument is flawed for a couple of reasons. First, while most people are concerned about their own children, they also aren’t happy if the “wrong” kids are devouring a bunch of videogames and practicing to become an army of the next generation’s Unabombers. By throwing out the “only bad parents let their kids have violent games” argument, not only are we not responding to the issue – you know, with data – we’re further alienating these parents motivated enough to engage in a dialogue about games with us. And through that alienation we are feeding their very precise fears: If they don’t exert some control over this force that they utterly don’t understand – by removing it from their kids’ environment entirely – they are going to be bad parents.

I’ve talked to some of them. The thing is, they’re genuinely scared. It’s hard for us to understand this because we’re so steeped in videogame culture that we know, through first-hand knowledge, that games don’t hurt people. But these parents don’t have that experience.

If you’ve ever seen your father or your grandmother try to make sense of a videogame, you’ll know what I’m talking about. My stepmother couldn’t even stand to look at Sonic the Hedgehog, because it gave her motion sickness.

The sheer length of videogames is also an issue. While a parent can, with minimal investment, watch a movie before she allows her child to watch it, the amount of time it takes to get through a videogame is prohibitive. Parents know that they can’t possibly screen an entire eight-, 10- or 50-hour videogame for content before they allow their kids to have it. This creates a barrier between themselves and the media, which – if they think they can’t trust what the only videogame review board is telling them – induces more fear, and more protective instincts.

Add to this the sheer amount of time modern kids spend with their eyes glued to a screen, and you have some very real concerns. These parents aren’t pushovers, and they aren’t stupid – most of them probably don’t trust politicians any further than we do. But the politicians are telling them there is a danger, their instincts are telling them they are out of their depth, and the game community, in large part, is dismissing them and calling them names.

Quality Environment

So what does this have to do with quality of life? An awful lot, actually.

One of the most popular pieces I’ve written for The Escapist, one that continues to get me emails, is certainly “Who’s Your Daddy? – Why Parents Make Great Game Developers.” In November, here and at the Montreal International Games Summit, I will be arguing the converse – that game developers make great parents.

The emails I get about the original article come from parents in the game industry who feel set upon from all sides. It’s one of those things, like the working hours and the regret about being away from their family, that are heartbreaking. And I am tired of having to defend parents to other developers – though that’s becoming less and less necessary as time goes on – and even more tired of seeing developers have to mask or excuse their profession to other parents.

I come from a diverse family with computer professionals, teachers, steelworkers, military, artists, managers and more. Those industries all have great people. But game developers and members of the creative, forward-thinking arts in general – meaning primarily videogames and science fiction – are the best people I know. They’re passionate, optimistic, visionary, tolerant, progressive, energetic, wondrous individuals. And they have some of the worst PR in the world, for how few people outside of the communities realize this, and, in the case of game developers, how hard we have to fight to do this thing that we love. That fight hurts overall quality of life as much as anything else, hurts our ability to be creative, and it causes people to leave the business.

It is time to stop reacting to negative press and to start creating positive press of our own. More people in the mainstream need to know about Child’s Play and Get Well Gamers. They need to know about Games for Health. But all of this starts with the parents, who so desperately want someone on their side. We have a phenomenal opportunity right now, with sentiment toward videogames beginning to improve with the introduction of the Wii and breakthrough after breakthrough in interactive medical science. It is time to stop dismissing and alienating parents and extended families – who incidentally are some of the strongest market forces supporting the industry – and start showing them they can make their kids happy and be good parents at the same time. It starts with getting real about their concerns and treating them with respect.

In the next two weeks, I’m going to venture out into the rural streets of my very remote upstate New York town, and I’m going to talk to parents. I’m going to talk to people that are entirely baffled by videogames and the videogame phenomenon, and I’m going to bring that information back so we can begin doing what the politicians are not: Looking for the truth and giving parents some real answers.

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