The Killing Game

on guardLast Holiday Season my wife and I relented to kid-pressure and wrapped an electronic game about killing in ribbons and bows and gave it to our children as a “gift.”  Trying to encourage personal responsibility, I set the upper time limit at a ridiculous three hours per day, with the assumption that no one in their right mind would possibly be interested in three mind-numbing hours of mayhem.  Ahem, big mistake. 

While I felt in my heart that this sort of game is toxic to developing minds, and souls, it did seem as if all the boys gamed, and to deny gaming would be to block social connection.  Yet as a psychologist I was aware that when the brain is tricked into thinking that it is being active, it leads to exhaustion (due to adrenaline stimulated but not burned off by the actual fight-flight it was meant to power, back in the day at least).  This cycle of stress without release, and without returning to a calm center (via yoga, meditation, journaling, etc.) can lead to lowered cognitive function and, eventually, to heart disease.

Some research suggests that gaming improves reaction times, but there is a downside to this in that every stimulus is perceived as an attack, even after the game has been turned off.  We don’t think of the Buddha as having quick reaction time, we think more of the traumatized soldier who sadly goes into fight-flight mode at the slightest provocation.  In our house, gaming seemed to lead to zombie eyes and increased quarreling and cruelty between siblings.

Then came a study in Psychological Science (Vol. 20, No 5) by Douglas Gentile, Ph.D. which concluded that nearly one out of ten youth gamers exhibit pathological patterns of use (i.e. disrupted ability to function socially, psychologically, academically).  Dr. Gentile prefers the term “pathological use” over “addiction,” but the main message is that yes, it is a clinically significant problem in ten percent of the kids who play—which is an awful lot of kids.  

So… I took the games away last week.  And during de-tox our house was a bit like The Man with the Golden Arm meets The Lost Weekend meets Trainspotting.  Fun.  I felt like “addiction” was perfectly fine word to describe the bargaining, rage, misery and despair that ensued.  I know, or pretty much know, that I am on the right track to hold a limit, but then what is this whole gaming phenomenon about anyway?

The usual suspects include an outlet for aggression, immediate reinforcement, wishes for feelings of power and boosting a false sense of self-esteem that comes from “winning” at something.  Then there is the issue of numbing out and avoiding whatever pain lurks beneath the surface (I drink to forget.  Forget what?  I don’t know, I forgot.).

The low-point was when, about to drop my son at his friend’s house, he turned to me and said, “I hope you die in a car accident on the way home.”  Now the dark irony of me trying to write a parenting blog as my child tells me that I’m a terrible parent is far from lost on me.

I told him that if I happened to die on the way home, my last words to him would have been that I love him and wish for him to have a great life.  I also said that if the universe wants me dead I will be dead, and we would just have to see if my love was stronger than his hate.

Still, I wasn’t feeling chatty and thought I’d drop him, thank the mom and get out.  Yet the mom told me that she’d been reading my blog and how much she appreciated it.  My narcissism couldn’t resist her praise, and we started to talk—and it turned out her kid wasn’t talking to her at that moment.  I told her my tale of woe and the long and the short of it was that she, and her husband, gave me some love and a couple of good hugs and it really helped.  I love our Sangha, and I love the world.

On the way home I was tempted to text my son, “In heaven, JK,” but thought better of it.  Our kids need to separate, and they need to hate us sometimes without us taking it personally, and for that we parents need each other for comfort and solace.  As for games, I think I’m going to hold it to one hour (once he’s able to show respect and non-violence outside of the game, and then contingent on continued positive behavior).  I also thought that in a way, my son was functioning as my own Shadow.  (That which we cannot be conscious of materializes and meets us as our fate, says C.G. Jung).  Since I’ve been on this “love the world” kick, doing yoga, blogging, helping… maybe I got a little disconnected from my own Shadow and so my kid ended up with a little extra hate on his plate that he need to feed back to me.  Perhaps it’s even possible that all this virtual killing is part of some global step toward non-violence.  If all of us can own our Shadow, we wouldn’t need to project it out an make wars against it.  And maybe, for all I know, kids playing killing games will grow up to make a more peaceful world.  My conclusion:  I’m going to play a little bit of the killing game (when he starts talking to me again), and like my yoga, I’ll dedicate it to loving the world.  I’ll let you guys know if anything interesting comes out of it.

Thanks for reading this rather long post.  I am truly working my way toward shorter posts, as I have also decided to put a limit on my own blogging (so that I don’t help everyone else at the expense of my own kids).  That means that this blog is going to somehow try to be more like an ear than a mouth.  It’s not me here, it is us—working together to love the world and all our children.  So, tell us something good, tell us something bad.  We are listening.

Perhaps we might dedicate today to those ten percent of kids who are, for whatever reason, playing a little too many hours of killing games; perhaps our love will ultimately prove stronger than their hate.

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. For more on Dr. Gentile’s research in this area see:



11 Responses to “The Killing Game”

  1. Laurie Says:

    LOL “In heaven JK”. I so relate to this post having a 10 year game head. Yes, we too limit and sometimes I want to throw it away. Having an only child as a parent you feel like their sibling, playmate and entertainment. I even played the Wii with him but he soon tired of golf and tennis and I will not do the tanks and such. This is a tough one. Thank you for the breathing room you supply.

  2. A. N. Says:

    It always amazes me how Love comes to us at the “miraculously right time” and not necessarily from our immediate fellow travelers when we are open to receive it.
    Thank you for the personal story and the playful complexity of your thoughts….
    Who knows what the world will be in the future. As far as what is right for our children right now, we have our hearts to guide us and lots of different ways to listen to what it has to say and our Sangha to help with it.
    Let me know when you are ready for the game, I know a great one for you that is more about evolving into more sophisticated lives, than about killing, although some darkness is bound to happen along the way…
    Much Love

  3. Nancy Says:

    Our son, too, has fallen under the hypnotic spell of Xbox Kill games, like Halo, and the like. He had a way of disappearing after homework, only to be discovered later in the evening with hyper-focused eyes and thumbs twitching. I put a halt on the pattern, and he is only allowed to play for an hour on Saturdays and Sundays. For the five months that he was allowed to play more frequently, he seemed distracted and seemed to lie in wait of the moment he could slip upstairs to get in some gaming time.
    Since his enforced withdrawal, he has become more engaged in what he should be engaged in, his friends, his music, and just being in the moment, not waiting for a break where he could slip away to get in his game fix. He has actually matured since he has been unhooked.
    I hate to be rigid about rules, and hopefully I won’t have to be. But for now, it feels like he is freer in spirit.

  4. Stephanie Says:

    my vote – no more game. one day at a time.


  5. Nancy Says:

    I just read your post to my 14 year old son, and he agrees with almost everything you mentioned about gaming. He thinks that it is addicting, and that parents do need to restrict time, depending on the game. He adds that some games are fun to play online, and that it does serve a social function.

    He thought that you should have actually texted your son,” In heaven JK”. He says that those comments make you realize that you’re actually glad your dad is alive and well.

  6. Chris Sorgi Says:

    Fortunately at our house this is a phase we are now past. I don’t think we are any the worse for having gone through it but I SURE AM HAPPY THAT ITS OVER.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thanks Chris, and thanks to all who commented, and who read and did not comment. This is just the spirit I think will help us all support each other to do our best. Namaste to all, Bruce

  7. Julianne Says:

    May our ITS OVER comments give hope to parents who are in the middle of it. While my young-adult son was still living at home I limited the time spent at computer gaming the best that I could ( in avoidance of anxiety over finals he would increase his nighttime gaming each semester’s end — not a functional response to anxiety, but one he evidently liked ). Once he got into college, he made all of his own decisions in that regard. When I learned from his older brother that Matt had an unbelievably high international ranking on Halo, my spirit was in Confusion over a mix of pride at accomplishment and total bewilderment. He graduated on time and with many compliments from his faculty.

    Your fencing photo reminds me of his next area of interest. He learned to fence in college, which led to a more directly social and active outlet for his competitive yearings. Next will be graduate school in the fall and in the meantime, a more affordable sport, disc golf. I smile at the peace seeking trend I notice as this young man finds his way, tests himself and prepares for a future that is his to build, discover and enjoy.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Julianne, Thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated. This last dark night of the gaming soul definitely happened in the context of finals. Namaste, Bruce

  8. krk Says:

    I look forward to reading your blog and the comments, daily, and appreciate the variety of “problems” offered. I can take a little or a lot from each one.
    Thanks,love and peace to all.

  9. Kids in media overdrive « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] have struggled mightily with this issue (see The Killing Game) and I’ve thought about it from a behavioral and addictive angle (see Growing up one thumb at a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s