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Games people play

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Esther Cepeda
May 22, 2011
— From the moment I heard the tensely throbbing music and soaked in the stunning views of 1940s Los Angeles, I knew I was going to spend my precious time on the just-released video game “L.A. Noire.”

My initial intoxication with the gumshoe detective mystery occurred months ago while buying video games after a Christmas splurge finally brought a popular game console into my house. That’s when family conversations started revolving around the geography of “Grand Theft Auto’s” fictional Liberty City and descriptions of Noble Six’s battles with the alien civilization known as The Covenant in the game “Halo: Reach.”


Almost every one of my kids’ friends had these games in their homes where my sons played them, far away from my ability to monitor what they were doing. Parents who believe they can shield children in their own safe family cocoon are always taken by surprise when little Jane comes home talking about “Gay Tony’s” glamorous Liberty City nightclub after a visit to a cousin’s house.


In 2002, researchers at the Albert Einstein Children’s Hospital in New York assessed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ television viewing recommendations. They observed 199 child patients and their parents when the kids were alert and awake and found a “consistent exposure to inappropriate programming.” The number of instances went up when an adult was in the room.


So why not embrace reality and create opportunities for shared understanding and meaningful conversation? After all, American families just don’t talk about violence, killing and torture enough.


I’m not kidding.


In April, the American Red Cross released results from a survey showing that only one in five teens understands the Geneva Conventions. Compared to adults, more 12- to 17-year-olds believe there are times when it is acceptable to torture an enemy or for the enemy to torture captured American prisoners, and times when it is acceptable for both sides to kill prisoners in retaliation.


Do teens feel this way because they don’t pay enough attention in government or history classes? Or has America’s steady diet of explicitly violent movies, video games, TV shows and aggressive news coverage of worldwide horrors misled them?


It’s probably a little of both. But lack of context and familial conversation is probably the biggest culprit. Violent entertainment isn’t society’s problem—parents who use it as a form of baby-sitting are.


The only reasonable strategy to deal with kids’ exposure to the indecent and illegal situations that play themselves out on the news, in movies, TV shows and video games—and sometimes in real life—is honest conversation. Discussions, rather than lectures, about real-world situations and consequences is the goal, and these won’t always be comfortable or easy. But handled right, they can be a good way to show kids it’s OK to talk openly.


I think gratuitously violent entertainment consumption often releases frustrations and don’t actually worry that either of my children will someday carjack an old lady. But, just in case, we do talk about it—even if just as a joke—and I take control of reinforcing my values and morals on my kids rather than letting Hollywood do it for me.


“L.A. Noire”—my first personal video game acquisition since a block-building Tetris addiction in high school—was worth the long wait and is packed with beautifully written dialogue underscored by 1940s hits such as Dinah Shore’s “Murder He Says” and Billie Holiday’s “That Ole Devil Called Love.” As I work cases “that gnaw at your guts and ruin your marriage,” I get to hear snippets of Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy radio shows and chuckle at the liberal use of the female pejorative “broad.”


My sons, who can’t help but watch—the movie-like production quality made the game an unprecedented official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival—also don’t get the cultural references. But their skills in driving around the “city on the verge of greatness” and talents at video shooting and fistfighting are helping me deal with my avatar cop’s World War II post-traumatic stress disorder.


As we look for clues toward cracking the infamous “Black Dahlia” murder case, our good detective work should keep us from having to use too many harsh interrogation methods. But if we do have to get rough with a person of interest, it’ll make for interesting and enlightening dinner conversation.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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