War Games and Preteen Boys
When the United States entered into war with Iraq, our home was like many others across the nation. We were tuned into the 24-hour news stations. We worried about family and friends who were being sent into battle. My son was engrossed. "It's like a real life video game, Mom," he said as he gave us sportscaster-type commentary about what he'd do if he were General Tommy Franks.
Military-based video games were a compromise, though I would have been happy if he had stayed with the sports games I bought him. But I knew most of my son's friends were getting violent video games. He's a Civil War buff, so when I saw a game based on the battle of Gettysburg, I bought it. He loved it. In fact, that's when I learned that military-based video games are the games of choice among his friends. It's the topic of lunchroom conversations and the main entertainment at sleepover parties.
While parenting experts warned us to limit the amount of war coverage our children were exposed to, the experts didn't seem to factor in the wealth of knowledge these kids already had. Minimizing the amount of exposure is futile. These kids get as much information from each other as they do from any media source.
After hundreds of hours of animated war games, children in the age of video games had a chance to play "virtual general" for a real war. They were entranced by the idea of war, and I found that I had joined a growing number of mothers who worried that their children had become desensitized to the violence of war and its consequences.
Even though there are girls who have an interest in the military, boys tend to be more obsessed with war, its history and its strategy. One reason is because it acts as a rite of socialization for boys. One evening, my son came in the house after playing basketball with the neighborhood boys. He plopped on the couch, picked up the remote control and clicked on CNN, while at the same time asking his dad, "Anything new in the war?" Couldn't he go one evening without the latest war update? He challenged my concern with, "Then what am I supposed to talk about at the lunch table?"
This is what boys do, Gillan says. "Boys are externalizers," he says. "They are action-oriented, but they are also governed by rules and strategy. It's why they like sports, and it's why they're fascinated with war." War, like sports, allows them to socialize through a bonded aggressiveness.
The video games provide fantasy play, allowing the boys to be in control. (Game cheats sometimes give the fantasy play a bizarre twist – I doubt there was air warfare in 1865.) These games and the avid interest in all things military that they spawned have replaced Pokemon cards from their elementary school days. Even though the games can be violent – it is war, after all – the boys will tell you that it's the strategy of the war games that they love. It's why they play the games. It's why they watch the cable news channels so intently. It's why my son and his friends memorized the maps and artillery details printed in magazines.
For the majority of boys with an interest in the military, both real and pretend, this falls into normal behavior, where adolescents are developing a more sophisticated interest in a subject or hobby. Still, if concern remains about the quality and the quantity of a boy's interest in the military or war games, parents might want to ask themselves the following questions:
"Most boys are able to understand the ethical dimensions of war and war games," Gillan says. "It's the ethical dimension that keeps them from taking their interest to a more violent level. But when they begin acting out aggressively, when they have no impulse control, when they are acting out the emotions behind their fantasies, there is a deeper problem that needs investigation."
Next time your son is glued to the news and the latest developments happening in the Middle East, sit down next to him, watch him, listen to him. You might learn something about your child – and about military operations.