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Just Ones and Zeros: A Parent's Role in Navigating Video Game Violence

Cover photo by DBLTAP, screenshot courtesy of Studio Wildcard

I started my teaching career in a prison. Shoved into a small basement classroom with guards at the door, my job was to teach literacy skills to youth awaiting trial in Ontario's central booking facility, located in downtown Toronto. Though I went through metal detectors to get in and out of work each day, guns and violence were not generally topics of conversation. Legally we weren’t allowed to discuss anyone’s charges, and the everydayness of oblique terms like B&E ended up normalizing the violent acts that brought students into my classroom. In fact, violence was so normalized in detention that it became invisible.

In 2005, Toronto experienced a rash of shootings that took the lives of 52 people, earning it the clickbait headline "Summer of the Gun." Some of the youth I taught in detention were caught up in those tragic events. Then, in 2011, I came to teach at the only Toronto high school in which a young person had been shot and killed. Though my various exposures to gun violence and education occurred some 20 years ago, each has directly shaped who I have become as a teacher, as a wife and, more recently, as a mother.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. / Courtesy of Eidos Montreal/Embracer Group

When my husband and I first moved in together, his towering desktop computer was one of the only things he brought with him. I knew nothing of video games. The closest I had ever gotten to gaming as a child was playing Super Mario Brothers at a friend’s house and learning to type with the help of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Suddenly, I found myself living with a partner and their massive Steam library! Just as when I taught in the prison, the violence embedded in the games my husband played remained relatively invisible — until our son was old enough to join in at the computer screen. When I overheard our then-six-year-old playing Deus Ex with his father, I caught myself worrying about gaming and the unproven — but much discussed — link with gun violence.

Following two mass shootings in America in 2019, Aja Romano for Vox Magazine bemoaned the rhetorical conflation of gun violence and gaming that politicians and researchers alike have espoused and counter-argued. "The frenzied debate over video games within the larger conversation around gun violence underscores both how intense the fight over gun control has become and how easily games can become mired in political rhetoric," writes Romano. One game developer pointed Romano toward the stark truth that America’s "cultural traditions and attachments around guns are far older than video games." The reality, though, is that even as guns hold a unique power in the American narrative, gaming's reach is global, and the debates around games and gun violence are in many ways borderless.

In 2018 Vice’s Austin Walker set up a weeklong discussion for followers to read about and discuss gaming and gun violence. Prompted by the Parkland tragedy, the Games by Vice Editor-in-Chief wrote to the gaming community of his hope that "this week encourages you to play critically." More than anything I have read, it is that criticality, played out over the past two years in my home, that has helped me to work through my parental worries as I have watched father and son navigate guns in games together, most recently as they have started to play Ark: Survival Evolved. 

Twenty-five years ago, as an international teacher in Japan, my husband used to play Age of Empires II with his brother back in England. They would play and chat, one as the Britons, the other the Mongols, and as much as they were invested in the game, they were more invested in each other. They constructed cities and battled over them, all while talking about how their mum was doing and other brotherly non-sequiturs. Although weapons were part of their game, violence was not front of mind for these two men who used gaming as a relational bridge across distance and time. Fast forward two decades, and the experts have caught on: relational gameplay brings people together, and my family is not alone in its co-play process of games and informal gun violence education.

Syntac's Ark: Survival Evolved world.
Syntac's Ark: Survival Evolved world. / Courtesy of Studio Wildcard, via steamcommunity.com

In a recent LARB review of C. Thi Nguyen’s "Games: Agency As Art," writer David Zvi Kalman sums up the book’s thesis, writing, "it is the creation of exquisitely personal interactive experiences that separates games from all other pursuits." In my home, the game-based personal interactions between father and son gift the two of them time and space to discuss hard things. When my son feels concerned about his favorite streamer’s choice to cull some of his Ark dinosaurs for more building space, I hear my husband press pause on the YouTube video to talk about what is real and what isn’t. "They are just ones and zeros," he says, and then they press play again. Now eight years old, my son can sit with such a statement and ponder it. It’s a starting point, not the culmination, of an ongoing conversation.

Later, when I come into the room and see their avatar holding a rifle, I ask what’s going on. My son repeats the words of his father, explaining patiently, "It’s a tranq gun, momma. We only use it when we need to and no one dies…but remember they’re only ones and zeros. These aren’t your students." I feel a lump form in my throat as my intuitive child makes the link between what he is doing and what he knows is front of mind for his prison educator mother. Harkening back to Nguyen’s thesis, this familial moment of shared learning is especially powerful because of the connection made between the interactive and the personal that "Agency As Art" claims is unique to games. Said another way, playing Ark: Survival Evolved in our home is much more than a series of ones and zeros. Ultimately, playing the game together becomes a kind of experiential anti-violence education.

Dr. Jennifer Jenson, Professor of Digital Languages, Literacies & Cultures at the University of British Columbia, argues for that same educational potential. I feel seen when she recognizes value in what is happening educationally in our family’s gaming practice. "One of the things that continues to be missing from the conversation is [how] games [are] a medium of creativity, of play, of knowing, doing and being for the 21st century — and it’s something we need to do with our kids," Jenson says over Zoom. She emphasizes the need for co-play, as, "game-based literacies are real and need to be modeled, taught and learned."

Dr. Jenson says esports have created opportunities for intergenerational play. Justin "JSU" Hinchcliffe, Rocket League coach and host of the popular TheDadGaming tournaments, concurs, and he explains the philosophy behind TheDadGaming as "gaming for good." He says a lot of dads watch TheDadGaming's Twitch streams with their kids, and that the positive atmosphere puts some of the platform's best streamers — however profane they are on their own channels — on their best behavior.

"We might not be as good but we’re having fun — and that’s what gaming is about!" he says. "What we are trying to do on TheDadGaming is change the conversation around what gaming is for. I think one of our roles as older gamers is to show young people how to compose themselves online."

When I ask specifically about gaming and weapons, Hinchcliffe chooses to speak more generally about the positive influence he feels he’s had on young players he’s coached in Rocket League.

"They’re 15 and 16, they’re in school, never held a real job before, and not only do they not know how to respect their opponents, they don’t know how to respect themselves. They put themselves down, calling themselves crap, as much as they put their opponents down. Respect and work ethic are what I’ve helped them with."

Because his own kids are young, Hinchcliffe has yet to have explicit discussions around games and guns. But language is on his mind. "When my son wants to come play Rocket League with me, I ask myself, do I disable the chat? There is a lot of toxicity there." Like Jenson and TheDadGaming founder Joel Willis, Hinchcliffe agrees that language is key and parents need to play with their kids.

Rocket League
Rocket League / Courtesy of spieltimes.com

Willis has moved on from TheDadGaming, and its parent company TheDad, to found a new community-focused social network for gamers called Channel3.gg. He remains deeply invested in the good that can come from gaming. All three interviewees acknowledge the toxicity that underscores some of what goes on in game chatrooms, but feel equally passionate about the educational possibilities of gaming with kids.

"Meet them where they are," says Willis firmly. "Play with them! It starts and ends with conversation. Being able to have dialogue and moderation is important. Language is important to me. When we play Fortnite [at home] we don’t use the word kill. We use elimination.

"It’s not just about the violence, it’s about being able to differentiate between the real and the imaginary. And that comes back to dialogue between kids and parents," he says.

When pushed to make explicit connections between playing video games and gun violence, each expert made the concerted choice to redirect me, choosing instead to focus on what they see to be the necessary support of young players by healthy parental engagement in actual gameplay. Negating the rhetorical conflation of gun violence and gaming from the jump, what they want is for criticality and play to be lived out in real time in the home.

In his book "Raising Raffi," literary critic-turned-novelist Keith Gessen writes a parent succeeds "when you make yourself irrelevant, when you erase yourself." Ultimately, I agree, but Jenson, Hinchcliffe and Willis all point to the irrelevance of parenting being a long way off when one’s eight year-old is playing Fortnite or Ark: Survival Evolved. The power inherent to co-play lies in the game-based dialogue that can blossom between adult and child. As our children build their own worlds in and outside of games, adults in their lives must provide architectural guidance, and so it follows that a parent’s responsibility is not just to support the growth of their child’s gaming literacies, but also to grow their own.

As a teacher of students who have used guns and experienced the effects of violence, I believe that through gaming my husband is modeling another way forward. By teaching our son how to be human in a world of ones and zeros, he is simultaneously educating him about how to engage with care for himself, and for others, in a violent world. 

Dr. Natalie Davey is a writer, educator and co-host of the podcast Reframeables. Follow her on Twitter (@nataliejoydavey) and www.nataliejoydavey.com.