It was almost 9:00 on a Friday night when the phone rang.
"Hey mom, it's Jamin. There are a bunch of kids over at the sleepover and they are playing Grand Theft Auto. I was wondering what you thought about that."
I was surprised that the family of his teenage friend allowed Grand Theft Auto. What were they thinking? The sleepover boys ranged from 13 to 15! But mostly I was relieved that he called.
Several months before I'd done research when I was working with colleagues on a project focused on first amendment rights and violent video games. While I've never played Grand Theft Auto, I watched some You Tube clips and read articles to build my background knowledge. It seemed to be the game that came up most often with parent concerns. Our video game rating system, known as ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), ranges from EC for Early Childhood to AO for Adults Only. Grand Theft Auto IV is rated as M for Mature (suitable for persons 17 and older). Although I think rated M could be "Mom is Mad This Is on the Market."
And with good reason. From the UK ratings body: "the character can pick up prostitutes and pay for three levels of service. What follows is an un-detailed portrayal of masturbation, fellatio, and intercourse. The character can also visit lap-dancing clubs and request a private dance. While the game contains sexualized dancing and the portrayal of sex, there is no sexualized nudity."
I told Jamin this, "The game is almost entirely focused on violence. There is blood that spurts out of people that are shot or run over. The drivers can pick up prostitutes and visit strip clubs. Is that the entertainment tonight for the group?"
"Kind of," he said.
I sighed, "Well, I trust you to decide what to do. It would certainly be fine to say that you don't play violent games that are disrespectful to humans. Or I can come get you with some good excuse. It is also fine with me if you blame it on your lame parents and say they won't let you play those games until you are an adult if you so choose."
"OK," he chuckled, "thank you. I think I know what to do. I'm good."
When we got off the phone I shared the conversation with my husband, Kurt. We talked about how when the kids were little it was so much easier. We didn't have cable TV and monitored the movies they watched. The computer access was right next to the kitchen so we could view everything they were viewing. As an integral part of the play dates, we knew the families and many of them shared our values. But now he was growing up and encountering new things all the time.
"Did I say the right thing?" I asked Kurt.
"You gave him choices and offered your support. He knows we trust him. If he called once, he'll call again if he needs back-up."
The next day the boys were out building forts in the woods when I picked up my son. I thanked the host family, holding my tongue about the media choices, and Jamin climbed in the car.
"What did you decide to do about the Grand Theft Auto?" I asked immediately.
"I found out there are different modes. If you go into race mode, you can just play it like a driving game. It's only if you start running into people, interacting with characters, and breaking laws that you have problems."
"I suppose that one aspect is like real life," I replied, then asked, "Were there some disturbing parts?"
"There weren't the sex parts you mentioned or at least I wasn't in the room to see them," he sighed, "but one of the guys played a character who hit people by the side of the road with a bat. I think they were homeless people -- it was pretty graphic and sick. I hung out in another part of the house after that."
In the last few years there's been an obvious shift from "protect from" to "prepare for" as a parent. Don't talk to strangers. Look both ways before crossing the street. Wash your hands. These are the things we teach our children to keep them safe. But once kids reach a certain age the world opens up in ways we can't even anticipate. I'd never told Jamin what to do when he encountered a violent and sexualized video game with his peers. I could only prepare him by living our values and encourage him to call whenever he felt like things were venturing outside his comfort zone. "Just call and we'll figure it out together," I'd told him.
Did I worry that night about what he was exposed to? Yes, I did. Do I believe that games like Grand Theft Auto do more harm than good? Yes, I do. However, I trusted that we'd explored the belief that media can influence the way people think and behave and that Jamin has the right (and has exercised that right in the past) to refuse to watch, play or listen to anything that offends him. He's a careful decision maker. Like his approach to playing the Grand Theft Auto, I can't control what he'll run into in life, but I can offer him the wheel to steer around it.