The state of play

Mark A. Hadley

There's nothing like raising boys to make you reflect on your own childhood. As you seek to help them fill their leisure hours, you reflect on those activities you used to engage in.

There was a mound of dirt in our backyard that stood a half-dozen metres from an old apple tree. The dirt was a pile of cast-of soil; the tree was mangy and scarred. But in the eyes of my brother and I, they were 'bases' that we gravitated to every afternoon. Every fallen stick was a sword or gun and the ground between contested territory, the scene of many a courageous attack or desperate last stand. Day after day we would play the ubiquitous game of 'armies' until failing light forced a truce. We were 'captains', 'cavalry' and 'pilots' who shared a common mythology of bravery and sacrifice. We were playing at being men.

Now I'll admit childhood can assume an overly rosy glow - I also remember my brother splitting my knuckles with one particularly heavy 'sword' - but there was enough in these recollection to encourage me to think that my own boys might enjoy some of this play. So I went looking for the necessary accoutrements, and acquired some disturbing realisations along the way.

To begin with, arming toddlers is frowned upon in Australian society. I soon discovered that both of my son's pre-schools were completely devoid of any toys even remotely linked to violence. To be sure, martial figurines and plastic weaponry are available in supermarkets, but they are usually improbable characters from television and film franchises. These products rarely, if ever, grace the shelves of 'educational' toy stores. Even the stories in the local library seemed to be scant on traditional heroic characters like knights, seafarers or airmen, and if they do make cameos it's unusual to find them involved in anything remotely risky. Probably the most recognisable warrior figure on television for young boys is Captain Feathersword, and his name says it all.

So I did what I'd seen my own dad do. I bought some wood, went to the garage and two hours later emerged with my sons' first swords. The results were mixed. The boys were ecstatic; their mother was dubious. A whole new range of play began in our household with its own positives and negatives - more on that later. But an interesting side-effect was that I began to receive surreptitious orders from other mothers for their own sons. Within a week my garage had turned into a forge for arming the neighbourhood. For some, though, my products were anathema. Time and again I was confronted with a determined bent towards pacifism, even a complete ignorance of hostility, at least where the under sevens were concerned.

Pacifism in its most complete form is a difficult position for a Christian to hold. The Old Testament chronicles wars directed by a God who clearly believes that there is a place for violence. Rejection of this aspect of our maker's thinking has resulted for some in an unscriptural dualism that separates the primitive God of the Torah from the loving Christ of the New Testament. But the problem represented by Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Elijah and others remains. These violent men, loved by God, are still lauded for their actions in the early church.  And then there is the difficult scene reported in John's Gospel where Jesus patiently weaving a whip in preparation for his cleansing of the Temple. 

I will leave it to better minds to develop a complete theology of violence, but suffice to say that even a cursory examination of the Bible shows that God's role for men includes them acting as protectors for both their families, the helpless and his own honour, often in ways that acknowledges the need for violence. This fundamental to the masculine nature isn't easily suppressed and just as easily runs into unhealthy channels. Australian parents are discovering that, as boys get older and more independent, they are choosing play forms that are increasingly destructive. We may have confiscated the toy gun, but tweens and teens are now arming themselves with virtual flame-throwers.

The electronic gaming industry is fast carving a niche in the Australian household. Four out of five homes own a device for playing computer and video games. In fact, two thirds of those households have more than one gaming device.  According to industry analyst GfK, Australia's total games industry sales hit $1.3 billion in 2007, an increase of 43.6 per cent over 2006. Last year we purchased a total of 15.4 million games. Would you like to know what the most popular title was?

Halo 3, released for the X-Box, sold more than 120,000 copies in Australia - 50,000 in the first 24 hours after it went on sale. This record-breaking game allows the player to assume the role of a hi-tech marine charged with eliminating his opponents with a wide variety of sophisticated weaponry. However it didn't hold on to its pole position for long. On April 29, Grand Theft Auto IV was released, quickly becoming the fastest, most profitable and arguably the most violent game franchise in history.

GTA4 puts players in the position of a petty criminal who, through robbery and murder ascends the criminal ranks of the underworld to hold sway over an entire city. The genius of the game engine is that it allows players to wander through an artificial world doing literally whatever they want. There are consequences, but only if the police catch you. GTA4 sold 3.6 million units internationally in its first day, raking in $310 million to Halo 3's paltry $180 million. It remained Australia's top selling game for three weeks. Developers Take Two would later reflect ".these retail sales levels surpass any movie or music launch to date."

Halo 3 and GTA4 are just the highest peaks in an expanding gaming world that has some disturbingly violent territory. It's clearly not all bad; the title that eventually toppled GTA4 in Australia was Wii Exercise. But if the nominal goal of stripping away 'conflict' toys from young boy's lives is to diminish their interest in violence then at least by this measure it has been a spectacular failure. Boys are emerging from their junior years with few ethics to direct their approach to hostility. And as they approach adolescence they are being greeted by attractive electronic role models who present aggression as a means of entertainment or social advance. Worse, it's happening at an age when parental authority is far easier to evade or ignore.

Back to my house.

My boy's swords came with two extra presents. The first was a short talk on the rules of war that I stole from preacher Mark Driscoll. I explained that men didn't just attack anyone. We only played 'swords' with people who were armed, who wanted to play and who were ready to play. And we never, ever attacked girls. Inside these childish rules are the seeds of a Christian approach to violence that they reiterate every time we start a game. Secondly, I gave them my participation. Dad made a sword for himself and plays these games with them to ensure the lessons stick. This is a model I intend on continuing as they grow and the forms conflict toys change.

According to research produced by Bond University, 77 per cent of parents play computer games with their children, raising the current average age of gamers to 28. By 2014 it is predicted to rise to 42. I intend to be among their numbers; I have a game-plan. Firstly I'm going to use tools like Plugged-In to keep aware of the dangers. But rather than strangle the instincts that will emerge, I plan to direct my boys along healthy paths while they'll still let me. I realise this might be a significant struggle for naturally non-physical dads or single mums charged with playing dual roles. But clearly banning doesn't work; just ask the prohibitionists. This core masculine trait, like all others, is susceptible to Christian conditioning. Or, as the Bible puts it, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it."