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Monday, July 11, 2005

Interview with a GamerDad

One of the more interesting aspects of all the mainstream coverage about how video games and their impact on parenting children is just how little we see of parents, gamers or children. When 60 Minutes covered the Devin Moore shootings, there was no Devin, there wasn't Devin's parents and there was scant sign of anyone who really played games (except for some brief clips so that Ed Bradley could scuffaw at more gore during GTA).

Cathode Tan suggests reversing this trend and kicks off the movement by sitting down with Andrew Bub ... AKA GamerDad. is precisely the kind of website which should be flashed at the end of any show covering this issue. It's a place where parents and gamers get together and talk about the industry, their children and how it all fits together. Very often, the parent and the gamer is the same person. So without further adieu, here's a few words from someone on the frontline of trying to help parents get information about the games their children might play:

Just for the record - how long have you been a gamer and how many kids do you have?

GamerDad: Let’s see . . . I first noticed Space Invaders back in 1978 or so and that’s when quarters became scarce in my home. Atari 2600, Apple IIe, Commodore, Sega Genesis, man, I really haven’t looked back since! I’ve been a professional freelance writer for the past 8 years. I have two kids and just had a vasectomy – so it’s likely to remain at two. My darling Maggie is 5, and little Henry is currently entrenched in the “terrible twos.”

You've been reviewing games for some time. When did the idea for GamerDad come about?

GamerDad: Part of it was the Internet bubble bursting. Part was turning 30 and wondering if I wanted to continue riding the frustrating freelance writer treadmill forever. A lot of it was the tech bubble bursting and my losing an alarming number of outlets in a short period of time. But mainly it was that I became a parent and a stay-at-home dad. The time I spent with Maggie made me less interested in the current blastfest du jour and more interested in how kids learn, how they’re affected by games. Since I’d written a couple feature articles about violence and gaming, and since I liked the topic, I decided to become a pundit – a voice – in that argument. Since most game review sites ignore the children issue, and since almost all of the kid-review sites are written from a “non-gamer” point of view, I decided it was time for the industry to have a more reasonable voice - A voice that was honest about content, kept up on BOTH sides of the “Games are Bad/Games are Good” argument. One that told parents which games to buy and which to avoid, but above all, one that argued from an “I like games” perspective.

It seems that the controversy about whether games are bad for kids has raged on since the days of Atari. Do you think there were notable moments where it escalated? The first person shooter genre perhaps, or the quick evolution of graphics?

GamerDad: Oh, I’m sure Pong scared the crap out of some parents! And Pinball always had a seedy reputation too. But the notable milestones are a coin-op called Deathrace 2000 (semi-based on a movie of the same name), one called Space Invaders (which launched the “addiction” concerns among parent’s groups, and of course Mortal Kombat. Then came Doom and Grand Theft Auto. It’s amazing really. There about been hundreds of thousands of games, but the mainstream really has only noticed a handful (it’s also amazing that they never noticed older crude games like Kingpin or Carmageddon).

Graphics are the most obvious cause for concern. I remember my dad being shocked at the “realism” of Wolfenstein 3D back in 1991, but now that game looks crude and inoffensive when compared with modern shooters. Doom too. But I’d argue the real escalator of the controversy boils down to content. With Deathrace it was concerns over driving over people, with Mortal Kombat it was the fatalities, and with Grand Theft it’s the complete freedom and amoral nature of the gameplay. (Please note that I used “amoral” not “immoral” here.)

Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto are often given as examples of video games, but games like Halo 2 are also rated in the same category of "Mature". According to some, the ESRB ratings are too soft ... but you've been quoted as saying games like Halo should be rated for teens. How skewed do you think the ESRB system is overall?

GamerDad: Whew, this is a really good question. Let me start by saying that I’m in favor of the ESRB. They have an impossible job (nobody knows that better than me and my crew) and they do a fair job.

What I don’t like is the disparity between TV and movie ratings, and videogames. Movies aimed at 13 year olds are FAR more violent than most videogames; more violent than Halo, for example. Y7 is the TV rating that says gunplay is okay for kids so long as it’s animated and nobody dies, but games get a T-Teen if a gun makes an appearance. I think the inconsistency between the ratings can be confusing to parents. Then there’s the other line in the sand – blood. Medal of Honor from EA is rated Teen despite having an extensive D-Day recreation that’s truly horrifying. It’s T because they removed the blood. Meanwhile the body count in a shooter like Halo 2 is much lower, but there’s purple blood. Blood = M. Violence does not. The ESRB has to do things this way, there are so many games released, but I’m not in favor of “line in the sand” ratings. I believe parents deserve as much information as possible. GamerDad isn’t an attempt to replace the ESRB – we’re here to enhance it.

In general, does the industry give parents enough information about games for purchases? Is the boxing informational or misleading? Will a big sign describing the ESRB ratings help?

GaemerDad: No. And the reason is described above in the size of the ESRB’s task. GamerDad lets me be more nuanced than the ESRB can ever be and we can provide more info that you can fit on a box. We’re the place to go when you want a clue why the ESRB rated a game a certain way. will tell you what’s in the game more specifically than the ESRB can.

I think the ESRB signs are helpful, I think a lot of parents could benefit, but I also think too often politicians and the industry figure its ignorance that prompts a parent to buy Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for their 8 year old. Often, from what I’ve seen, it’s not ignorance, its apathy. Some parents either don’t care or don’t believe that violent videogames are harmful. Why? Well, how many Rated R movies did you read as a kid? How many adult books did you read? Did it harm you? Maybe, maybe not but there’s definitely a class of people who just expose their kids to anything and that’s where their involvement ends.

Is this a bad thing? GamerDad says no. Ultimately it’s the parents right to choose the media and intensity their kids experience. GamerDad is just here to encourage them to make informed decisions and to watch, or play, games with their kids. I believe that parental involvement is MUCH more important than mindlessly protecting your kids from anything controversial or disturbing.

As a parent, how do you feel about the way lawyers and politicians have framed violence in gaming? Does it seem like they are voicing real parental concerns or generating new ones?

GamerDad: It’s opportunism, pure and simple. Politicians know that their laws will be struck down as unconstitutional (FACT: Games are protected by Free Speech, they cannot be regulated by the Government) and the lawyers, man don’t get me started on them, they’re just looking for anything they can blame (read: sue) in the wake of real tragedies. This tactic works (it’s always worked) because when something horrible happens it feels good to blame it on something like Doom or a comic book.

Recently the mainstream media has made a lot of connections about violence and gaming. Do you think that in general this is being done with accuracy and clarity or does it just leave parents with a lot of very scary unanswered questions?

GamerDad: New York Times Headline from last year: “Bad News Parents! Games Might be Good For Kids”

I’ve spent a year thinking about that line and I can’t find any reason why that might be bad news – unless you hate games and hope they’ll get banned. Any other way of looking at it is positive. Has to be positive! This isn’t bad news and I think it takes a pretty unprincipled reporter and editor to write a line like that. Look, there’s a real bias against games in the media. Books like “Killing Monsters” by Gerard Jones are ignored against the latest anti-gaming screed. Statistics are ignored if they’re in favor, and the methodology of the studies that prove games are bad is never scrutinized. But it’s getting better, especially when they call on GamerDad to help with the article. (grin)

If a man (a completely random and nameless one, of course) arrived at your door and told you that the PlayStation was capable of loading your children with a cranial menu and manipulate them into being unwilling assassins, would you think he might be insane?

GamerDad: Yes. We all know that technology won’t appear until the PlayStation 3 hits shelves.

When it comes to influencing kids, how do you feel video games rank compared to other aspects of popular culture like movies, music or celebrities?

GamerDad: “Influence” is a tricky word here. I mean, everything is an influence and sometimes, often, influence can be a good thing. So I’d say “same, maybe less.” Games, being interactive, force a child to think, to be engaged, to memorize patterns, learn new skills, and when there are puzzles, to think outside the box – use logic – and to try until they succeed. I think these aspects of gaming influence kids FAR more than some digitized blood and violence do. Movies, games, comics, books, etc., can inspire interest in other subjects (a war movie can start a kid on a history reading binge, a football game might make a nerdy kid want to watch football with dad or mom), they can inspire humanity (Schindler’s List) or they can inspire interest in horror, gore, and military weaponry. They can all also inspire anti-social behavior and even violence, but I’d argue that this only happens in weak-willed or mentally troubled youth. And I’m sure we all realize that a trouble child or adult can be set off by anything. Catcher in the Rye, the Bible, Doom, The Passion of the Christ, Barney, you name it.

In general, what tips do you have for parents before they go purchase a new game?

GamerDad: Read GamerDad. (Smiles) I’m not kidding. We’ve got a search engine that lets you search for any kind of game. Say you want a game on the Xbox for a 5 year old. Enter in that information, sort by ESRB and/or GamerDad Seal, and you’ve got all our reviews aimed at your child.

Finally, what have you been playing lately and do you have any new recommendations for parents?

GamerDad: It all depends on the age of their kids, but I’ve been really into some of the more oddball games out there. Rhythm games like Donkey Konga (GameCube), Taiko Drum Master (PS2) and Dance Dance Revolution are excellent family games. So is Eye Toy (PS2) and any of the Mario sports games on the GameCube. These allow 2-4 players to compete and the game appeal transcends the typical testosterone geekery, complexity, and difficulty of most other games. I mean, everyone likes to bang on bongos, drums, and dance around like an idiot . . . right? Okay, well, kids like it fine. Trust me.

Of course after the kids go to bed I’m all about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Battlefield 2 baby. When the kids are away, then your friendly neighborhood GamerDad can really play!

Thanks again to Andrew for his time and answers. The URL is once again, Kids, if you're reading this ... do us all a favor and pass it on to your parents. Trust me, you'd rather have them reading Andrew than listening to lawyers on the television.


Corvus said...

Great interview, Josh!

Troy Goodfellow said...

Nice interview. Andrew is one of my favorite writers and in my dealings with him has always seemed a stand-up guy.