I'm concerned, gentle readers, about the effect that violent video games have on young children. "Oh," I hear you moan, "more moralising about warping fragile little minds - no sense of right and wrong, no lines between fiction and reality."
Have I ever moralised to you? Then again, don't answer that.
But no, I am not worried about raising a generation of kids who'll deal with their problems by getting a gun and shooting somebody. I myself grew up with violent video games such as Space Invaders and Pac Man, but you don't see me blasting oncoming hordes of line-dancing aliens or eating ghosts to vent my frustrations, do you?
OK, so maybe the games are a tad more realistic now. The enemies look more like people, and the weapons look more like, well, weapons. But even after years of playing Doom and Quake, I've not become inured to the real effects of violence. Oh, sure, there's the occasional twitch in a traffic jam, and every once in a while I wish I had a rocket launcher with me to clear a queue at the train station.
At any rate, I haven't yet been
Realistically, I don't believe that kids have the lines between right and wrong blurred for them by video games. If the lines are already blurred, there might be a problem. But I don't blame the games.
What I'm concerned about for the purposes of this column is a breakdown in the kids' sense of fair play. Over the weekend I introduced my nine-year-old cousin to Quake. Since I know he already plays the much more realistic Goldeneye game on his Nintendo, I felt that Quake would be a bit of escapism, really. I sat down at the computer, showed him the controls, and went through a level or two just to show him how it's done. Then he sat down at the computer, started playing (not terribly well, of course), and said the words that shocked me:
"What are the cheat commands?"
I was floored. He'd played the game for only a few minutes. He'd died twice trying to defeat the group of grunts at the bridge before you get into the castle. The problem was that he would get into the lift and face the wrong direction, so by the time he turned around to face the enemy, he'd already been shot repeatedly. It's part of the game. You start again, you learn what way to face in the lift, and eventually you beat the baddies.
But not for this guy. Here he is, nine years old, and he knows, without even asking, that somewhere in this game it is possible to cheat - to overcome the enemy without having to acquire the skills to do so. He doesn't want to learn what direction to face in the lift. He wants to be invincible so that they can shoot him all they want and he'll be OK.
Turns out the Nintendo game lets him cheat, you see. You select "Cheat Options" in an on-screen menu and you can make the enemies' heads bigger (and therefore easier to shoot), or you can make it so your gun can never miss. That kind of thing. Without knowing anything else at all about Quake, he knew it would be possible to cheat.
Reluctantly, I told him the cheat codes. I should note here that I have completed Quake without cheating. I know the cheat codes because, well, occasionally I just feel like blasting something, and dying on the way to the thing you want to blast is just a time-waster.
But my cousin had never completed the game. Not even a level. Heck, he hadn't got into the castle. Before long, though, he was using his cheat-gained confidence to sneak up on baddies and blast them at close range before they even had a chance to growl at him. He launched unprovoked attacks, revelling in his superiority - a superiority he had not earned.
And that worries me. In endeavours other than video games, cheat codes are generally not available. My cousin is going to find himself in situations where success does not come easily, and rather than working hard to acquire the necessary skills (which is what playing is meant to teach kids), he's going to keep looking for the easy way.
So I've removed Quake from my computer - he won't play it at my place anymore. I'm now looking for a new game to teach him. Anything, really - violent, strategic, graphic, whatever. Only one condition, and it's a doozy: it must be impossible to cheat.
Matthew JC. Powell doesn't really think any of the decent action games on the market lack cheat codes. Prove him wrong on firstname.lastname@example.org