Yes, My Four Year Old Plays Grand Theft Auto
There was a story recently stating that police and social services would be called on parents who let their children play Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and other Mature rated games. The recommendation also suggested that children should not have Facebook accounts. While I don’t agree with this recommendation I can understand where such a suggestion would stem from: protection children and curbing violence.
As a gaming scholar, I am exposed to an array of research on children’s exposure to video games. While I get the reservations and hesitations, I do not incorporate the findings into my own parenting.
Researchers and politicians are adamantly against children playing Grand Theft Auto among other violent video games. But my four year old plays it often. Before you call Child Protective Services, take the time to examine our engagement with GTA. While some may argue that children shift from being a superhero in traditional games to a full on felonious criminal, I posit that Grand Theft Auto has the potential to teach way more than that.
Researchers suggest that children who play video games use games as a means to vent their frustrations rather than coping in more productive ways. Others researchers suggest that playing violent video games increases aggression and may trigger violent tendencies. One psychologist even stated that there is not one ounce of positive influence on kids but rather a ton of violent, disturbing, acts. I beg to differ.
A.D., my four year old (not the adorable child pictured here), is an avid gamer. He plays a range of video games. But I often get weird stares when people learn that Grand Theft Auto is also in his arsenal of frequently played games.
There is a particular way my child plays the open world in Grand Theft Auto (we don’t do missions). I will list them here:
- Learning safe driving: A.D. spends significant time honing his (virtual) driving skills in the open world of GTA. Parental unit two (dad) and I have taught him about traffic lights and how to obey what the signals. He drives on the right side of the road (might not help in another country, but in America, he’s ok!). He doesn’t venture on sidewalks to hit people and is very apologetic when he harms someone. Which leads me to the second item.
- Learning manners: It’s easy to harm someone in GTA. If you tap someone they could instantly be killed. If you hit someone’s car, that person may get mad and want to inflict bodily harm to the character. But instantly when he harms someone in the game, he apologizes for the wrong. This has translated into his everyday encounters with his sibling, family, and peers. He apologizes for everything!
- Learning basic geography and map-reading skills: An additional aspect of the game that we focus on as parents is teaching him how to read a map. There are locations in Los Santos for instance that he enjoys visiting. The construction sites are places he likes going but doesn’t always know where they are. So we set the waypoint and the map guides him. He is supposed to talk out the navigation:
“now I turn right – now I go left – I am just driving straight ahead” – etc. This has also made him aware of travel and navigation in the physical world. He likes giving us directions to his school.
- Learning about life and death: When he bumps someone’s car or hits someone on the street, usually he gets killed. He has not been equipped with the tools (weapons) to defend himself so he just gets beat up and dies. We use this opportunity to talk to him about death. We try to enforce the notion that in real life you don’t come back. Teaching about death is one of the hardest things to explain to children, and while this may not be best option, it has opened the conversation about death and losing one’s life.
- Learning about culture: While GTA doesn’t do the best job at featuring different groups, GTA highlights different cultures and we immerse him in those. Unfortunately, Rockstar did not give some of these different cultures the best vocabulary or the most positive disposition, but we can still show different ways of living and being. (Sadly, Black women are among the meanest group of people in GTA. We’ll teach him about stereotypes soon!)
There are some elements to this game we can’t control. For instance, there is an overabundance of ‘potty words’ that the characters utter throughout the course of the game. There is no option to turn it off. So there are some characters we avoid. He NEVER plays with Trevor. Trevor just talks too fucking crazy! While there is no best option, we opt for Franklin and this gives him the opportunity to not just hear less abrasive language but it also gives him the chance to interact with a Black playable character.
It is important to note that my children are not overly exposed to video games despite my research, teaching, and gaming lab. They are overly exposed to other, non-digital kinds of things. They frequent the library and each have their own library card. They go to the park or engage in some outside play every day. They play sports, and I mean EVERY SPORT. Parental unit two and I are attempting to mold very holistic children who are able to navigate a host of environments.