AT THE HELM: ARE VIDEO GAMES CHILD'S PLAY?

February 23, 2008 12:00 am

My four-year-old daughter wields a wicked lightsaber. She's good with a blaster, too. Together we're a formidable team, using our video game controllers to rid the universe of bad guys, making it a safer place for humans, aliens and robots.

There's another conflict brewing – off screen, between the wife and I. Should our little girl be playing video games? If so, at what age, which games and how often?

We're not alone. I know plenty of parents struggling with these questions. According to a a recent survey of parents with video game consoles in their homes, 78 percent voiced concern about the content of video games. At the same time, a study released last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 17 percent of children surveyed said their parents check the ratings of video games they buy.

There are no definitive, clinical studies on the pros and cons of children playing video games. One study claims video games are evil and should be avoided at all costs. Another study says just the opposite.

And the kids continue to play video games.

The other day, my daughter's friend scooped up the game controller to play a game she had never seen and mastered the buttons in a minute.

"Oh, I play video games every day!" she said.

Yikes! My daughter plays three or four times a week.

For the record, we never allow our daughter to play any realistic violent video games – at least none that rise above the level of violence in Tom and Jerry cartoons. It helps that mom and dad, veteran video gamers ourselves, don't favor ultra-violent games. We lean more toward puzzle, action-adventure and racing games. We choose age-appropriate games in which two or more people can play, and we play for no more than an hour at a time.

Admitting publicly that you let your young children play video games is, for some parents, akin to confessing to a heinous crime – one of which people are quick to judge. The comments range from "You what?!" to "How could you?" But there's also plenty of "Thank goodness I'm not the only one."

Although my feelings are conflicted, my current philosophy is that video games, as well as TV, iPods, text messaging and MySpace.com, are an intrinsic part of the society in which our children live. Eliminating any one of those things doesn't seem like a realistic approach – children will simply go to a friend's house to play video games, watch TV or cruise the Internet.

Instead, my wife and I accept the responsibility of monitoring how the technology is used and teach our daughter what's appropriate and what's not. The primary goal of all parents is to prepare their children for adult life – warts and all.

Besides, my daughter tackles video games the same way she tackles reading, writing, drawing and outdoor play – voraciously. She excels in these area because of unwavering interest and repetition. Some might call it obsession, but such behavior, within reason, is a natural part of a child's development.

First, for my daughter, it was reciting the ABCs for hours on end. Then it was reading her favorite book 20 times a day. Next, it was singing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" ad nauseam. Tomorrow, it will be the piano or guitar.

Right now, it's video games. And my daughter is a great partner to have when battling hordes of Stormtroopers or Darth Vader himself.