Ask Dr. Gurian: Are videogames just games, or can they be tools for teaching character and maturity?
Answer: They are both games and potential maturation tools because they already deal with themes of character development and manhood.
Every video game--even ones that we might find despicable, like Grand Theft Auto--can become assets in a boy’s moral development, especially if we discuss the games with the boys.
Here’s a quote from General George Patton that dads who play war games with sons can use to mentor their sons.
“Despite the impossibility of detecting the soul physically, its existence is proven by its tangible reflection in acts and thoughts. So, with war: beyond its physical aspect of armed hosts there hovers an impalpable something which dominates the material. To understand this ‘something’ we should seek it in a manner analogous to our search for the soul.”
Our sons, in this vein, are not just playing a game—they’re entering a world of soldiery in which, Patton says, they are searching for their souls. This fits the neuroscience. During adolescence, as males develop neural pathways between the limbic area and the temporal lobe (which is known as the spiritual part of the brain), the ineffable becomes meaningful to boys—it is a source of power, purpose, and independence.
Boys can’t generally talk about all this indescribable, transcendent feelings in depth yet, but it constitutes the manhood they search for in video games as these electronic images are flung at the boy--images of soul, shadows of honor, ideas of good and evil cast in light and darkness that can, potentially, motivate and grow a boy’s soul.
If played too much or never contextualized, the games can create more neural distress, less light and more darkness in the male brain. Too much screen time in general is dangerous to the brain and too much video game play in a day is potentially dangerous. We must practice moderation, of course. Meanwhile, as with everything our son sees and feels, parents and the adult community have the power to direct a boy’s maturation through what he loves.
Here are some strategic ways you can do this with gaming.
*Ask your son to teach you the game he is playing;
*Ask him to interpret the game for you, not just for a minute or two, but in great depth; and
*Ask him, specifically, to interpret and integrate the games into the value systems and moral codes you are teaching him in your family.
Video games are rife with doorways to these strategies because in many videogames your son is already becoming a warrior who battles for good against evil.
Here’s an example from Halo.
“We soldiers are simple things,” the Colonel tells his troops. “We’re taught honor: honor means sacrifice and sacrifice means death, our own or our enemy’s. In some ways, beneath it all, that’s what a soldier is really trained to do—to end God’s work.”
In these words, the videogame aids temporal lobe connections by focus on God, the soul, manhood, and soldiering linked together in male maturation. Using this already extant linkage in the game or movie, we can help build the boy’s mind as we talk with the boy about the video game.
You can carry on this discussion with your son and add your own lessons in values, spirituality, suffering, death, life, and, ultimately, manhood. Especially if your son is playing an hour of videogames every weekday (which I do not recommend) and two or more hours every weekend, it’s essential that you integrate video game play into his conscious character and manhood maturation.
A dad, who did two tours with the Marines in Iraq, accomplished this goal this way (I’ve summarized a number of our counseling sessions here). “As you know, I came home messed up and you suggested I take the bull by the horns and talk to my 11-year-old son Cary about his video games. At first, I couldn’t even play the games without getting flashbacks. But gradually, I could, and it was a way to bond with Cary.
“Like, there’s a part in Halo where the Colonel tells Commander Locke what he believes:
‘You give your life away so others will live in peace. These people who live on after what you did carry part of your deeds with them. In their final hours, they will have to answer the question you asked in yours: with your life, would you only create death or with your death would you create life? That is my question to you, Commander Locke: how will you die, and for what?’
“I asked Cary if he understood what this meant. He said, ‘Yeah, Dad, it means you will sacrifice your life so other people can have their lives. It’s like what you were doing in Iraq.’ I cried right then, right in front of him, I cried and then he cried, too. We hugged each other. I was so proud of my boy.”
As this father told me about this incident, tears came to his eyes and my own. This father gave his son an amazing gift--that moral and developmental gift came through video games.
A dad or other mentor who has never been a soldier can do this with his son or mentee—indeed, I believe, he must. If an early adolescent boy is playing video games that can affect brain, heart, and soul without adequate mentoring by fathers or father-figures, manhood will be defined in the game for the boy without real men leading the self-definition.
The boy may not mature into the fully loving, wise, and successful man we want him to be.