I Just Told My Kid He Can’t Have a Violent Video Game, and I Feel Terrible About It

Photograph via iStock.

Yesterday I made my 11-year-old son really sad: I told him he couldn’t shoot people.

He’s been pining for a video game called Overwatch for months, ever since he got his hands on the beta. His birthday is next week. My wife and I checked the rating (T for Teen, which is usually okay for him in our experience) and ordered it. He wanted other things, too. But this was the keystone present, the thing he was most excited about.

Then last night he made the mistake of showing me the trailer for the game, which shows a human character getting shot in the back and enfilade fire sweeping the playing theater. “Woah,” I said. “We had a deal.”

The deal was the kind of compromise that makes you realize that parenting is mostly winging it. I hate guns. I actually dislike video games if I’m being honest. But my kids love them. We progressed through Minecraft on a phone to a Wii to PC games and finally to an Xbox One. The idea was we were going to hold the line on shooting games somehow.

Guess how that went. Eventually we made a massive compromise about a game called Destiny, in which one shoots aliens, and then Halo 5, in which one shoots–I guess they’re aliens?

But the one condition was no shooting humans. I agree it’s an inconsistent line that we’ve walked. And those shooting games align so well with young boys’ fascinations with power and strategy. Also, my older son is really good at them! His poor eyesight made actual sports difficult, but he’s superb at mowing down ET’s friends on Saturday mornings. He reads Game Informer. He’s set news alerts about his favorite games. And he could not wait to play Overwatch.

And then I screwed everything up by checking it out. After I watched the trailer, I read about the game on Common Sense Media, which noted its “unmoderated chat (which means all bets are off in terms of what kids can hear)” and sort of assured parents  that while “violence is a big part of the relatively nonstop action, there’s very little in the way of blood.”

As it happens, just a smidge of blood is not going to work for us (not to mention anonymous people cussing in my child’s headset and/or insulting him and making him feel bad, which happened the one time we let him play Destiny with open chat). Mass shootings are the focus of a lot of talk about gun violence, but it’s the everyday gun violence in America that makes me despair. As of Thursday evening the Gun Violence Archive credited the US with 8,277 gun deaths and 17,252 gun injuries. Even if you account for suicides (about 60 percent of gun deaths), that’s more than 3,000 people who’ve lost their lives to guns in the first seven months of this year. This is not something I can consider a normal cost of living in a free society.

Listen, before you comment, I don’t want to have a debate about gun policy. In fact, I’m freaking out just writing this because I am imagining my Twitter mentions. Parents who view things differently, believe me when I say I’m not judging you–I don’t think it’s any of my business how you raise your kids. All I’m saying is my own decision is to opt out, as best as I can, from the corners of our culture where violence serves as entertainment.

My wife and I are wildly inconsistent on this goal, too. I love hockey and pro wrestling and murder mysteries and Quentin Tarantino movies. I’m working on a book right now about a group of soccer players who went to war together in 1915. That’s required me to learn a lot about the Battle of the Somme, when machine guns sprayed British troops with fire that would have looked remarkably like what I saw in the trailer for Overwatch. Except at the Somme, no one regenerated–19,240 men died on the battle’s first day.

So there we were Thursday morning in our bedroom, my wife and me, talking with our son about why he couldn’t have this game he wants more than anything. This game that (although he didn’t know this) was already in the house, sealed in an Amazon Prime box. What he could do was pepper us with good legal arguments. You let us watch movies where people die. Yep. I play other games where I shoot. Yes. We shoot other kids at Nerf-gun battles. I’ll drive you to the next one.

I wanted so badly to give in. I’m not worried about him taking human life lightly. I remain unconvinced that movies or games or music inspire violence. The tension was that guns mean something entirely different to him than they do to me. For him they’re a digital device that leads to fun and have no connection whatsoever to the machines that spread so much misery and pain across America.

I’m not crazy enough to think we’ll be able to hold the line on games where humans get shot much longer–my son will be a teenager next year. I know that when he goes over to other kids’ houses (including his cousins’), he plays games that would make me faint if I knew about them. Our right to shape his interests is fading quickly. Soon he’ll cobble together his own values. Soon he’ll be able to make his own decisions about what’s appropriate.

But not yet. I resent the existence of these games. I hate having to make decisions like this. But dammit, we’re not going to support games where people, even cartoon people, get shot. And he is so upset and disappointed. I carry that feeling. I want my son to have his No. 1 birthday present. He is sad and hurting right now, and it just makes me ache.

I wrote about this on Facebook Thursday, and one of my friends suggested that I was too hung up on the inconsistencies of our position. “Whether he plays this game or that one will almost certainly have no impact on his character,” he wrote, “but learning to understand shades of gray and the importance of making (perhaps somewhat arbitrary) moral stands probably will.”

As in so many things about parenting, I think we’ve done the best we can do at the moment.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.