Avoiding the Halo effect

Last weekend, my kids picked up an Xbox 360 in a post-Christmas sale. With it came a copy of Halo 4. As a rule, we don’t let our kids play first-person shooter games. However, I will admit to having a weakness for them, even though I have not indulged that weakness for nearly a decade due in large part to the motion sickness such games tend to generate in me. Nevertheless, with Halo 4 in hand, I couldn’t resist at least giving it a try, if only to discover what all the fuss was about and why such games have become a multi-billion dollar industry.

I should pause to note that I also have a moral issue with first-person shooter games. For starters, they’re terribly addictive. I learned that lesson while playing one of the first Medal of Honor games over the Christmas holidays back in 2006. I actually got rid of the game once I realized I was sneaking away from the family to get in a round–like an alcoholic sneaking away to sip from a bottle hidden in a light fixture. And who has time to play video games when my bookshelves and iPad are crammed full of books I have yet to read? (For the record, we restrict our kids to 60 minutes of video games/day, and we strongly encourage bedtime reading.)

But more important than the time-wasting issue is the fact first-person shooter games tend to deaden your soul. Unlike like Minecraft, of which I’m a fan, there’s no imagination or creativity involved in Halo. In the two hours I devoted to the game, I realized it’s merely a matter of getting the aliens before the aliens get you. This may seem like a minor thing, but as researchers like Daniel Grossman have pointed out, there’s far more going on with first-person shooter games than mere play. Desensitization to violence, dehumanization of the enemy, and violence as the only solution to virtually every problem are just some of the neural pathways carved out and cemented by such activities. Considering the average young person today racks up 10,000 hours of video game playing by age 21 (enough hours to become an expert at virtually anything, according to Bill Gates), is it any wonder that our unquestioned, kneejerk response to real world violence is merely more of the same?

Our behavior shapes our brains. Children’s brains are especially malleable in this regard. If we and/or our children have 10,000 hours to spare, perhaps it would be better spent becoming an expert in something other than killing.

As for my copy of Halo 4? I know I can get get $6 for it at EB Games. And I think I’ll spend that money on another book.


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