Ethan is in his room killing aliens. Even with his door closed I can hear the frequent blasts from the weapon he insists is not a machine gun but some specialized alien-annihilating laser. I find no comfort in the distinction.
“I’m saving the planet,” he said when I came in earlier to gather laundry. I’d bristled when I glanced at the screen. It showed an animated world through the eyes of Master Chief, a cybernetically enhanced supersoldier, from above the site of the weapon in question. Repetitive music played in the background, reminding me of reports I’ve heard about soldiers doing their killing with iPods beneath their helmets.
“You’ve got fifteen more minutes to accomplish that,” I responded.
A time limit on video games is new at our house, as is Ethan playing a battle game like Halo. We’d had quite a battle of our own before I allowed him to have it.
Ethan only asked for one thing for Hanukkah this year, an Xbox 360. He’d worked really hard in school, achieving great grades and noticeably reigning in his impulsive behavior. I readily said yes to his request, unaware that he coveted the game system specifically for interplanetary warfare.
When I found out that Halo, along with several other games he wanted, was rated M for Mature, I was taken aback.
“Halo’s not that violent,” he assured me. “You’re only killing cartoon aliens with blue and green blood.”
It sounded plenty violent to me. We went online to look at sample videos of the M rated games he was interested in.
The first one he showed me, Mass Effect, reminded me of Star Trek. There were battle scenes but they didn’t seem to be the focal point. They were in the context of a complex plot that required the player to make thoughtful moral decisions.
“This looks okay,” I said.
The next one, Assassin’s Creed, I found appalling. “You play an assassin,” I said incredulously.
“Yeah but the guy you’re targeting is really evil. And isn’t it cool how you can climb all the architecture?”
“You play an assassin,” I repeated.
Ethan shrugged. “I don’t really need that one.”
Encouraged by his even-tempered response, I sat back in my chair as he searched the web for clips of Halo.
“Here it is,” Ethan announced, as if unveiling a thing of great beauty.
I saw it quite differently. “Is that machine gun always there?”
“No. You can change to different weapons.”
“All you do is shoot the whole time?”
“Well, yeah, but you have to read maps and it involves a lot of strategy.”
I hated the idea of Ethan spending his time killing things for fun. Ethan argued that games like that helped him let off steam and therefore behave better in school. Besides, he reminded me, he had an earlier version of Halo at his Dad’s which he played all the time. It hadn’t turned him into a murderer.
I thought of Richard filling Ethan’s lungs with secondhand cigarette smoke. A lot happened at his place that I had no say in. “This is about what I wish to allow in my own home.”
“And it’s exactly why I think I’d be happier living at Dad’s,” he responded. It was his trump card, but he’d been bringing it out frequently enough lately that it was losing power. Usually I crumbled, finding myself doubting my skills as a parent. This time, I simply felt pissed off.
“Great strategy, Ethan. Threaten to leave every time you don’t get exactly what you want. That will serve you well in life.”
It was a long night, complete with yelling and tears, but somehow we got through it. In the end, I agreed to look into Halo, talking to parents and doing my own research rather than flatly vetoing it. For his part, Ethan was to give me the space to think about it. No fighting. No campaigning.
The first person I approached was the father of one of Ethan’s best friends.
“Personally, I love Halo,” Mike told me. “But I’m rotten at it.” He described the pleasure his son took in killing him. I could see where that playful shift in power could be good for a relationship and, surprisingly, I found myself feeling envious. Ethan and I sometimes played the video games Rock Band and Singstar together. Give me a microphone and my inner ham comes bursting out. But activities involving hand-eye coordination bring out my inner crippled girl instead. I could no more play Halo than an actual game of football.
Over the next two weeks I talked about Halo with anyone who was willing. Adult video gamers said Halo was fine. They also listed games they wouldn’t let a twelve-year-old play, which, to me, gave them credibility.
A friend who has grown children pointed out that if I keep Halo off limits that will only increase its allure.
Another friend told me in an email that Halo was his son’s favorite game. Henry wrote, “I don’t believe these games are any more likely to turn a kid into a killer or psychopath than the horror movies I loved as a kid. And I wound up a vegetarian peacenik!”
My girlfriend, Wendy, shrugged. “Eh, he needs somewhere to put his testosterone.”
Clearly the ayes had it.
And so, with mixed feelings and the stipulation of strict time limits, I gave Ethan the okay.
“Alright, Master Chief,” I call now over the charming sound of a sniper rifle. “Enough blue and green bloodshed for one afternoon.”