My son wants Call of Duty, but how do these video games impact teen boys?

Michael RichPost update: Dr. Rich responded to the comments on this post, including whether he got some of the facts about the game wrong. Check out his response.

Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed junk food ads on kids’ websites.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I don’t wish for my teen son to have more “first-person shooter” experiences, and yet all he wants in this world is this Modern Warfare game. All of his friends have it already, and he says he’ll be laughed at and left out if he doesn’t get it. He said these games are so much fun…he gets a real rush. How do these games impact teen boys? Are there any positive impacts? What’s a parent to do?
Wary of Warfare in Glencoe, IL

A: Dear Wary,

I commend you for questioning and challenging your son’s request. The game he is asking for, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, opens with a scene in which the player—an undercover member of a terrorist group—walks through an airline terminal in Russia. The player earns points by shooting as many tourists as possible, including those who are injured and crawling away.

All video games create behavioral scripts, which encourage the player to respond to the virtual environment in certain ways and rehearse those behaviors over and over. If the game is fun, the brain connects those behaviors to positive feelings. This powerful learning experience can be positive or negative, depending on the content and goal of the game. In this case, your son is getting a rush because the video game is fun, but this is concerning because the fun is being linked to the behavior of shooting helpless people. So the question with this, as with any video game, is what skills and behaviors you want your son to learn, and what he himself wants to practice.

Please note that the concern about first-person shooters and other violent video games is not so much that players will immediately increase their aggression level and become physically violent.  Rather, the concern is what the research shows: that playing such games shifts players’ ideas of what’s normal (related studies can be found here, here and here). Those who play violent video games tend to expect the world to be a meaner place, and they become disconnected and less caring people.

Given all the evidence, I personally would never recommend that a parent give this game to a child or teen. It’s certainly true, though, that your son’s argument – that “everyone else has it” and he’ll be left out if he doesn’t – makes it extremely difficult to say no. But as a parent, you can provide the foresight he doesn’t yet have. Take this opportunity to talk with him about how all video games are educational and that you’re saying no to this one because of what it will teach him. Ask him what kind of person he wants to be and whether this game matches those goals. And most importantly, brainstorm with him to find other, healthier ways to get a rush.
>>Additional advice: Learn how to look up reviews and find videos of what game play is like

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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