Will playing hunting video games cause my son to be more aggressive and desensitize him to violence?

Will playing hunting video games cause my son to be more aggressive and desensitize him to violence? 150 150 Mediatrics

Big Buck HunterQ: Hello, I am the mother of a 10-year-old boy. We don’t allow violent video games in the house, but we do allow him to play first-person shooter hunting games (Duck Hunter, Cabela’s, Big Buck Hunter, etc.), which he loves, especially as he takes a hunting trip with his father every year. My fear is that his love of these games and hunting is somehow desensitizing him to real violence and is carrying over into inappropriate behavior; he will also often play shooting games with his friends (cops-and-robbers style) and talk about his favorite types of guns and how they kill. My concern has been heightened since the Sandy Hook shooting and subsequent discussions about media violence and increasing gun control measures. My question is, are the hunting video games negatively affecting my son, or desensitizing him to person-against-person violence?

- Humbled over hunting games, NY

A: Dear Humbled,

Hunting is a time-honored tradition carried down from our days as hunter-gatherers. It can teach your son patience and how to use weapons safely, and it can endow him with a respect for life and love of the natural world. Since we no longer need to hunt for our food, your son’s experience of hunting is perhaps most importantly a ritual bonding with his father—and earlier generations.

 The critical issue is what meaning your son makes of those experiences—and what relationship that has to his video game play. He may have a more realistic understanding of the impacts of violence because of his experience with hunting, which could make it clearer to him that the video game images don’t truthfully represent what happens when a bullet hits a living being. One can easily see how someone who is sensitive to those experiences would be even less inclined to shoot or become violent towards someone else, as they have seen the realities of death and suffering.

 While there is research that has examined how young people respond to first-person shooter games where the targets are people (or people-equivalents like aliens or zombies), the Center on Media and Child Health’s Database of Research has not found any rigorous research that explores the influence of playing hunting video games. With person-against-person video game violence, the killing is rewarded especially if it is reflexive and efficient. Video games portray violence as powerful, cool, and the way to resolve conflicts and prevail. They don’t show what it’s actually like when someone suffers the wounds that real-life weapons inflict. Instead, they can make violence feel attractive and desensitize players to the suffering, loss, and grief that can result.

 I would recommend that you talk explicitly with your son about these issues:

  1. Ask, in a non-judgmental way, how he feels and what he thinks about hunting. Encourage him to learn from American Indians and other masters of the hunt, to understand and respect the animals he hunts, and to think about how he can honor his prey and never waste a kill.
  2. Sit with your son as he plays his video games and discuss the ways that it simulates and that it differs from real hunting. Avoid overt criticism or passive acceptance, but make your concerns known. Although he (and his dad) may be annoyed in the moment, this will show him that you care about who he is and who he will become, that you take the influence of video games seriously, and that you are willing and able to parent him in the digital domain as well as “real life”.

Remember, as irritated as kids can get over active parenting, just having this conversation will encourage your son to think critically about the media he uses and how they may influence him. Continue to observe, sharing your observations when necessary, and keep the lines of communication open when it comes to the media choices he makes.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®