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Could War Video Games be Good for Your Teen?

Anne Berry
Aug. 31, 2011

One theory states that the violent war game, War of Duty is a bonding, stress-relieving opportunity for military families.

The summer that Nate Corizzo turned 13, he became old enough to play teen-rated video games like "Call of Duty." But should he?

The transition to war games from Nate's earlier favorites, Lego and Pokémon, may be a rite of passage, but this new world can be disturbing and dark. In a typical "Call of Duty" game, the machine gun pounds in your hand. Blood and matter splat on your goggles. The human carnage -- heads popping off, enemies suffering as they die -- can be tough to watch, much less instigate.

"I was concerned that this kind of gaming -- military, shooter -- would (make my son) numb to violence," says his mother, Hope, of Leavenworth, Kansas. "But his time playing these video games has actually been a stress relief for him."

For military kids, war-themed video games like "Call of Duty" are loaded with meaning. Those cammie-clad warriors look like Dad, and by immersion in his world -- or a video version of it -- a teen can work through the stress of having a parent in combat.

Nate's dad, Chris Corizzo, is an Army ordnance officer and has deployed twice to Iraq.

"War games are a way to identify and connect with his father," says psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, Psy.D. "As long as they're not overly relying on [this] one method."

The debate over violent video games' psychological hazards is well-documented, but the courts tend to protect violent video games as free speech. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on selling them to California minors (originally signed by the "Terminator" himself, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in 2005).

Beyond this judicial armor, some experts say that war games can actually have positive effects. "Playing electronic games with violent content may be a healthy way for children and adolescents to safely... grapple with the complicated issues of war, violence, and death, without any real-world consequences," Harvard Medical School researchers wrote in a 2005 Human Technology journal article.

Others aren't convinced that there's been enough study of how violent video games affect a child's behavior; among them is clinical psychologist Domenic Greco, Ph.D., founder of Cyber Learning Technology, which develops neurofeedback technology delivered through video games.

Dr. Greco can see why military parents might value gaming as a learning tool, though, given that troops themselves are increasingly trained through "sophisticated, location-based" video play, he says. (The military uses combat-themed video games, among other methods, to teach leadership, critical thinking, and decision-making.)

Whether coming from military or civilian families, kids "seem to use [violent] games to manage their emotions," a 2007 survey of 7th- and 8th-graders published in the Journal of Adolescent Health revealed. Nearly half of the boys who responded to the survey -- crafted by a research team led by Harvard Medical School's Cheryl Olson -- said that playing violent games "helps me get my anger out."

Perhaps sensing this, Hope Corizzo decided to let son Nate play certain military-themed video games -- with limits. Off the table is the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise for its casual graphic violence and "Medal of Honor" for allowing players to become Taliban fighters and shoot American troops.

"It was strange...but my son has been happier and less attached to his gaming," Corizzo says. "The war-game play missions had a sense of completion that allowed him to feel as if he'd accomplished a goal. He actually relaxed."

Even more surprising is that Nate's behavior now is different from when he was playing "friendlier" games like Super Mario brothers, where "he would get quite wound up while playing, and we'd have to almost physically remove him...because he'd be so frustrated and hyped up," Corizzo explains.

Part of Hope's strategy is to restrict Nate's video games to weekends, and only on the condition "that if I saw a bad attitude or aggressive behavior that was disrespectful, I would put a stop to it," Hope says. "Really, the only time I hear Nate upset while playing [Call of Duty] is when he's playing online with other people, and he suspects someone of cheating."

Dr. Ludwig supports these ground rules. "I like the way she's handling it...between putting a time limit on it, and close observation of her son," Ludwig says. "For this particular child, it seems to be working."

>> Read similar tips for setting guidelines for TV and the internet for your kids

Playing war-themed games has even opened a dialogue between Nate and his dad. In "Call of Duty", for example, gamers are outfitted with weapons (anything from a tomahawk to crossbows and flamethrowers) that most American troops will never handle.

But those differences made for a thoughtful talk when Nate asked his dad about the game's weapons and "whether he had any experience with them," says Hope.

Ultimately, "parental supervision is key to positive outcomes," advises Dr. Greco. "For a parent and child, playing war-type video games together may lead to a positive shared experience that transcends the spoken word."

To extend that bonding, Dr. Ludwig suggests finding age-appropriate books that touch on the experiences of military families, and talking about them with your kids.

Here, Ms. Corizzo shows good instincts as well: young Nate volunteers four hours a week at his public library, showing such dedication that library staff recently honored him with an award.

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