Book Review: What Every Parent Needs to Know about Video Games
Lately, there are several writers publishing works on video games due to all of the attention that they are receiving. Scholarly works, studies on how video games affect people, and suggestions on how to use video games in classrooms are published constantly. Still, among all the scholarly work being done on video games, there are very few writers who have taken the time to tell the non-gaming population what video games truly are. Richard Abanes is one of those few writers.
In his book What Every Parent Needs to Know about Video Games, Richard Abanes gives readers an overview of what video games are. This short book is aimed towards parents who are not familiar with the video game phenomena. The title focuses on video game definitions and effects, positive and negative, that video games might have in our society. In it, Richard talks about what video games are and what game genres are available to game players. His definitions on each of the video game genres are specially useful for parents who know nothing about the games their children play. In his eloquent, yet simple to understand, definitions, Abanes depicts each game genre by telling the reader what the game genres are, how they are played, giving examples of some of the most prominent games within each genre, and by showing pictures or screenshots of the games he is discussing.
After defining what video games are and exploring the different genres available, Abanes proceeds to talk about the ESBR ratings system. His in-depth analysis explains how the ESRB ratings evaluate the playable content in every game and give them their rating (E for Everyone, E10 for Everyone over 10, T for Teens, M for Mature, and AO for Adults Only) based on certain criteria, like amount of violent or sexual content and language use. He emphasizes that although media eagerly covers violent M rated video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, M stands for “Mature”, and children under the age of 17 should not be playing these games, as they are aimed at adults. Abanes gives a rich and detailed explanation about how the ratings work and towards whom the games that fall under each category are aimed to.
The 34 pages following his detailed description of the ESRB ratings system contain what can be considered as the main idea of the book. In this section Abanes eloquently explains what kind of games fall under each ratings category. He explains that AO rated games are games with excessive violence, blood and gore, foul language, sexually explicit material, and/or occult references, while M rated games may include graphic violence, sexually implicit imagery, and certain occult references. He emphasizes time after time that games rated M or AO are aimed at adult audiences, and this, 13 year old children should not be playing them. He states quite often that the suggestive themes offered in these games may affect younger, immature gamers. He further explains the content of T rated games, notorious for cartoon-violence, and E10 ad E games, which have material that is appropriate for all ages.
The most convincing of his arguments in these chapters is that society as a whole is overreacting to violent video games. To prove his point, Abanes compares some of the M rated games to their would-be equivalents in the movie industry, R rated movies. He successfully demonstrates that R rated movies contain more violence and nudity than M rated games, and the proceeds to suggest that the video game controversy is something that politicians are using to further their careers.
Abanes does suggest that M rated games in the hands of children may have a negative effect, and that some games are needlessly violent, but he also states (time-and-again) that these games should not be played by younger audiences, and that it is the job of the parent to know what their children are playing.
In the final two chapters of his book, Abanes mentions all of the positive aspects of playing video games (they promote critical thinking, help people focus and concentrate more, and develop creativity, amongst others), as well as mentions how games could be fun for the whole family, if only parents would care to learn about them.
Even though people who are familiar with video games may not see this book as a breakthrough, they are bound to absorb a new idea or two from the pages of this book. However, given that the target audience for this book is not people who are familiar with video games, but people who are not familiar with video games, specially parents, it certainly accomplishes its goal: to teach non-gamers about what video games really are. The simple to understand language is appealing to gamers and non-gamers of all ages, and the ideas expressed are well thought out.
There is, however, one of his viewpoints that gamers might disagree with. During his chapters dealing with the M (mature) rating, he repeatedly uses the assumption that violent video games have negative effects on children. He repeats several times that children should not be exposed to M rated games because these games may have a negative effect on children. However, he himself later debunks this proposal when he quotes U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher when he says that video game’s effects are short term, and that there are 27 other factors, like socio-economic status and parent-child relationships, that are more likely to affect a child’s leaning towards violent or non-violent behavior. Any gamer who was born in or around 1980 and grew up with Double Dragon, Bad Dudes, NARCS, and Splatterhouse, and who spent their teenage days with Street Fighter II, King of Fighters 94, and Mortal Kombat, would have to disagree with the ‘video games lead to violence’ statement. In fact, it is not rare at all, at least in the lower-class sectors of society, to find that many from the video game-playing crowd have become lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, managers, teachers, or high-ranking officers in the military, while many of the non-gamer population have been arrested, are in jail, or have been killed. In this sense, Abanes fails to convince gamers that violent games have negative effects on children. Furthermore, some of his credibility among gamers is lost when in page 31 of his book he calls The Legend of Zelda (Zelda) a ‘2-d platform game’. He states that Zelda has a “straight-across-the-screen, two dimensional look” (31), when this is entirely false. The traditional Legend of Zelda (1987) was of an overhead view, a camera angle that persisted throughout all the 2-d Zelda games, with the exception of the short action scenes in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and the Zelda titles for the 3DO. In general, Zelda games are known for their over-the-head camera and open environments. Zelda games lend themselves to the category of Action-RPG instead of ‘platform’ games. Furthermore, he says that all platform games are two-dimensional, when this is not true, as there are 3-d platform games like Pandemonium (1995), Klona (1997), Bug (1995), and the ever-popular Mario 64 (1996), which set the standard for 3-d platform games. These few shortcomings may make him seem, at least to more experienced gamers, like someone who entered the world of games recently. He succeeds brilliantly, however, in convincing non-gaming parents that games might have negative effects in their children.
One important issue that Abanes seems to overlook in this work is all the academic / scholarly attention that video games have been receiving lately. Although he says quite often that parents, educators, and religious leaders (amongst others) should take video games seriously, his discourse on video games and academia is only two lines long. He states that “as of 2005, more than 100 colleges and universities in America were offering courses or degrees associated with video games.” (Abanes, 2006, 98). He says that some of these universities are the Southern Methodist University, Michigan State University, and the University of California. However, he does not talk about J.P. Gee, Mark Wolf, Clark Aldrich, or any of the many scholars currently engaged in research and analysis of video games and/or their effects on society.
In the end, Richard Abanes’ book is not something that long-time video game players or serious video game scholars should read, as they will not learn anything new. It is, however, an excellent read for a parent concerned with their children’s video gaming tendencies, or for people who know nothing about video games and want to learn what they are about. Although the book comes across as focusing more on ratings than anything else, and it misplaces The Legend of Zelda under a genre that it doesn’t belong, it is a good introduction to what video games are about. Although gamers will gain nothing from it, it will definitely make a good gift for a non-gamer.