Training vs. Play: Making Use of Militaristic Children's Games
Andrew Potoczak

Militaristic values have seeped into nearly every facet of children's culture. Future generations are being raised to understand violence and militarism through the television they watch, the games they play, and the education they receive. Some say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. What is wrong with the rationalization of militarism, particularly in children's culture, is the manner in which it is conducted. Children between the ages of 10 and 12 are at a liminal period in their lives; this is the age at which they are becoming active participants in the media they consume. They are being introduced to new forms of media and need games that allow them to explore what the messages and images within these media mean.

The board games that were so popular among past generations: Risk, Stratego, Battleship, etc. provided a basic context in which children could interact and the rest of the game was left up to the imagination of each individual child. These games are being replaced by the popular shoot 'em up games of today, such as Halo, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto, that leave little to the imagination of the participant. While militaristic values and themes are pervasive in both video games and board games alike, their formats are intensely different. Video games provide a highly structured and visualized environment for play that limits children's imaginations.

Violent video games are an exercise in operant conditioning, a process of stimulus-response training used by military combat simulators that essentially teaches people to operate on autopilot. These games require players to look at the screen, observe an enemy target, and react by shooting. Board games almost never allow players to enter the same scenarios over and over again in a single sitting.

Take Risk for example, a game of conquest in which players command armies. Game-play repetition is non-existent here; players must assess the situation presented to them on the board and then choose a course of action. While this assessment is similar to that of someone playing Grand Theft Auto, with Risk, once a decision is made and action taken, the opposing players respond and there is an entirely new scenario presented. This is an exercise in problem solving, not operant conditioning.

In Grand Theft Auto, the backgrounds and appearances of opponents may differ from time to time, but the process is always the same. Someone will appear on screen and the player will shoot the person. The conditioning in Grand Theft Auto and other games like it is almost solely visual and reactive. Risk, on the other hand, involves conditioning children in a cognitive manner. They are being put into situations in which they must solve a problem in order to be successful. It's not only the extreme violence of some shoot 'em up games that makes them detrimental to children; it is their repetitiveness and the ways in which they restrict children's agency.

With video games a child made a choice by deciding to play the game itself. Once that initial choice is made, they make no other choices in terms of what they encounter during actual game-play. In many videogames, most aspects of the game are constructed, packaged, and delivered to the player.

In contrast, board games present players with a structure in which children looking to test their developing sense of agency can make decisions about nearly every aspect of the game. In video games, your actions are generally tied to the narrative, most decisions are made for you and tasks are completed in a one-at-a-time manner.

Young people utilize combat fantasies as a means of testing their strength. These types of violent fantasies allow children to access their emotions, control anxieties, and calm themselves in the presence of actual violence. The best way that this strength in the face of violence can be built is through visual storytelling. As social scientist Jones states, "Visual storytelling unlocks the images they've stored up from cartoons, movies, and video games and helps them make more sense of the media-transmitted stories that fill their environments." Rather than provide children with a way to explore the violent images that they encounter on a day-to-day basis, video games simply add to this pile of imagery. Video games restrict emotional access and prolong the process of emotional exploration. Board games on the other hand, provide an opportunity for children to explore their emotions.

Violence exists in our society. It would be a dangerous thing to deny this fact to children; it would be a denial of reality. There is, however, no need to force violence on children simply because it exists. Rather, children should be encouraged to engage in games that offer a broader palette from which they can explore their own feelings and emotions. If children play war or fire pretend guns, it does not mean that they are going to grow up to be violent people, it just means that they are exploring reality. The beauty of board games like Risk is that they allow children to draw the line in terms of violence where they see fit. Popular shoot 'em up games like Grand Theft Auto force visuals and thought processes on children.

Board games serve to reinforce a child's growing sense of agency. In supporting this stage of development, one key to promoting healthy play in our high-tech world is for parents to become more knowledgeable about the games their children prefer and to engage them in discussions about these games. In the face of commercial and peer pressures parents can help by leading children away from games that impose more and more violent imagery on them, and instead guide them toward those which will allow them to further examine the images they have already encountered.

Andrew is a sophomore at Syracuse University majoring in Public Communications.