My three-year-old daughter’s head snapped back. A gurgling sound escaped her throat. She slumped against the living room couch, slid to the floor, and fell into a ragdoll position with her arms splayed out, legs at weird angles.
I didn’t react. I couldn’t. This was something I’d never seen before. I leaned forward in my chair, but my legs felt like cold mud, and my brain couldn’t recall a single detail from the infant-toddler resuscitation class I’d taken when she was born.
But then, after a few very long seconds, I watched her hop back up and giggle wonderfully, her brown curls bouncing. She was perfectly fine. She’d simply impersonated something she’d just watched me play in a video game. Yes, my daughter was OK. But suddenly I wasn’t.
Still rooted to my chair, I looked back at Skyrim sitting on my TV screen. I paused, put down the controller and folded my hands. My kid was apparently fine, but something still felt wrong. Somewhere along the line I had missed checkmarking a particular box on my parenting to-do list. My kid’s spot-on impersonation of a mummified creature’s slow-motion death was my first clue.
I often fail to remember that when my child reacts to something, she’s reacting to something for the very first time, ever. That fart joke she laughed at? At three years old, that’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard in her life. After dinner, when I said she couldn’t have a second cookie for dessert, that’s the greatest disappointment she’s ever had to suffer. No wonder there were tears.
So when she watched her dad virtually kill another sentient being in martial combat, that was literally the first time in her small life that she had to process that kind of information. She wasn’t raised on a farm; she hadn’t exactly witnessed the circle of life in our suburban three-bedroom two-bath home. Before sneakily watching me play Skyrim, I’m almost certain she had no concept of death and dying. Afterwards, however, she was prematurely introduced to those enormous concepts, without context, and therefore with no real understanding of what she’d just witnessed and reenacted.
From then on, we discussed scenarios and examined life lessons from children’s shows we watched together. We pointed out who was being helpful, and who was not. We talked about trying our best, even if we weren’t the best at something. We figured out what it was to be kind. And if a fight broke out during a show, with words or with fists, we talked about what it meant to defend ourselves, to stand up for others that need our help, and what it means to “fight the good fight.”
My video game time came after we put her to bed each night. Particular TV shows handled the topic well, but it was too soon for my three-year-old to learn lessons from watching dad play Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect or Red Dead Redemption. Sure, the creed of the Assassins is to help each other murder their targets. Mass Effect’s teams of military operatives certainly want to do their best. And, why not, Red Dead Redemption is a cautionary tale of what happens when people aren’t very nice to each other. But at three, anything more complicated than a pony and a pegasus not speaking to each other for a few minutes was probably too much to handle.
It is my job, as a dad, to help reveal the world to my child in thoughtful, meaningful, measured steps. I’d carried her until she could crawl. I’d picked her up so she could stand. I’d let her go as she learned to walk. I’d given her space when she began to run. I mean that scholastically and emotionally as well as physically. Her mom and I drew boundaries where necessary and loosened the leash when it made sense.
But she’d quietly gotten up out of bed that night — the night in question — not long after we’d put her to sleep for the evening. She’d probably just scurried out to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom; the usual excuses. But with my attention focused on the grim business of chasing butterflies and stabbing dragons across the snowy, undead-riddled lands of Skyrim, I’d failed to notice my daughter, that night, entering the room and standing just behind me.
I’m not sure how much she saw of her dad fulfilling the prophecy of a dragonborn, but it was enough to have her knowledge-hungry eyes soak up several images of savage physical violence, and then regurgitate — with frightening accuracy — what she’d seen into her little performance. That night, when she’d displayed her spot-on impression of a groaning, dying Draugr, I’d been given a small glimpse of how her perceptive, impressionable and efficient three-year-old mind worked.
So, here I was, not very long into the rest-of-my-life job as a dad, and my parental vigilance had already gone slack. Regardless of whether her three-year-old mind knew what it was seeing, it wasn’t a picture I wanted her brain to file away as significant and worth remembering. Ever since, I’ve hoped that that scenario has gotten lost somewhere in the fog of early childhood.
That was a year, year-and-a-half ago. She’s four-and-a-half now. She and I play video games together, too. I know...what changed in the last 12 to 18 months? A lot, actually. Every child is different — don’t ever think otherwise — but after daily organic discussions about the right and wrong way to go about things in real life, about the kind and unkind ways to interact with loved ones, friends and strangers, about the situations that arise in which she can make a good decision or a poor decision in accordance with mom and dad’s rules, I’m convinced she’s able to watch Skyrim and know full well the difference between real life and video games. She even coaches me through combat.
“Dad,” she said once, “I wish you didn’t have to fight. But if you do, use fire.”
Once again I stopped, chuckling a little this time, though, as I set the controller down. I liked her approach: Implement a thoroughly ravaging means of distanced, long-range attacks if, and only if, it has been subsequently determined that combat (and not combat avoidance) is the sole remaining option. Good strategy, kid.
But the core of her wish — that I not fight if I don’t have to — is changing the way I play some of the games I enjoy playing. Games may be openworld or on rails, set in the past, present or future; but most keep things linear in the way you handle situations. You hold the controller as another character walks onto the screen. You basically have two choices of what you can do next: 1) use sticks or 2) use stones. Read sticks and stones as swords and bullets if you want, but the heart of the matter is the same. Often, when facing an enemy in a video game, stabbing and shooting are the only options that exist as a way to interact with other characters.
I’m not shaming video games. That’s not what this is about. My thing now is, in correlation with my child, to examine the ways her “child logic” affects my own way of looking at and interacting with games. I mean, I’ll never let her watch me play a game of Grand Theft Auto, but I’d long since decided that series isn’t designed for the likes of me anyway. To developer Rockstar’s credit, however, I will sacrifice plenty more workspace productivity by losing sleep from playing whatever they end up calling Red Dead Redemption 2. Again, not a game for my child to watch, though I have allowed her a few minutes of horse riding in Red Dead.
“This is a game where everyone walks around and says, ‘Howdy,’ ” she told me. I thought that was about as lucky as I was going to get with a Rockstar game, however, and asked her to hand me the controller before we moved onto something else.
I have concerns, of course. My let’s-talk-about-Skyrim strategy works only just so well. The ESRB rated Skyrim M for Mature, and they did it for a reason. The other day, I decided to create a new character and let the intro sequence roll. Everything was going fine. We were in the back of a prison cart. We were headed for the town of Helgen. We hopped out of the cart when the guard asks, “Who are you?”
And, after letting her choose the character’s sex and body markings, she reassured me that, “It’s OK for you to be a girl with shiny hair and pink kitty whisker tattoos, Dad. Don’t worry.” I looked down at her and nodded. She was 100 percent correct.
But then something went wrong. In the opening sequence of Skyrim, the Empire is summarily executing anyone suspected of being a rebel, evidence be damned. Your character starts off in this very predicament. There’s no trial. There’s no judge. There’s only a death sentence. And, in another lapse of judgment, I let my too-young daughter watch a man be led up to the chopping block where a hooded executioner brought his axe down on the neck of another human being. The head lopped off into a basket amidst arterial bloodspray.
My daughter put her hand on my arm, her eyes locked to the game screen, the image of a beheading fresh in her mind. “Daddy,” she said. “I don’t want you to do that. Don’t put your head down.”
I tried to reassure her. It’s OK, I’d said. We’ll get out of this. You’ll see. And it was true. We escaped. Because, well, a dragon showed up and started burning people to a crisp, destroying homes, families and soldiers. I’m not sure what I was thinking, letting her watch that. There wasn’t much of a positive resolution to discuss. But I pressed on, naively thinking that my kid was alright, simply because we’d sidestepped a beheading of our own. But now, I thought to myself, we’ll be fighting the good fight. We’ll know who the bad guys are. We’ll know that our goal is to Do the Right Thing.
But anybody that’s played video games — and especially Skyrim — knows that black and white can be hard to place. I’d overstepped the boundary again. This was not anything an almost-kindergartener should be watching, so I stopped playing Skyrim with her for now.
One of my jobs, from this point on, is to not prematurely plant dark, needlessly violent pictures into her head. In a lifetime, I can’t catch every negative influence she’ll ingest. Of course I can’t. But during her formative years, I can discuss what it means to fight the good fight, in thoughtful, meaningful, measured conversations, so that she will have context when she encounters violence in the real world.
I wish she didn’t have to fight either. But if she does, I want her to fight with fire.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982, and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile