by Shawna Lee, co-founder, staff member, and parent

Reprinted from the April 2003 issue of “The School Bull,” the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

Sec. 1. The legislature finds that there has been an increase in studies showing a correlation between exposure to violent video and computer games and various forms of hostile and antisocial behavior. Sec. 2. (1) A person who sells, rents, or permits to be sold or rented, any video or computer game they know to be a violent video or computer game to any minor has committed a class 1 civil infraction as provided in RCW 7.80.120.

– 2003 House Bill 1009, Washington State Legislature

As a risk factor for violence the impact of media violence to date is very small compared to other things we looked at, very small indeed. We hope that the report is clear. Some people may not be very happy with this, but that is where the science is today and I think our responsibility is to stick with the science.

– US Surgeon General David Satcher, 2001

The nature and value of computer and video gaming is misunderstood and under-appreciated by a large number of adults, especially those older than 30 or 35. The simple reason for this is that few of us had any exposure to early computer and video games. None of us imagined or experienced the amazingly sophisticated games that are now available. The passion and focus many children and young adults devote to these games is outside our experience and the medium is mostly incomprehensible, so it is difficult for us recognize any value in the activity. What most adults see is the surface images that are so graphic and sometimes disturbing.

Gaming is a big part of Clearwater’s culture – not only video and computer gaming, but also card gaming and non–digital role–playing games. Every age engages in role–playing games that run the gamut from pretending to be adorable kittens or ruthless spies to interacting in imaginary alien, magic, ancient or medieval worlds. The variety of games is endless and endlessly creative and fascinating for those involved. In my opinion computer and video games are simply another version of gaming, which is another word for playing. Digital games (like low–tech role–playing games) are highly interactive, immensely challenging on many levels (including intellectual) and enjoyed most when engaged in or observed by several people at the same time. Computer and video games come in many flavors: role–playing, real–time strategy, simulations, sports and puzzle solving, among others.

My 11–year–old son is an avid computer and video gamer. He plays games rated from E (for everyone) to M (for mature). A few years ago, before he started playing and when the electronic gaming culture was beginning to emerge at Clearwater, I hoped he would not be attracted to the games. I worried about game violence, whether he would play games to the exclusion of everything else, and how his creativity and imagination would suffer.

When my son did start playing electronic games I gritted my teeth and waited to see if my fears would be realized. I also watched how other students reacted and interacted with each other around the same games. To my surprise and relief, I did not see addiction. I saw passionate engagement. I saw how games added more fuel to players’ imaginations during non-game conversation and play. I saw learning and camaraderie result from playing games. I saw negotiation skills and reasoned discussion come out of gaming just as it comes out of other activities at school. When questions arise about game violence and obsessive game playing, the resulting discussions are thorough and illuminating.

Our experience at Clearwater is consistent with recent research findings that violent computer/video games do not lead to real violence. Students are adamant that they know and appreciate the difference between fantasy and reality. At Clearwater we observe that even young children self-censor where media or even conversation is concerned. If they are uncomfortable with the subject matter or images, they avoid them. It is important to our students to have the freedom to choose what media they use at school. And I continue to believe that trusting them to follow their passions is of the highest importance. I also believe gaming, whether rated E or M, is a rich and enriching activity for the students who choose it—because they choose it.

As an aside, my son’s interest in gaming sparked my own. I avidly read his gaming magazines from cover to cover (often snatching them before he does) and find the art and business of gaming and game making fascinating. If I had been born in my son’s generation, I have no doubt I would be an avid gamer as well. As it is, I have played some games with my son and fancy myself a gamer now, albeit a klutzy and inexperienced one. The computer and video game industry is expanding rapidly and now pulls in more money than the movie industry. I suspect it will be here for a long while, and games will continue to become more sophisticated and challenging as time goes on. That creativity and innovation is what keeps people of all ages excited and playing.