Why Children Need Make-Believe Violence

Children play – its how they make sense of the world.

In societies where guns are part and parcel of media and culture, children inevitably at an early age play toy guns and ‘shootouts’. In other cultures, where guns are not part of the local symbology, children play instead with toy spears or bow and arrows.

The act of imaginary weapon play and violence in itself provides children a sense of power as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. In all of popular culture, from Harry Potters magic wand, to the ‘One Ring’ in Lord of the Rings, Excaliber from Arthurian Legend to destructive spells emanating from a child’s seemingly normal open hand, a single object becomes a vehicle for story and a symbol for power – this act of ‘violent’ play is important for the development of a child.

From when they are born to the time they are independent, all children feel powerless to a certain extent. They struggle to learn how to walk, they are dependent on their parents for meals, and what seems easy for adults can be frustratingly difficult for children. This feeling of powerlessness can be especially amplified if the child grows up in an environment of abuse, neglect or poverty.

A Grade 4 student in the school yard who is reenacting a scene from Call of Duty where he’s avatar has snuck up behind an enemy player and slit their throat with his knife, knows that what he is doing is play. The same child who with his friends pretends that he is a Wrestler from the WWE knows that he is not actually a Wrestler from the WWE. Children are using this reenactment to develop emotionally – they are reenacting a story and using it’s emotional power to aid in their development of character. Games enable children to play with certain realities and to take power over them to an extent. Gangsta Rap and movies about seriel killers are similar tools – in engaging in this culture children feel that they understand things better, and feel stronger in the face of such realities.

Most adults are anxious about this type of behaviour. The cybersafety consultants who do the rounds in schools would most likely say to be vigilant in the look out for this type of behaviour. Won’t children who play guns or video games like Call of Duty become desensitised to violence and grow up thinking it’s ok to shoot people? Won’t this act of play, turn out kids who enjoy violence? These anxieties are natural. From years of experience, we know that in reality guns are bad and do lead to violence – but adults mistake play with reality – kids don’t. They have an innate sense of what is play and what is real. 

Children need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. It’s how they learn. Most anxieties and fears about make-believe violence and violent video games come from ignorance, media ‘beatups’ and hyperbole or perpetrated soceitel ‘myths’ – Henry Jenkins debunks these myths about video games in his article Eight Myths About Video Games.

Gerard Jones in his book Killing Monsters states,

“Nearly all the violent stories that kids play with deal with lessons about courage, resiliency and development. It is the action itself – the process of identifying with a character who is faced with a physical threat and fights back with every resource he can find – that transmits some basic life lessons:

Achievement feels good.

Goals are achieved through complete commitment.

Clear Choices must be made.

Sometimes conflict is useful.

Sometimes shattering old ways is necessary.

Loss and defeat are survivable.

Risk has it’s rewards.

We can feel fear – but do it anyway.

Monsters can be destroyed.

Self-assertion is powerful.

Simply being me is heroic.”

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