Last night I got into a very intense conversation with my girlfriend. Our 22-month-old son, Mateo Ali, has fallen in love with playing puzzles on the iPad... to the point where he is beginning to throw a bit of temper tantrum when we tell him that he has to go to sleep and can't play the puzzles anymore. He suckered me into allowing him to play a little bit longer, but my girlfriend wasn't having it. She explained that her biggest fear is that this will lead to an addiction of video games later in childhood, because she knows that the educational games would lose out to the luster of shoot 'em up and action games that all the other boys are playing... so we turned off the iPad and put the little champ to sleep.
I grew up on video games. Duck Hunt, Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers and of course Major League Baseball. The classics. I stopped playing at a young age, because the ballpark was a lot more exciting to me than being locked in my room with a controller in my hand. But I get the lure of battling level after level and trying to finish a game in one night. I get it. I'm not against video games, they just are not for me. And I'm not against my son playing video games, but I am certainly concerned about what kinds of games he might play. I'm not in favor of killing Iraqis in real life, so I definitely don't want him to kill Iraqis in video games. I'm not in favor of destroying the planet in real life, so I definitely don't want him to destroy the planet in video games. And I'm most certainly not in favor of hitting, abusing or assaulting a woman in real life, so there is no doubt in my mind that I don't want him doing that in video games.
I want to raise my boy to truly respect women. That is important to me. I was raised around incredibly strong women and I want my son to shine in their shadows. What makes me nervous, however, is what happens if he starts playing these video games that promote and actually reward the assaulting and degradation of the opposite sex. There seems to be this odd desire in some recent video games to beat up women. This odd desire to want to render the female body as property and do whatever we want to it while racing a car through some urban jungle. This is certainly not a type of behavior I ever want my son to learn, either in a video game or in real life. I want him to grow up knowing that women and girls are to be respected and treated with the utmost dignity and honor. Not some fake chivalry fantasy, but in reality, on the playground, in the classroom, at the school dance, in loving relationships and maybe one day in marriage, if that is what he decides.
I want to be clear, that I do not believe that video games are the sole root of learned social behavior that leads to violence against women and girls. However, I am certain that the indifference and callousness that I see in these video games is not healthy for our young boys and men. Violence is normal in these games. Violence should never be normal.
Maybe the conversation that needs to happen is about the place of video games in our society. If we, as men, become numb to this abusive behavior in the virtual world, does it make us less likely to be shocked by violence against women in our daily lives?
Sadly, when violence against women and girls is normalized, our society becomes strangely comfortable with blaming the victim. We call them "bad girls" or "dirty" or even worse, "criminals." We label young girls who are trafficked into the sex trade as prostitutes, yet in reality, there is no such thing as a "child prostitute." When a child is trafficked for sex, that child is raped. Period. End of sentenced. Raped. They are not prostituting themselves, they are being sold by some good-for-nothing hustler. To the point, where one young girl recently stood before a judge in Los Angeles with the name of her "pimp" tatted on her cheek. This is an epidemic that exists in our own land, beneath the click of a mouse on backpages or at some sleazy strip club or on some street corner amidst the urban decay. Yet, somehow we find it part of our international human rights campaigns to stop children from being child brides or shipped like cattle from one country to another or kidnapped and raped by some rogue terror organization in the middle of Africa, yet at home, in our own country, we incarcerate children of the same age and charge them with a crime.
As a man with a son, I want to be part of the solution. In my opinion, while video games imitate and exaggerate violence, they also worship hyper-masculinity and glorify misogyny. If traffickers groom girls to be bought and sold, then games like Grand Theft Auto groom boys and men to purchase the female body. All I ask is that when you buy these games, when you play them, please do hold up a mirror and ask yourself, why do you enjoy it? Why do you want an animated and interactive opportunity to purchase a human being, to torture and denigrate woman, to toss her aside as though she was worthless? Would you do this in real life? Do you already know men that do? Would you speak up or intervene?
I want to teach my son to be an upstanding citizen of a global generation that will no longer be a bystander to the promotion of violence against our women and girls. In the spirit of organizations like Rights4Girls, run by one of great Malika Saada Saar, men must be brave to challenge each other and support the work that so many women have been doing for years.