Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones: book review

An unschooling mom suggested this book to me when we were talking about violent shooting games for her 13yo and I asked her why she allowed them.  My boys are currently 6, almost 4, and 2.  So violent games are not really on their radar now.

As I've encountered so frequently in the past, what people say about the book gives me a certain feeling about a book, which is completely different than how I feel when I actually read the book.  I was reluctant to read Freud for years, feeling that he was arrogant and obnoxious.  In reality, when I read him inside, I found him charming.  The reviews of Killing Monsters either felt what he said was obvious and simplistic, or they raved about how wonderfully he defends violent video games.  I had a completely different experience reading the book.

Of special note is his analysis of the research that states that violent video games and media lead to violent behavior.  He makes a compelling case that the research is insufficient, out of date, too simplistic and incorrectly interpreted.  He discusses how nuanced the range of violence is (from Tom & Jerry to slasher films, from a few punches to lots of blood) and how inaccurately the ensuing "violent behavior" was diagnosed, and how we would really have to categorize each type and study the effects in better designed studies.

In order to better explain how this book affected me, I should explain that 17 years ago I started off parenting opposed to all multimedia.  In general I felt that it's preferable to make up games and stories rather than watch or play them.  I hoped to avoid all movies, books and TV shows that encouraged fantasy, preferring stories that dealt with conflicts that children have and present emotionally healthy resolutions.

My first misconception was that children are blank slates and that they won't have unrealistic fantasies without being exposed to them.  I eventually came to see the absurdity of that, and realized that there is an inherent human struggle between fantasy and reality, and this is a human conflict that every person will wrestle with, regardless of how many or how few movies and stories that person has been exposed to.  (However, I still felt that there is no need to go out of my way to show them to my children, and thought there might be a possibility that a fantasy might be unhealthily concretized by a movie or story.)

Gerard Jones brought up Bruno Bettelheim and how he wrote about the psychological value of fairy tales.  I had heard of the book but never read it.  I wonder if I should read it now.  I've now been looking at all entertainment through the lenses of Killing Monsters and I feel like I'd been looking at everything too literally and completely missing the point and not understanding what it does emotionally for children (and probably for adults, too).

I am not certain I understand exactly what the book says about the benefit of violent games and stories.  At times I found what he said incredibly insightful and eye opening, and at times I felt he was unclear or contradictory or not really on point psychologically.  

What I gained from the book:

1. Stories help kids deal with fears and conflicts by playing with them.
Children have their internal aggression to cope with, and are concerned about violence in society.  Stories that show people being violent are a relief because then they know other people are thinking about it, too.  Media expresses the fears that kids have and makes them explicit.
The stories also play with different endings and possibilities.  It shows that these thoughts are not inherently scary, but part of the range of human possibility.

2. Really insightful analyses of girl action fantasies and of Pokemon.
I never really understood why the girls have to be so scantily clad.  It turns out it's not just for hormonal young lads.  He explained the incredible fascination with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how it plays with girl power and being sexy/attractive and physically and mentally powerful at the same time.
His explanation of Pokemon showed me how it is a metaphor for childhood and how no matter what type of mood or personality, there is a pokemon that matches it.  And how it's a metaphor for growing up, and learning to work with unruly aspects of themselves that refuse to stay in their pokeballs.  He also explained why Misty was such a beloved character.  I always felt that characters that displayed immaturity or explosiveness or thoughtlessness were not good role models because they "teach" children that it's okay to behave that way.  What I missed is that seeing characters struggling through life with their explosiveness etc. is exactly what children are thirsty for.  They are so relieved that their conflicts are being expressed.
3. How important play is, and how media gives children forms to play with.
I don't think that Gerard Jones said this explicitly, but based on what I read in Playful Parenting, play is vitally important to help children sort through their emotions.  Play is the best way and the most fun way and the easiest way.  Perhaps the most valuable thing that multimedia provides are paradigms that children seize upon and use in their own play.  He brings the example of his own five year old son fusing Power Rangers and Teletubbies to play through his desires for both power and nurturing.  I saw immediately how this related to Chana playing "Marth and Roy" when she was five with the neighbor's son for hours.  And how Elazar plays "Young Link" and his friend plays "Captain America."  I don't know what exactly they see in these characters, what themes of power and strength, but they take them and make them theirs and play with their conflicts and fears and desires.  In my opinion, although Gerard Jones doesn't say so, having children play using the characters they see is perhaps the most valuable aspect of watching media.
He does mention that comic books and movies and video games are really useful for preteens and teenagers, when it is no longer socially acceptable to play.  It gives them a forum where they can playfully and fictionally deal with these thoughts and conflicts.
He did talk about when teenagers get too entrenched in it and either I didn't understand it or he wasn't clear.  It does seem very important that adults be available to converse about it if the child wants, and to approach it from the standpoint of interest and not criticism.  We must understand that the media is speaking to the emotions and conflicts of the child in a profound way.  An example that he brought is how so many teenagers love Eminem.  They are so relieved that he is expressing their rage.  That they aren't alone in these overwhelming feelings.  That he isn't being hypocritical.  That he is real.
4. Parents are the ones who aren't distinguishing between reality and fantasy.
This was a really eye opening point.  Children use stories as a way to help them process their feelings.  They know the difference between hurting people in real life and hurting people on TV, and in case they don't, the first time they do so they are going to get a very quick lesson (Playful Parenting talks a lot about roughhousing and how it helps children learn appropriate force).  Children who have trouble with self control and aggression will do better if they can play appropriate games for these issues.  It is us parents who are concerned that because our child enjoys watching or playing killing that they might end up killing.  The child knows s/he is just engaging in fantasy.  Have some conversations with your child and you will see that s/he knows the difference.

Although I used to disapprove of many shows, movies, songs and other media that told stories with unhealthy or unrealistic messages, I have begun looking at them all with the question: What powerful feeling is this expressing, and what enjoyment is my child getting?  What fantasy is this child playing with, and how does it reflect a frustration, concern, or stress that s/he has in real life?  What does s/he LIKE about this?
Instead of threats to my children's optimal development, I now see expressions of struggles and conflicts.  I see paradigms for them to play with and explore.  I see meekness, power, sexuality, violence, fear, anger, love, and the full gamut of human emotion that our society tells children not to express and to control.  As long as civilization demands self control, there will be stories grappling with and expressing the lack of it.  And they will grip our thoughts and minds as we struggle.

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