Meet Carl-Magnus Helgegren, a journalist, university teacher, and proactive dad.
And like so many other dads, Helgegren had to have the violent video-game conversation with his two sons, Frank and Leo, aged ten and 11 respectively.
“We were sitting at the dinner table last autumn, and my kids started telling me about this game they wanted to play, the latest Call of Duty game, and told me about the guns and missions,” Helgegren told The Local on Friday.
Helgegren, who spent some time in the Middle East as a freelance journalist when he was younger, was reminded of his own experiences with guns and missions – where he faced violent demonstrations and grenades to get a story.
“It was quite late in my life when I finally started to scratch the surface of what war really was,” Helgegren said.
“I thought I had a pretty good idea from television, but when I was 29 I realized I had absolutely no idea what war was. And my kids couldn’t explain it, either.”
So Helgegren struck a deal. The family would take a trip to a city impacted by real war. The boys would meet people affected, do interviews, and visit a refugee camp. And when they came back home, they would be free to play whatever games they chose.
“They didn’t believe me,” Helgegren said.
But he held out. First he considered Iraq or Afghanistan, but concluded that current war zones were too dangerous. So this past spring during Easter break, the family booked tickets to Israel and the Palestinian territories – “the closest you can get to war on a tourist ticket,” Helgegren remarked.
“It wasn’t until the second day when we were there, eating at an Israeli street food stand, when they asked, ‘Dad, are we really here because of the games?’ And I said yes. Yes, we are here because of the games. You need to see this.”
They stayed with an Israeli family and went to all the tourist sights, like the old city in Jerusalem. But it was no pleasure trip.
“We went to the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem. They saw the conditions there, where people burned trash in the streets, and there was an illegal drug market right next to the school. We went to a clinic where kids were being stitched up every single day because they had been hit in the head with the butt of a rifle,” Helgegren recalled.
The family stayed in the Middle East for ten days, and Helgegren said at times the journey was tough.
“I had to explain quite a bit. I was especially thorough when explaining the politics, and pointing out that the Israeli politics do not necessarily reflect all parts of Israeli society,” Helgegren explained.
When the family returned to Sweden, Frank and Leo decided not to play Call of Duty after all. They also said they would like to go back one day.
Carl-Magnus Helgegren took his two video-gaming sons to Israel.
But the journey didn’t end there for Helgeren. Since writing of his experience he has been hit by an onslaught of incensed parents and aggravated tweets.
He noted that most of his own connections were very positive – others were not.
“I have received messages calling me the worst parent in the world, saying that I am traumatizing my children, that I am a pompous bastard, and that I should be doused in napalm,” Helgeren told The Local. “I didn’t really expect such a reaction.”
As Helgegren’s article about the trip was only published recently, he suspected that much of the criticism stemmed from people’s misconceptions about the situation in Israel at the time of the family’s trip.
“I think people didn’t read thoroughly, so they thought we were just there recently, when there is a massive war going on,” he said. “I also think that many people who posted these dreadful comments just believe that the Middle East is a total war zone at all times.”
Interestingly, though, Helgegren said that the harshest criticism came from people without children.
Johanna Nylander at the Swedish Games Industry (Dataspelsbranschen) said she thought Helgegren was setting a good example as a parent when it came to taking responsibility.
“But I don’t think it’s necessary, perhaps, to take your kids to warzone. Just playing together with them and showing an interest should suffice,” she told Sveriges Radio.
She added that there was a big difference between war in video games and children pretending to play war “out in the woods”.
“There have been kids ‘playing war’ for generations. It used to be just out in the forest with sticks. But the thing that separates video-game war from playing in the woods is that there’s a much lower risk of getting hit in the head with a stone or falling over when you’re playing video games,” she explained.
Helgregren called Nylander’s latter statement “absolutely ridiculous”, and “a paid opinion from an organization representing a multi-billion dollar company”.
“Video games in themselves are not bad,” Helgegren clarified for The Local.
“But in Sweden and Europe we are very privileged. We have all this wealth and rights and social services. And with that comes the responsibility to educate ourselves and not just become zombies playing video games and consuming hamburgers.”
The father also added that the Swedish style of parenting was too passive, and conflict-fearing parents may not dare take their children away from video games.
“Sometimes they are afraid that their kids will be alienated socially and not have anything to talk about. Some say that video games are a good babysitter. But what it comes down to is that Swedish parents are too lenient.”
Helgegren said that he is “proud” of the family’s trip and that he didn’t understand the psychology of parents who wanted to “protect” their children from seeing real war but let them play war-like video games.
“Sweden is a nation which hasn’t been at war for centuries. Our notion of war is naive. While our Swedish children play war and shoot digital missiles, Palestinian children are being blown up by soldiers in Gaza.”