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For Some Children, War Is No Video Game

07/23/2013 12:17 EDT | Updated 09/22/2013 05:12 EDT

"But all my friends have them!" implored by 11-year-old son Derrick, arguing once again for the purchase of M-rated video games (for "Mature"). It was neither a new discussion, nor a new angle. The next attempt was equally familiar.

"How is playing a video game going to make me go out and kill someone? It's not going to change the way I think!" A flawless, if predictable recitation of the usual script.

According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), content in Mature video games is "generally suitable for ages 17 and up." The games "may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language."

How do I explain that there are children all around the world who don't play games like these -- their actual lives read like an ESRB warning? Whether it's Syria, Colombia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my World Vision colleagues work to help children whose lives are ravaged by the many effects of these wars.

It's hard to explain these things to a Canadian child who lives a life free of violence. Real-life battles and bombings are utterly unimaginable for Derrick, as they are for most Canadian kids. Ironically, having a mom who works for an international aid and development agency doesn't always help matters. Stories that might otherwise pluck at Derrick's heartstrings can easily be written off as "mom's work."

I had to find another way to come at it, and not just to resolve the video game issue. It's important to me that my son -- a caring and sensitive kid -- develops some sense of what children around the world endure every day, because of war and conflict.

So I turned to the Toronto Public Library web site and typed in the keywords "war" and "graphic novel." I pulled up a book called War Brothers (Annick Press, 2013) about children in Uganda who are abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, and forced to become soldiers or wives of soldiers. The stories of Uganda's child soldiers are not new to most adults, but Derrick was just entering kindergarten when they were making headlines. I thought it might be a good place to start.

The book chronicled the story of a boy named Jacob and his friends, who are sharing stories in their school dorm one night when the door is violently kicked down. The boys are abducted by LRA soldiers, and marched out into the African bush where they're beaten, starved and threatened with death. The children do survive, because of the incredible loyalty they show to one another. But the innocence of their childhoods is savagely torn away.

I thought hard before sharing the book with Derrick. How could I withhold a video game with "intense violence," only to hand him a similar story in a different medium? Perhaps it was because, for a boy who is starting to see violence as just another form of recreation, there was a lesson here.

He read it. And read it. And read it again. And when he was ready, he began to talk about it. But not in the same way euphoric way he often describes the M-rated video games his friends have at home.

"Were they...really beaten with sticks?" he asked quietly one night before bed. It was hard to tell him that they were -- but even harder not to. The book had clearly moved him, and he was ready to begin thinking about what violence can mean to real-life people -- including children.

A picture from the World Vision library, drawn by a former child soldier in Uganda. Putting their memories on paper can start the healing process.

Since reading the book, Derrick has begun asking about children in other conflicts on the news. This is new. In previous months, I had told him repeatedly about families who are fleeing Syria after rocket attacks on their houses and neighbourhoods. Not much had sunk in. Now, with a mind that's quietly opening to the real meaning of "intense violence," Derrick seems a little more ready to listen.

Is it too much for an adolescent? I don't think so. As Derrick gets older, he will be exposed to war and conflict in movies and video games -- that's a foregone conclusion. But perhaps he can also grow in other ways, gaining a deeper perspective on what such violence can mean for a child.

Former child soldiers learn to play again, at the Child Soldier Rehabilitation Centre in Gulu, Uganda.

You can help restore a child soldier.