Instead of Taking Away 'Call of Duty,’ Swedish Dad Takes His Kids to Israel

Carl-Magnus Helgegren wanted to show his children what a real warzone looks like, and to teach them that war is not a (video) game.

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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The Activision game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Credit: AP
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Violent videogames have kept parents and teachers worried for 20 years, even if researchers differ about whether they should be. But in most cases, the parents settle for reprimanding or grounding their offspring for refusing to detach themselves from “Call of Duty” or “Counter-Strike.”

Carl-Magnus Helgegren doesn’t like the influence of war games on children, but when his sons, Frank and Leo, wanted to play them, he did not argue or forbid. Last April he took them to visit Israel so they could see for themselves that war is no game and that its effects linger long after the battles end.

Helgegren had already visited Israel twice, even working here in 2009 as a reporter, joining his friend Terje Carlsson, who made the documentary films “Israel vs. Israel” and “Welcome to Hebron” about what goes on in the territories. It was then that he discovered how it feels to be on the other side of the gun barrel.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he told Haaretz by telephone from Sweden. “Once I got there I wasn’t expecting war or anything, but we went to demonstrations and you had to run when I was shot at with those tear-gas canisters from their M-16s. We also went to checkpoints in the night and we saw a lot. When I came back home I understood that, you know, I thought I knew what war was from the TV, and that really it wasn’t a war, it was occupation. But really, I understood I knew very little about it.

“I can’t say I know everything about the conflict,” says Helgegren, whose story appeared in the Swedish media, on the BBC and on American websites, “but I’ve spoken to Israelis and Palestinians and I visited the Golan Heights, and I think I have a complex view of the situation and of the occupation.”

Helgegren recalled that during his visit he tried to show his children all the sides of the conflict. He also bore in mind that people live normal lives here.

“What I thought was that the situation was bad both for the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Syrians,” he said. “When I took my children down there to see it, I wanted them to see what it was for people who are getting their human rights violated. And I think it’s just as bad for the Israelis or Palestinians or — you know — Macedonians, to anyone who has to live in fear. I was very thorough in trying to explain to them. Israel is occupying Palestine or the territories or whatever you want to call them, but does not reflect the entire views of the Israeli population.

“I tried to combine these experiences from seeing both the harsh realities that people are living in Shuafat, but also to show them that there is everyday life in the Old City. You walk around and people get along, and there is probably less crime than there is in our home city in Sweden on a Friday night.”

When he is asked the predictable question — whether he was afraid that his children would be harmed — he said: No, never.

The family trip was designed to show his children that wars do not end when the winners’ and losers’ scores appear on the screen at the end of a round of “Call of Duty.”

“The real reason why we were there was not to study the conflict,” he says. “It was because I wanted to show my children that if you want to play violent video games, you have to understand that even though the war has ended, for generations you get problems with people having lost their relatives in acts of terror, you have families torn apart, you have people living as refugees. This is the product of war that you never see in games.”

Helgegren understands the allure of videogames. In his youth he played “Call of Duty 2,” which dealt with World War II, but the older he got, the more he found himself opposing such games. Another reason for his increasing dislike of them was that their improved graphics increasingly blurred the line between reality and game. At the same time, he became more aware of the way the enemies were portrayed; in many cases, they were depicted as Arabs.

“I think it would be unfair if all the terrorists looked like Swedish people or like Jewish people or like French people,” he says. “Why should we let our children get this idea of what terrorists look like?”

Helgegren also mentions the close link between the game developers and arms manufacturers, who give the game companies the right to use images of their weapons for a fee. He says the arms manufacturers should not be making even more money from a product that is sold to children.

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