The role-playing game with violent themes was pulled from the U's elementary-level day camps after parents complained.
A University of Minnesota official is promising more oversight over diversions at U day camp programs after a parent complained about a "Mafia" game that put elementary-age students into the roles of "assassins," "victims" and a "doctor" who had the power to decide who would be "saved" and who would "die."
Tony Brown, associate director of programs within the U's Department of Recreational Sports, oversees the summer camp programming. He said his understanding was that what started out as a silly, creative game morphed into something else, reflecting kids' interests in violent video games and entertainment.
An investigation showed that "the nature of the game the way it was being played was inappropriate," he said. "It had gotten ramped up, and the scenarios had crossed the line from OK for kids that age to not OK."
The parent, Jeanne Dietrich of St. Paul, said the game came to her attention while her son Joseph, then 10, was in the university's Baseball Skills Camp in late July.
She recalled asking Joseph about his day. "He said, 'It was OK except for this creepy assassin game we played,'" she said. "He was put in the medic situation. He had to choose who would live and who would die, and he didn't want to be in that situation. It was very uncomfortable for him."
The timing of Joseph's report also was relevant to her: He had started the camp only days after the mass shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that left 12 people dead and dozens more injured.
The revelation was disheartening to Dietrich, who described empathy and nonviolence as family values.
"I don't allow him to play violent video games; we don't go to violent movies," she said. "I think our culture is a death culture. He's going to be exposed to it no matter what I do. The only thing I can do is say killing isn't right and pointing guns at people isn't right."
After Dietrich and Joseph's father expressed their concerns to camp leadership, the game was pulled from the schedule for the rest of the summer.
Although Brown described some "mumblings and rumblings" from campers and staff in reaction to the decision, Dietrich said her son experienced no negative repercussions.
Brown noted that the university's Discovering U day camp and sports camp programs had 2,600 registrations this year, with some kids attending multiple sessions. As many as 250 kids were on campus during any given week of the summer. It was clear, he said, that the game had been played before, but he did not know how pervasive it was.
Dale Le Fevre, director of New Games International, based in Mendocino, Calif., said that role-playing and problem-solving games can aid kids' ability to learn, and that edgy subject matter can help hold their attention, if used properly.
"By getting kids interested, the children have to use the skills of reading, thinking creatively, using teamwork, and making decisions in order to play," he said in an e-mail Friday. "To me this is educational. Bland subject matter that is not interesting to the students often loses their interest because they feel it's boring. I think educators and youth leaders sometimes have to use unconventional means of reaching kids, as long as it does no real harm."
He added a caveat: "It is also important to use the experience to discuss the morals of the bad characters involved and how what they are doing is wrong and why," he wrote. "So, rather than the game being a negative influence, it gets kids involved and having to use educational skills to play, and can lead to an educational moment."
Dietrich said she was buoyed that Brown called her Thursday.
"He apologized and thanked me for bringing it to their attention," she said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409