Violent Video Games: What You Need to Know
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Violent Video Games: What You Need to Know

The business of video games, how violent games bring out aggression in kids, and what you can do about it.

Virtual Violence

"First, we have to kill a bunch of people," 17-year-old Erik Garrett tells me. So the two of us hijack a car, head to a busy intersection, then jump out and start shooting. We pick off a homeless person here, a young woman there, then toss a Molotov cocktail at some bystanders, who are engulfed in flames. Police cars and an ambulance screech to a halt nearby. When officers and rescue workers get out of their vehicles, Erik cries, "Now, watch this!" then mows them down with an automatic weapon. We jump back in the car and speed off to a mall, where the killing begins again.

A couple of psychopaths on a murderous spree? Nope, we're just playing the best-selling video game in America, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, at Erik's home in Louisville, Kentucky. Like its best-selling predecessor, Grand Theft Auto III, it's a game that, among other things, lets players hire a prostitute for sex in the back of a car, then get their money back by beating her to bloody death with a baseball bat. With their dazzling graphics, eardrum-pounding soundtracks, and stunning computer-imaging techniques, such games are drawing more players than ever into virtual worlds of shocking brutality.

In many of these games, mayhem and murder are rampant. In Postal, the player assumes the role of a psychopath who responds to frustration by "going postal." In a typical game, a player may douse a dog with gasoline and set it on fire, swing a shovel to decapitate a police officer, and spray churchgoers with gunfire. In Carmageddon, a car racing game, driver-players score points by mowing down pedestrians, including elderly and pregnant women, to the accompaniment of bone-crunching sound effects. The violence in such games has become so ferocious and vivid that researchers who study the effects of media on kids are becoming increasingly alarmed about how young minds are being affected.

"If you believe Sesame Street taught your 4-year-old something, you'd better believe that video games are teaching your 14-year-old something," says David Walsh, PhD, a psychologist and founder of the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), a nonprofit watchdog group founded in 1996.

Critics say such games stunt a child's capacity for empathy; at worst, they may lead to real-life tragedies. Before their rampage at Columbine High in 1999, Eric Harris, then 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, had spent countless hours playing such graphically violent games as Quake and Doom; Harris even named his shotgun after a favorite character in the latter. When 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on classmates at a school in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, killing three and wounding five others, he'd never fired a handgun before in his life. Yet, as retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an expert on the psychology of killing, observes in Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill (Random House, 1999), Carneal did so with chilling accuracy, using skills, Grossman believes, he may have honed playing first-person shooter games. An example of the genre is Duke Nukem 3D, in which nearly naked women bound to posts beg the player, "Kill me!" In fact, Grossman notes, first-person shooter video games are strikingly similar to the interactive "simulators" the military uses to train recruits to kill.

And a steady stream of research only serves to fan the fears of experts and parents. A 15-year study at the University of Michigan released in March found that by their early 20s, men and women who watched above-average amounts of violent TV while growing up showed more aggressive behavior than other adults, such as shoving their spouses or committing crimes. A preliminary study in 2002 at the Indiana University School of Medicine found that, among teenage subjects studied, playing violent video games affected activity in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for controlling behavior, in a way that playing nonviolent games did not. Research is now being done to confirm whether some individuals do in fact behave more aggressively when exposed to violent video games. Nonetheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and other groups have already signed a joint statement of concern, saying in part that research strongly suggests that "prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life."

Violence as Child's Play

Video games are big business. An estimated 145 million people play computer and video games annually, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), fueling an industry that raked in $10.3 billion last year. But while the majority of video-game players range from 18 to 35 years of age, 37 percent are children. A 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that among children ages 8 to 18, some 55 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls said that on a typical day, they played at least one video game on a console, like the popular Sony PlayStation 2, with kids ages 8 to 13 playing the most, an average of 32 minutes a day. But a small group of children, some 5 percent, play for more than six hours a day, says Jeanne Funk, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, one of the few researchers studying the effects of video games on children. The most popular types of games for the under-16 crowd were action or combat games, followed by sports games.

Like movies, computer and video games are rated. Only 13 percent of all games sold last year were rated "M," for "mature audiences"; according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the industry's self-regulating agency, that means the games contained "mature sexual themes," "intense violence and language," or both. But of the top 10 best-selling video games last year, three were rated M -- and many kids are easily able to buy them anyway. Selling M-rated games to those under 17 is not illegal, but many retailers have instituted policies against doing so. However, during a Federal Trade Commission study undertaken at the behest of Congress two years ago, underage youngsters were sent into stores to buy M-rated games and were able to walk out with those games 78 percent of the time. A similar sting operation by citizens' groups in Washington state showed the same outcome, prompting legislators there this year to pass the first state law subjecting retail employees who sell or rent realistic cop-killing games to children under 17 to fines of up to $500. (After the law was challenged by the video-game industry, however, a federal judge temporarily barred its enforcement.) Meanwhile, a bill reintroduced into Congress this year (it originated in 2002) would make it a federal crime for retailers to sell violent and sexually explicit video games to children under 18. The bill's author, Congressman Joe Baca, D-Calif., contends that the government should restrict children's access to such games just as it does for other profitable but potentially harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol, and guns.

Many observers are particularly troubled by video-game violence against women. A 1998 study by University of Central Florida sociologist Tracy L. Dietz, PhD, found that female characters in the most popular video games that year were almost always highly sexualized and/or targets of violence. In the Outlaw Golf series, a player can choose from among several golfer-and-caddy pairs, including buxom, scantily clad women whose figures are even more anatomically impossible than Barbie's. If a player makes a bad shot, he can vent frustration (and increase his score) by beating the caddy with his fists.

Many studies indicate that boys choose to watch violence more often than girls and generally enjoy it more, but experts aren't sure why, says psychologist Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She believes it's a combination of nurture (girls are raised to think violence is more acceptable for boys) and nature (males have a hormone-driven, biological predisposition toward aggression). "Boys are much more interested and oriented to action in general," the NIMF's Walsh adds. "Unfortunately, a lot of these games equate action with violence."

The Aggression Connection

The most burning question, though, is whether, and to what extent, violence on the screen actually begets violence in real life. "Some people are more convinced than others," acknowledges Funk, the Toledo psychology professor. She believes there's plenty of "clear and convincing evidence" that such exposure can be harmful. In fact, she says, it may well be impossible to ever prove "beyond a reasonable doubt," because "we can't just put a kid in a box for life" and study the effects of video games alone.

The video-game industry maintains that there's no objective evidence that violent games cause violent behavior. "Researchers who assert otherwise often use suspect methodology designed to support their preconceived bias against games," says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association.

Some researchers also dismiss studies linking violent media and violent behavior, arguing that a violent-video diet is only a symptom of a nature predisposed to violence. In other words, kids already prone to aggression may be precisely the ones who seek out violent video games, films, and music in excess. If there were a significant cause-and-effect relationship, says Jeffrey Fagan, PhD, former head of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University, in New York City, then the sheer number of kids playing games like Doom should have led to many more school shootings and a surge in juvenile crime. Instead, as a 2001 Surgeon General?s report indicates, since 1993 juvenile crime rates have held steady, or in some categories, even dropped.

"A lot of stuff in these games is offensive, but to say 'violent video games are obviously harmful' is really a leap," says Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. In her new book, It's Not the Media (Westview Press, 2003), she argues that blaming video games only diverts attention from several of the real issues that America has failed to address, "like family violence and the lingering effects of poverty in communities that society has all but abandoned."

Scapegoating the media, she says, is part of a pattern that dates back to at least 1954, when a Senate subcommittee convened to investigate the violence in comic books, a move that prompted that industry to clean itself up by forbidding all violent and sexual content. Blaming the media for real-life violence, Sternheimer contends, "is a little like discovering a tumor on an x-ray and then trying to fix the x-ray instead."

Not a New Phenomenon

And in a provocative book published last year called Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Basic Books, 2002), journalist and former comic-book writer Gerard Jones argues that the violence in such games actually provides a safe space in which children can learn to cope with fears and enjoy a sense of mastery and power in a world where they often lack both. "Even the goriest shooter games," he writes, "are essentially variations on a kindergartner's war game" -- and thus part of a long tradition of fantasy violence that stretches back through grisly fairy tales all the way to The Iliad.

But for Daphne White, executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project, a Bethesda, Maryland-based effort begun eight years ago to curb the marketing of violence to kids, such arguments are hardly convincing. She and others liken the tactics of violent-video-game producers to those of the tobacco industry, with its decades-long effort to deny the addictive and dangerous nature of cigarettes. Not every person who smokes will die from it, she says, but just as every cigarette raises someone's chances of getting lung cancer, every exposure to violence raises the risk that a child may behave more violently in the future.

Still, pressure from groups such as White's has prodded the industry to make the rating system more precise by adding descriptions of what the ratings mean on the package, and curbing the advertising of violent games in magazines primarily for children. And Walsh and others are taking matters into their own hands, posting their own video-game reviews online, and inviting other parents to do the same. "There are some good games out there," Walsh says, noting that games like the puzzle-solving series Myst can be educational as well as entertaining.

But if there's anything all these observers would agree on, it's that parents need to be more involved in their kids' choices of entertainment. "I would love to have parents playing the video games that their kids play. Or at least watch your child play, and see what's going on," Funk says. "I think that's the only way for parents to get a sense of what experience your child is having."

"The reality is that children spend more time watching TV, surfing the net, and playing video games than they do listening to their parents or teachers," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has spoken out on the issue of video-game violence since 1993 and has worked with the NIMF for years, as have several other congressmen and women. "I hope retailers will finally accept their responsibility to refrain from selling violent videos to minors. But in the end, parents are the ones who have the primary responsibility for protecting their kids from these potentially harmful games."

Retailer Policies on Selling or Renting M-Rated Video Games

Retailers have different policies when it comes to selling or renting M-rated games to minors:

  • Sears: The store has stopped carrying M-rated games altogether.
  • Target, Kmart, and Wal-Mart: All enforce policies of not selling M-rated games to minors.
  • Blockbuster: Allows minors to rent M-rated video games only with a parent's prior written permission.