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