Violent Video Games: What You Need to Know
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."