Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Video Game Violence

By Mark and Keisha Hoerrner

Thomas has a 21-inch flat-screen monitor and an optimized computer with a 4 GHZ processing speed. His hard drive is fast and large; he's packed in close to three gigabytes of RAM and has a video card with dual 512K processors. It's all about speed and graphical processing. He's jacked in to a high-speed Internet connection, and he's off and running.

Thomas isn't a programmer or a network engineer, though he's considering that as a possibility for the future. He doesn't have to worry about that now, though--he's only 13 years old and has a long time to make up his mind about a career. For now, he's content with the fact that, in the next three hours, he'll commit 147 felonies including aggravated assault, murder, attempted murder, robbery, arson, burglary, conspiracy, assault with a deadly weapon, drug trafficking, and auto theft while violating just about every section of the RICO Act, the nation's anti-organized crime law. He'll even be so brazen as to gun down bystanders and police officers and will personally beat someone to death with a golf club.

All without ever leaving his room.

The entire video game industry has changed dramatically since the days of Pong, where competitors sat through the rough and tumble world of a pixilated square bouncing between two rectangles in a tennis-like match of reflex and skill. Although that game was considered high tech just 30 years ago, the games today are vast and dazzling environments that seek to create an "immersive experience" for the player. Games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, Asheron's Call, Lineage II, and Star Wars Galaxies have developed massive online, ever-changing settings that range from futuristic swamps, to steamy jungles and rainforests, to arid deserts.

Futuristic and fantastic settings aren't the only options--vast cityscapes in games like City of Heroes, and more realistic environments reflecting an expansive version of California, such as in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, are also available.

The common thread in all of these games is that the player is role-playing a character, determining everything from the outfits he or she wears to the way in which the character interacts with the online world and other players. These games range from single-player to thousand-plus multiplayer in which all players are in the online world simultaneously through a clever grouping of a large number of servers, all processing their whereabouts.

Although these games can be highly entertaining, and they showcase some of the best qualities and abilities of the gaming industry, concern is growing over their violent content. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas represents the extreme when it comes to violence, but many have a cartoon-like quality, such as the very popular World of Warcraft. They all share one goal--kill as many creatures as possible to gain rewards.

A Link to Violent Behavior

Retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and tactical trainer, asserts that video games are actively training children to kill. Learning, he says, happens all the time, especially during active play. The subject of that active play, however, can be negative or positive.

Grossman has authored two books on the connection between violent media and actual violence. He argues that children learn to use weapons and become sharp shooters through simulated games the same way soldiers use simulations to improve their shooting precision. Just as children can improve their phonics with Learn to Read with Winnie the Pooh, they can learn to shoot with deadly accuracy playing Doom, Splinter Cell, Hitman, and other first-person shooter games.

Grossman has been a consultant to a number of school systems following deadly shooting incidents, assisting with grief counseling and understanding what brings children from what should be a carefree time in their lives to the point of committing multiple murders. In his book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, Grossman says that in 1997's high school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky, the 14-year-old who opened fire on a before-school prayer group landed eight out of eight shots on eight different targets. Five of those were headshots.

According to the FBI, in shootouts less than three meters from their targets, trained law enforcement officers land, on average, one out of five shots--these are trained officers who are familiar with their weapons.

The teenage shooter had never held a real gun before his shooting rampage, Grossman says. He had, however, spent long hours playing first-person shooter games that simulated killing with the same weapon he used that morning. Grossman, who now travels the country talking to police departments and educators, asserts that the combination of playing these games and watching violent movies taught the youth how to load, actively target, and shoot as if he had been watching an instructional video.

Unlike watching a video or television show, a child is actively making choices and weighing options when playing video games. He or she is rewarded for certain behaviors, which, depending on the game, may range from solving a puzzle to opening fire on a group of bystanders.

"In a violent video game, you rehearse the entire aggression sequence from beginning to end," says media violence researcher Craig Anderson, Chair of Iowa State University's Department of Psychology. "You have to be vigilant, looking for enemies, looking for potential threats; you have to decide how to deal with the threat, what weapon to use, and how to use it; and then you take physical action to behave aggressively within the game.

"We have considerable evidence these games cause violent behavior," Anderson says, pointing to hundreds of scientific studies on video games, and more than 3,000 on the effects of other violent media, that he says all suggest a causal link between violent behavior and the consumption of violent content. This isn't an overt link, he cautions--a child isn't likely to go out and commit a major felony after playing a violent game for an hour--but children will act more aggressively and show more negative social action, such as the intent to do violence to another person, over time.

Friend or Foe?

Anderson is quick to note, however, that games have positive aspects. He bought his son a copy of the flight simulator game Flight Unlimited and a realistic joystick and foot pedal. His son spent considerable time learning to fly, which paid off when the child went to a NASA summer camp and was assigned the role of pilot on a space shuttle mission simulator. Anderson's son was able to land the craft on the first try, something camp organizers said had never been done. Anderson credits the flight simulator as the catalyst for helping his son develop the necessary skills.

In a study at the University of California, Santa Barbara, diabetic children who received a video game showing them how to better manage their illness had improved blood sugar control and fewer emergency room visits. "Video games are great teachers and great motivators," Anderson says, "but they can be misused. It's society, not science, that must decide how to deal with the negative effects of violent video games."

To this end, the video game industry helped create the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to develop a system of ratings for video games to define content for parents and allow them to make informed purchasing decisions. (See ESRB Ratings) ESRB ratings include six age-based rating symbols, ranging from "EC-Early Childhood" to "AO-Adults Only," and more than 30 content descriptors (such as "Mild Violence," "Intense Violence," "Sexual Violence," "Partial Nudity," "Drug Reference," and "Simulated Gambling") that indicate elements in a game that may have triggered a particular rating or may be of interest or concern to the buyer.

Although the rating system is comprehensive, some recent studies raise the question of whether parents rely on or ignore the ratings. In a study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 78% of parents said they were aware of the rating system, 70% said they check the ESRB rating for age appropriateness when buying computer and video games for their children "every time" or "most of the time," and 54% said they check the content descriptors.

On the other hand, according to a Kaiser Foundation study of media habits of youth and families, among 11- to 14-year-olds, 75% of parents set no limits about what video games their children could play. For teens ages 15-18, the lack of parental supervision on content jumped to 95%.

The irony is that most of these parents would be leery of letting their teen watch a movie with an R or NC-17 rating, yet they seem to have no qualms about buying a video game for their children with an M rating or higher.

Barry Ritholtz of the webzine The Big Picture reports that last year, U.S. sales of video games topped $7 billion, giving video game producers a huge incentive for turning out more and more engaging games. Even more lucrative is the growing market for online games. The market research firm DFC Intelligence Group has projected that by 2009, the online game market will generate just under $10 billion annually. Most console games, such as those made for Nintendo and Playstation, are one-shot purchases. Online gamers, however, not only pay $40-$50 per game to get started, but often fork over as much as $15 per month to play games.

Within this massive market, researchers like Anderson say there should be some degree of accountability for game manufacturers. Yet, despite its promotion of the ESRB rating system as a comprehensive tool for parents, the Video Software Developer's Association has waged an intense legal campaign against any legislative limits on the content of games, even when legislation corresponds directly to the industry's voluntary ratings.

Game developers display an almost cavalier attitude in creating software. Recently, the makers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas came under fire from U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), who publicly condemned the game's developer, Rockstar Games, when gamers uncovered hidden objectionable sexual content within the game. Many games, especially those for home computers, can be altered through third-party modification software--"mods"--that allows users to create customized content for a game. Teenagers using mods discovered strong sexual scenes hidden within San Andreas. The sexual content wasn't created with third-party software; it was already resident in the original retail game.

In response, ESRB immediately changed the game's M rating to AO (Adults Only). What followed was the only show of public power the market has retained--many stores refuse to carry AO-rated titles, and the game was yanked from store shelves nationwide.

Advice for Parents and Caregivers

With a growing surge of violent games on the market, parents and child advocates need to know how to keep children out of the less prosocial aspects of the video game industry and concentrate on getting children into games that offer fun and challenging scenarios. Here's what experts suggest for parents:
  • Be aware of game content. If parents are unsure about the rating or other information about a game, ESRB's ratings website, features a number of tools for parents, including a searchable database of games and an explanation of the corresponding ratings.

  • Play video games with your children, just as television and film experts suggest that parents view programs and movies with their kids. This way, parents are clear on the content.

  • Locate game consoles and personal computers outside of children's bedrooms. Studies have found that when these items are located in a bedroom, children spend two to three times longer playing games than engaging in other activities. They also remain cloistered behind a closed door, making it harder for parents to monitor the content.

  • Become savvy consumers. Just as they use the Internet to find the best airline and hotel prices for vacations, parents need to research game titles on their children's birthday and holiday wish lists. Anderson's site provides recommendations for educational games. The MediaWise website also lists recommendations, as well as titles to avoid.
As MediaWise founder David Walsh says, "The storytellers define the culture." Parents, teachers, social workers, and child advocates need to clearly understand the stories being told in video games, because the line between fiction and reality will continue to blur.

L. Mark Hoerrner is a freelance writer and author of several articles on the media's effects on children. His wife, Dr. Keisha L. Hoerrner, is an Associate Professor of Communication and Director, Communities for Learning Success, at Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, and a researcher who specializes in children and media issues. They are the parents of two preschool boys.

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 ESRB Ratings

 Is the Research Flawed


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