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Are Video Games Really So Bad
 

Are Video Games Really So Bad?

They mesmerize children. They frighten parents. But take heart: there are ways to tame the monsters in the box

I've always adored video and computer games. And while I know it's not a happy time to admit this, I have particularly enjoyed some of the bloodier ones. I've sat many an afternoon at the Play Station, blowing enemy warplanes out of the sky in Ace Combat 2. I find it relaxing, almost meditative. I love fighting games, such as the Samurai-slashing Bushido Blade or the kung fu-ish Tekken 2. They work out my twitchy reflexes. I've become lost for days on end in strategic battle simulations, like Age of Empires, a game that lets you play God and create legions of workers and armies--and then lay waste to rival civilizations. And I was obsessed, like millions of other gamers, with the notorious "first-person shooter" called Doom as well as its progeny, Quake. I figured, where's the harm?

I'm telling you all this because statistics indicate that I'm pretty normal. The electronic-games industry posted sales of $5.5 billion in the U.S. in 1998, and was the second-most popular form of home entertainment after TV. According to one survey, 9 out of 10 U.S. households with children have rented or owned a video or computer game. And a majority of gamers are adults like me. What are we playing? A lot of gory stuff, apparently. Nearly a third of the Top 100 video-console games for the first quarter of 1999 had at least some sort of violent content. And among video and computer games, bloody titles like Quake and Golden Eye 007 rank consistently among the most popular.

Until recently, I didn't think violence in e-games was a problem. In fact, I've always suspected that at some level, playing video and computer games can make you smarter. A lot of these games, after all, are as complex as they are treacherous. You have to learn how to solve problems fast, testing hypotheses and decoding puzzles. Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, has studied the relationship between video games and intelligence and finds a positive correlation. Her research attributes an increase in worldwide "nonverbal IQ" (spatial skills, the use of icons for problem solving and the ability to understand things from multiple viewpoints) to the spread of video games. I was thrilled to hear my prejudice confirmed--until Greenfield noted that this rise in IQ comes at the expense of potentially more important social skills. Which is to say that kids typically don't interact that well when they spend hours sitting in front of the computer or console. "It's unfortunate that in our society we are more concerned with raising IQ than with people having a social intelligence and responsibility," she said. My own empirical research shows this to be untrue. I've got three daughters, none yet 11 years old, who are hypersocial despite growing up amid all manner of video and computer gaming gear. We have a Sony Play Station, a Nintendo 64, a couple of Game Boys and enough desktops and laptops to outfit a small Comp USA outlet. My girls can play as much as they want, and I've noticed nothing aberrant in their behavior.

After Columbine shootings, though, I began to have some doubts--as I'm sure most parents did. Should we worry about our kids' exposure to video games? The question isn't whether games make children kill, because it isn't that simple. The concerns are subtler yet no less worrisome. Do graphically violent games desensitize children to violence? Do such games teach kids to take pleasure in the suffering and death of others? Are even nonviolent e-games addictive? Do they gobble up time better spent on homework, sports and other outdoor play? Or is most gaming time taken away from time in front of the TV, which, because kids sit passively before it, may be worse for them? What, if anything, should we do as a society? Should we ban the sale of violent video games to minors? Almost every parent I know is asking these questions--and reaching very different conclusions. It seems to me that the two poles of the debate are held down by Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, and David Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former professor of psychology at West Point. Now an adjunct faculty member at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (yes, that Jonesboro) and a student of all sorts of killing, Grossman has become the point man in the war against violent video games. His main assertion is that violent video games such as Doom or Quake help break down the natural inhibitions we have against killing. In fact, the military has begun using Doom-like games to improve so-called fire rates--encouraging soldiers to pull the trigger in battle. Only about one-fifth of U.S. soldiers in combat in World War II fired their weapons, a rate that the military pushed up to 95% by the Vietnam War, in part through the use of simulations meant to make shooting at humans seem more routine and "normal."

Violent video games, Grossman argues, prepare kids to kill and even teach them to enjoy the experience. Of course, "not everybody who plays these games will become a murderer," Grossman says. "Just as not everybody who smokes gets cancer. But they will all get sickened."

Grossman would like to see federal legislation that treats violent video games like guns, tobacco and alcohol--banning their sale to anyone under 18. Politicians in Washington, Arkansas and New York say they're thinking of proposing such laws.

Lowenstein, not surprisingly, believes the video-gaming industry has become a convenient scapegoat for society's ills. "The difference between cigarettes and video games is that video games are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment," he claims. Indeed, video games represent a type of artistic expression, like movies. Yet even movies have rating systems. When I was a child, it was pretty hard to sneak into an R-rated movie. But any kid can buy any video game, regardless of the rating it has been given by the industry. Lowenstein says that's the retailers' problem--and the parents'. "The purpose of the rating system is to empower the parents to make an informed choice. If a parent wants to give Junior $50 and say, 'Buy whatever you want. I don't care,' that's not my responsibility."

But haven't we been reminded lately that Junior is everyone's responsibility to some extent? As a parent--and a rabid First Amendment advocate--I can't see what harm it would do to make it harder for Junior to get the bloodier stuff. That said, though, Grossman's child-zombie scenario sounds too far-fetched. "We can't make social policy based on the statistical aberrations of a handful of abnormal kids," observes Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jenkins, who co-edited a book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, that examines the way boys and girls react to e-games, says moderately violent video games might even be beneficial, helping girls learn how to compete in an aggressive world. He also points out that if we tried to clamp down on everything that triggered unstable people to kill, "the Bible would be one of the first things we'd want to ban."

Clearly, the responsibility for children starts at home. Two days after the Colorado school killings, the Smith family of Eden Prairie, Minn., discussed the tragedy's fallout over dinner. Katie, 16, Peter, 14, Mike, 12, and Brian, 9, were concerned about the newly tightened security at schools. Their mother Beth was worried too--about what the Nintendo console in the basement might be doing to her kids. She decided that there would be no more violent video games in the Smith house. "I told them they could go jump on the trampoline or play the pinball machine or air hockey," she says. "There wasn't much protest."

While this wouldn't be the path I'd take, experts say it's a perfectly reasonable response. Find your own comfort level, and enforce it. Use your eyes and your gut. If you sense something's agitating your kids, intervene. Michael Thompson, a Boston-based clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, asks parents, "Is the violence that a boy is enacting on Nintendo translating into his daily life? Is he more aggressive when he's playing, or meaner to his brother, or less respectful of his parents? Then you have to put limits on him. But if it isn't affecting his behavior, if it stays in the realm of fantasy, that's a sign of health."

There are no restrictions on the use of video or computer games in the Horan household, in Albuquerque, N.M. Peter, 16, and Frank, 14, spend eight hours a day on weekends and as many as three hours each weeknight playing e-games. Single dad Tom Horan, an admitted computer illiterate, takes a passive role, hoping his sons will outgrow their obsession. A lobbyist and lawyer, Tom only occasionally wanders in to see what they're up to. "I'd rather have them and their friends playing video games here than be out roaming the streets," he says. Although Peter has spent hours playing Quake, he recently told his dad that he especially enjoyed Grand Theft Auto, a particularly violent video game in which the player gets points by stealing cars and killing police officers. Unaware his son had this game, Tom asked him why he bought it, considering his older half brother is a policeman. "Because it's fun," said Peter. "I know cops aren't bad. It doesn't make me want to go out and steal cars. Video games don't influence me." Tom says that had he known, he would have forbidden the purchase. But he hasn't taken the game away.

As violent video games have evolved, the targets have gone from monsters to people. In the racing game Carmageddon, the player tries to run down pedestrians, including old ladies with walkers. Horrible as this sounds, I suspect that most kids who play the game see it as little more than sick humor.

"When the movie Scream first came out, my daughters really wanted me to see it, and I was just horrified," says Brenda Laurel, who founded a Silicon Valley company that specialized in software for girls. Scream, she says, "was like a Peckinpah movie, only worse, but I noticed halfway through that they were laughing. I realized they were perceiving it as satire." Laurel thinks the same holds true for some of the splatter games that terrify parents.

Rick and Cynthia Livingston of La Crescenta, Calif., have tried to assert influence over their son's gaming by embracing it. About four years ago, they bought a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Their son Taylor, then 6, had already become a whiz by playing games at his friends' homes. "But we discovered a lot of neighbor kids had no limits, so we decided to buy a system for our home so we could watch him," explains Rick, an actor. "He'd play all day if he could," adds Cynthia, an elementary school principal. The Livingstons gradually limited Taylor's gaming time to one hour a day, explained the rating system to him and allowed him to pick appropriate games. "Believe me, if Taylor can, he will play violent games," said Cynthia. "I don't want him playing them regularly, but will an hour twice a year hurt him? No. In general, I think Taylor has good judgment. He's had training."

Maryanne Culpepper of Fairfax, Va., a programming executive at National Geographic Television, is by no means a rigid mother. Her son Jonathan, 17, has seen the violent movie The Matrix four times in the month that it has been out. Yet she is cautious about the digital world, calling it "a culture that they just slip into." She says, "It's not so much the Internet or the games but which Internet site and which games."

Last fall Jonathan would sometimes stay up all night playing sports games on his video deck. When his grades slipped, his parents cut off access, then limited use to the post-homework hours. Jonathan realized that his gaming was getting out of hand when "a friend called to ask me to go to a movie and I said, 'No, I've got other plans,' just because I wanted to stay home and play video games."

So is this stuff addictive? Psychologists say some players of intense video games show symptoms similar to those induced by drug taking or other pleasurable activities. Participating in the action of a game--pushing buttons to score, shoot, bomb, fight or fly--entails neuromuscular coordination. "So the brain not only is seeing the images and getting stimulated, but it's also practicing a response," says Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist at UCLA. "When the person is exposed to these violent media stimuli and it excites the psychoneurological receptors, it causes the person to feel this excitement, to feel a kind of high--and then to become addicted to whatever was giving him the high."

This is no secret to game developers. Though none of the game companies TIME contacted was willing to openly discuss violence in e-games, one game developer agreed to talk on the condition that he not be named. "A video game is all about adrenaline, and the easiest way to trigger adrenaline is to make someone think they're going to die," he explained. One of the tricks of the trade is to concentrate on the "blink rate". It's an old Madison Avenue ad-agency gimmick, he said. "People stop blinking if an ad has their attention. Same here--if you're into a game, your pupils dilate and your blink rate slows down." The body and brain become fully involved--so much so that 'dopamine, a neurotransmitter that some believe is the master molecule of addiction, gets produced while you're playing. I've played lots of video games, at times obsessively. Invariably, though, the obsession gives way to boredom. Even the best games run their course. As a gamer, I always find it sort of sad when a favorite title just doesn't evoke that old spark anymore. But as parents, we may find that this is the best thing we have working for us.

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