Who's in charge of violent video games?

Kevin de Souza is at the end of his tether. Before his eyes, the boys
he teaches at Strathmore School in Nairobi, Kenya, are turning into
couch potatoes. “Some of them look like couch potatoes while others
think like couch potatoes. Their young minds seem to be deadened by
continuous exposure to action and violence.”

The problem? Kids’ obsession with gaming on their PlayStations and
Xboxes – or, if they are relatively deprived, on their computers.
Thirty of the forty 9 and 10-year-olds in his class have a computer at
home. And some of what they are seeing is far from wholesome.

Admittedly, de Souza’s kids are upper middle-class. But if things are
like this in a “developing” country, what are they like in the most

Much the same, it turns out. London Oratory School housemaster Pedro
Virgili has found it necessary to write to parents alerting them to the
dangerous concoction of violence, sex and drugs in the R-18 games many
younger boys are playing. He worries that “many parents are not only
blissfully ignorant of their contents but, because they are only
‘games’, somehow they think they are not harmful”.

In Australia, Redfield College teacher Martin Fitzgerald worries more
about the kids accessing pornography on the internet than about the
11-year-old who tells him frankly that a video game is “really cool”
because “in one part a guy gets his head blown off and all this blood
comes spurting out”. But he does wonder about the conversation a
teacher had with a nine-year-old at the school:

Teacher: What’s your favourite video game?

Boy: Mortal Kombat III.

Teacher: Killing people!

Boy (smiling): Kids like that sort of thing.

Teacher (two months later): Which game are you playing now?

Boy: Twisted Metal.

Teacher: Sounds violent.

Boy: No, it’s not violent. People get run over and blood comes out …
you get to use lots of weapons. Remotes are my favourite. They have
dynamite. The people scream when you kill them.

Teacher: It’s not violent?

Boy: No, it’s not violent.

Grand Theft Childhood

The boys in these schools are not exceptional. They are like millions
of others around the world who spend more and more of their time on
gaming. The United States Centres for Disease Control reports that
young people aged 2 to 18 spend, on average, over four hours a day with
television and similar media.(1)  Childhood is spent increasingly
indoors. On a typical day a youngster is six times more likely to play
a video game than to ride a bike.(2)

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City It is easy to see why. Action games and the thrill-a-minute, anarchic
world they open up at the push of a button seem tailor-made for teenage
boys. Intriguing, amusing and shocking by turns, they provide hour upon
hour (a new game, Killer 7, can take 15 hours to play right out) of
extreme action — combined with the taste of forbidden fruit.

The action can indeed be extreme, when it comes to bludgeoning foes to
a bloody death, but it is the forbidden fruit element that has been
highlighted by the recent furore over hidden sex content in one of the
Grand Theft Auto series. The pornography Martin Fitzgerald is concerned
about (there are an estimated two million porn sites on the internet,
up from around 50,000 seven years ago) (3)  is turning up in

Grand Theft Auto is one of the most popular game franchises in the
world, earning its American owner Take-Two Interactive revenues of
nearly US$1 billion in four years.(4)  Though supposedly aimed at
the 18-35 male demographic, the series is very popular with younger
boys, like those at Strathmore, London Oratory and Redfield.

Promotional literature for GTA: Vice City announces: “Be it flying over
the city distributing porn flyers, smashing windows in a local mall or
delivering cocaine to a drug lord, you’ll never get bored in this town…
And yes, you can take new weapons, such as a chainsaw and lay them into
anyone, or for that matter you can grab machetes, samurai swords,
screwdrivers or hammers.” And that’s not to mention the sexed-up
females who feature prominently in the series.

In the US, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) – the

industry’s self-policing unit – gave this game, complete with
prostitutes and pimps, an M rating. The restriction is voluntary and
there is nothing to stop a younger person buying, let alone playing the
game. In Australia the federal Office of Film and Literature
Classification rated it MA15+ — the highest rating a game there can
receive – with the prostitutes removed. The UK censor gave GTA: Vice
City an rating which suggests that it is suitable only for people over

When the San Andreas episode came out last October – full of shootouts,
carjackings, street beatings and drug use – it quickly sold more than
five million copies in the US. The ESRB rated it M like its
predecessor. But last month it came to light that a modification — or
“mod” — could be downloaded from the internet to unlock sequences of
simulated sex. Rockstar, the game’s developer, claimed initially this
was all the work of hackers, but later conceded that the sex scenes
were on the disks as shipped to retailers.(5)

The outcry from family advocacy groups and politicians has forced the
ESRB to reclassify San Andreas as AO (Adult only, or R-18), with the
result that all mainstream retailers in the US, including Wal-Mart,
have removed the title from their shelves. This is not enough for some
critics of the video game industry, already agitating for censorship
since the Columbine school shootings of 1999 were linked with video
games. The Governor of Illinois has signed a bill making it illegal for
anyone in the state to sell or rent a violent video game to anyone
under 18, and Senator Hillary Clinton has proposed a similar Federal

In Australia the government censor has banned San Andreas, although
more than half a million copies have already been sold in that country.
This has caused a counter-furore from fans – including one who lets his
8-year-old play the game (“but I won’t be downloading the hack for
him”) – and free speech advocates.(6)  

Defenders of free speech have been vocal in the US as well. Two
Pennsylvania State University academics argue there is no credible
proof that video games are harmful to children or cause violence, and
that legislating against them would create a false sense of security.
They point out that all previous attempts in this direction have been
thrown out by federal courts.(7)  

Some doubt remains as to whether Rockstar Games made a genuine error in
this case or deliberately tried to subvert the rating system. “Easter
eggs” and other unlockable sub-plots are built into many games, but
“mods” are created by amateurs and hackers who alter the game’s
original code. Yet the industry encourages these hobbyists because
their work extends the life of a game. According to Dan Morris,
editor-in-chief of PC Gamer magazine, few mods are malicious: “More
than 99 per cent is a benign extension of the game itself, or absurdly
silly.” (8)  

That maybe true, but the GTA mod saga has made one thing clear: there
is more to video games than meets the eye, and certainly more than most
parents bother to find out. Parents have to interest themselves in this
part of their children’s lives, especially since they are usually the
ones providing the hardware and software.

The parent trap

PlayStation has had a big impact on the boys at Strathmore School, says
Kevin de Souza. Parents face very real “kid pressure”. One 13-year-old
refused to have his birthday party at home and his parents only later
found out later it was because they did not have a PlayStation. The boy
had been telling his friends he had a PS and an Xbox at home, and stood
to lose a lot of face if the truth became known.

“Our society is quickly evolving,” says de Souza. “Parents don’t have
time to deal with their kids, so anything that will be a replacement
for the love they should be showing is welcome. One boy I deal with has
three PlayStations – one was sent to him by an uncle in the United
States, another given him by his father and the third a gift from his
mother. Money is not an issue. Once you’ve dealt with the kid pressure
you stand a better chance of having a pleasant day.”

Parents may justify their peace-at-any-price approach by telling
themselves that at least their child is safe at home playing a game,
and so they might be, up to a point, with real kid games like Pac-Man.
But a title like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and its graphic packaging
ought to warn parents that something more than a game of cops and
robbers is involved. Yet when Strathmore showed a parents’ meeting a
half-hour clip from that game, most mothers were outraged. “They
claimed they did not know games not only have violence but also bad
language and sex,” says de Souza.

The London Oratory School also had to spell out for its (mostly
Catholic) parent community what was wrong with Vice City: “It is quite
clear what a negative impact all of this can have on the mind of a
young person. Just as important is the conflicting message it gives
them in relation to the Christian values and ideals which are part of
the school ethos and which you are obviously trying to emulate as well
in your home environment.”

Pedro Virgili says he appreciates the difficulty parents have in
monitoring everything their children watch. This difficulty is even
greater with video games because although more adults than children
play them (half of all Americans now play and the average age of gamers
is 30), the majority of parents – especially mothers, on whom the main
burden of supervision falls – most likely do not. And don’t even want

A study done recently for the British Entertainment and Leisure
Software Publishers Association found that parents felt disconnected
from the world of video games and showed little interest in this aspect
of their children’s lives. They were more concerned about the number of
hours their kids spent on games than on what type of game they were
playing.9  This study and another in New Zealand showed parents
were ignoring industry classifications and a significant number even
bought the games for their under-age teens, apparently believing them
to be mature enough to handle the content.(10)  

The industry, of course, is happy to shift the onus of censorship onto
parents. Rockstar Games is at present trying to salvage its reputation
(and its profit margin) — not by promising clean content in future, but
by undertaking to educate parents. “Our top priority is to make sure
retailers and parents understand the rating system.” Company spokesman
Rodney Walker warned that games for mature players make up the fastest
growing segment of the industry.(11)  

If the industry is not going to clean up game content, free speech
concerns will see to it that official censorship will not either. As
far as censorship goes, parents are it.

Good in moderation

Industry and free speech advocates, not to mention millions of fans,
accuse those with concerns about the media of making a whipping boy of
video games, and there is probably some truth in their accusations of
“technophobia”. There is nothing inherently bad about video games; used
in moderation they can be a legitimate source of fun and may even serve
more constructive purposes.

Timothy and Titus On this premise Christians have begun to carve out a niche market in
the game scene and there is even something called the Christian Game
Developers Foundation. At their conference in Portland, Oregon, last
week fledgling companies from around the world showed off new titles
focusing on morality and Bible stories.

Wired News reports: “In adventure game Timothy and Titus, from
Australian startup White Knight Games, players assume the roles of the
two disciples of St Paul who spread the gospel throughout the ancient
Mediterranean. Instead of the health and weapons points used in other
role-playing games, players collect love, hope and faith points to
power their missions. When they meet foes, instead of fragging them as
in Halo 2, the disciples earn their halos by praying for them or using
the ‘finger of God’ to convert them.”

(Predictably, the demands of the genre tend to trump biblical accuracy:
In the historical version of their story, Timothy was martyred by
pagans, but both saints live through all levels of the PC game.)

On a more prosaic level, action games have been shown to improve
hand-eye coordination. A University of Rochester (US) study found they
“can give a person the ability to monitor more objects in their visual
field and do so faster than a person who doesn’t play such games”.
However, the authors noted that “exercises that demand prolonged
attention, such as reading or solving math problems, are likely not
helped at all by excessive game playing”.(12)  

Children who spend a lot of time outdoors have longer attention spans
than those who spend a lot on time with TV and video games, says

Frances Kuo of the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the
University of Illinois.(13)

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids aged 8
to 18 were packing eight and a half hours of dealing with all kinds of
media, including books, into 6 hours, 21 minutes, by multi-tasking:
watching TV while playing a hand-held video games, for example, or
listening to music while doing homework. Imagine what that is doing for
their attention span.(14)  

Faced with increasing concern about the effects of video games on
children, enthusiasts have taken to writing ingenious defences of the
technology. US pop science writer Steven Johnson claims that games
require concentration, forward planning, lateral thinking and sustained
problem-solving amounting to a “cognitive workout” that can benefit
mental development. Games like Sim City, Age of Empires and
Civilisation could be adapted for educational purposes, he says. That
may be, but the title of Johnson’s book – Everything Bad is Good for
– suggests that he may be inclined to overstate the case. (15)

In Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever,
Americans John C Beck and Mitchell Wade praise video games for
cultivating self-esteem in the form of beliefs that, “You’re the star,”
”You’re the boss,” “You’re an expert,” and “You’re a tough guy.” Gamers
“are so confident of their skills, in fact, that they believe they
don’t have to work as hard as other people,” say the authors,
apparently seeing this as a virtue.(16)  

In The Obesity Epidemic, Australian academics Michael Gard and Jan
Wright defend video games against the charge that they contribute to
childhood obesity. Gard says: “Evidence shows that kids who use
technology the most are actually more likely, not less likely to be
physically active.” Games are the way kids unwind after playing sport,
he claims. (17)

The other bad news

Tell that to Kevin de Souza and you are likely to get a hollow laugh.
The sheer time his boys squander on games amazes him. One told him
that, on average, he plays for 12 hours on his PlayStation on
Saturdays, which pretty well rules out sport. When de Souza suggests to
such a boy that gaming is fine in moderation, he may show a flicker of
interest, but to get him to develop other interests is much more
difficult. “To suggest that he learns to play the guitar, or how to
program a computer, or to read novel is easy. But all these things
require an effort – an effort that exceeds the strength of a couch
potato who is used to plonking himself in front of an electronic screen
for 12 hours.”

The opportunity costs of excessive gaming – the benefits of other
pleasurable, instructive and healthy activities that one is forfeiting
– are only the beginning of the bad news about video games. Aside from
the moral issues already indicated in this article, there is a growing
litany of ills identified by research.

Despite claims to the contrary, it is generally accepted that new
electronic media are a major pull factor in the trend towards a more
sedentary life and increased obesity – up 100 per cent in the US since
1980 – among children and adolescents. Attrition from youth sports
programs begins among 10-year-olds and peaks among 14- to
15-year-olds.(18)  Obesity itself has been linked with earlier
puberty among girls, but an Italian study has also implicated screen
media. Researchers at the University of Florence say the reason is that
prolonged exposure to artificial light reduces the body’s production of
the sleep hormone melatonin, whereas experiencing regular intervals of
natural sunlight and darkness increases it.(19)  

Violent video games increase the risk of aggression in children,
according to some research. Four studies published in February 2004 in
the Journal of Adolescence agreed on this.(20)  They found that
kids who play violent games tend to see the world as a hostile place,
become argumentative and aggressive towards others and show less
empathy in real life situations. Douglas Gentile, the lead researcher
in one study, said there were many risk factors for violent behaviour,
but media violence was the easiest for parents to control: “We can just
turn it off. We can say, ‘No, you can’t play that game’.” (21)

A laboratory study of men aged 18 to 26 at the University of Aachen in
Germany concluded that video games may “prime” the brains of players
for violence. MRI scans found the same brain patterns in players
“killing” “terrorists” as in those committing real acts of aggression.

Weaned on video games

It’s the youngest children, however, who are of greatest concern.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, half of all 4- to
6-year-olds and 14 per cent of children aged three or younger in the US
have played video games. This has been facilitated by developments such
as EyeToy, a video camera accessory for PS2 which dispenses with thumb
sticks, triggers and buttons to allow children to play simply by moving
in front of the camera. In line with trends in the mobile phone
industry, this looks like an attempt to get children hooked on video
games as early as possible.

Yet, because of the risk of obesity and aggression, the American
Academy of Pediatrics says children under six should be limited to one
or two hours of electronic entertainment per day, and children under
two, whose brain development is at a critical stage, should not be
exposed to these media at all.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have, in fact,
traced a link between the electronic screen and aggression to
pre-schoolers. In a national sample of 1266 four-year-olds, those who
watched the average amount of television for the group – 3.5 hours per
day – were 25 per cent more likely to become bullies by the age of 11
than those who watched none. And children who watched eight hours of TV
a day were 200 per cent more likely to become bullies. Lead researcher
Frederick Zimmerman suggests that violent animated videos and cartoons
are desensitizing children to violence. The same must be true of video
games. (23)  

Whether these media are violent or not, the time they consume is time
not spent in reading or being read to, in being taken to the museum, in
eating meals with their parents and talking to them – things that in
Zimmerman’s study reduced the risk of bullying. Various surveys show
that parents are aware of the risks of letting the electronic screen
play nanny to their kids, and concerned, but are too busy working to do
much about it.

The Xbox family?

Ultimately, most problems affecting children can be traced to
deficiencies in parental leadership and supervision. Working mothers,
absent or uninvolved fathers, lack of gender equality in the domestic
set-up and unscrupulous marketing are variously blamed. While couples
and societies are debating these questions the home environment is
being subjected to a more or less subtle takeover.

In a long and thoughtful essay in The New Atlantis (24) , Christine
Rosen suggests that video games are merely one component of the
entertainment and technology industry’s holy grail: the digital living
room. She cites a Time magazine interview with Bill Gates in which he
expresses the hope of seeing digital music, photos, and movies and
television on demand grow out of the Xbox platform. “You gotta get in
there because certain members of the family think it’s a must-have type
thing,” said Gates. “But the way to cement it is as a family

Microsoft has even developed an acronym for this effort: DEL or
“Digital entertainment lifestyle.” Says Rosen, “It is also a lifestyle
we are rapidly embracing, as television replaces the hearth and new
technologies from cell phones to the Internet mediate every dimension
of home life.”

In many homes the displacement of real life by digital life has already
gone too far. Perhaps when it moves from the boy’s bedroom to the
living room, mum and dad will say, “Enough.”

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


(1) Healthy Youth
(2) “Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors.” USA Today, Jul 12, 2005
(3) "Online Recreation". Technology Review. August 2005.
(4) “Grand Theft Auto makers admit pornographic content,” Independent, Jul 20
(5) “Rockstar Games to reach out to parents,” PR Week Worldwire, Aug 1
(6) “Red light for auto erotica,” Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 1)
(7) “Target real violence, not video games”, by Robert D Richards and Clay Calvert, Christian Science Monitor (CSM), Aug 1
(8) “What lurks inside video games,” CSM, Jul 18
(9) BBC News online, Jun 24
(10) New Zealand Herald, Jun 20
(11) PR Week Worldwire, Aug 1
(12) Nature, May 29, 2003
(13) “Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors,” USA Today, Jul 12, 2005
(14) "Kids Say Parents Don’t Set or Enforce Rules on Media Use".  Kaiser Family Foundation. March 9, 2005.
(15) The Guardian, Jun 2, 2005
(16) Christine Rosen. “Playgrounds of the Self.” The New Atlantis. Summer 2005
(17) The Telegraph (London), Jun 3, 2005
(18) Healthy Youth
(19) “Television watching may hasten puberty,” New Scientist, 28 Jun 2004.
(20) The Lion and Lamb project
(21) Globe and Mail (Toronto), Feb 19, 2004
(22) BBC News, Jun 22, 2005
(23) Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol 159, p 384
(24) Christine Rosen. “Playgrounds of the Self”. The New Atlantis, Summer 2005.


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