It’s 10:15 p.m. on a Saturday night. Your teenager is home this evening, something that gives you comfort. However, in the last three hours, he’s committed six murders, broken into a home, committed armed robbery, extorted money from gang members, participated in a drive-by shooting, slept with a prostitute, and then beat her to death with a golf club. Surprised? As far as you can tell, he’s never left his bedroom.
In truth, he’s not physically gone anywhere. He’s been playing one of the Grand Theft Auto series of video games, available for consoles (Playstation 2, Nintendo, Xbox), hand-held devices, and PCs.
Video games have come a long way from “Pong” and “Pac Man,” and there are some games that have considerable pro-social content and encourage learning. Others, like many of the sports titles, offer entertainment and opportunities to increase coordination and decision-making skills. A number of games, however, possess content that would make a sailor blush-explicit violence, gore, and even nudity and strong sexual content. Parents should remember that all games are educational, but the type of instruction delivered may not be desirable. Just ask former U.S. Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.
Grossman has authored two books on the connection between violent media and actual violence. He argues that children learn to use weapons and become sharpshooters through the simulated games the same way soldiers use simulations to improve their shooting precision. Just as children can improve their phonics with a video game like “Learn to Read with Winnie the Pooh,” older children can learn to shoot with deadly accuracy playing “Doom,” “Splinter Cell,” and other first-person shooting games.
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently released a report tracking media use among 7th to 12th graders and found that, on average, youth spent as much time playing video games as completing homework. The report noted that 56% of those children have two or more video game players at home.
Video games are different from other forms of media, because the child is an active participant. Unlike watching a movie or a TV show, the child is actively making choices and weighing options. He is rewarded for certain behaviors, which may range from solving a puzzle to murdering an innocent bystander, depending on the game. And, they are expensive.
“These games cost $50. Johnny can’t scrape up enough lunch money to go and buy ‘Grand Auto Theft 3,'” Daniel Morris, executive editor of PC Gamer Magazine, said in an interview with ABC News. “The overwhelming amount of purchases of that game are [made] by adults.” Video game sales in the United States hit nearly $7 billion last year, according to Barry Ritholtz at the “The Big Picture” webzine. Some of those adults buy for themselves; others buy for their children, even though the game is rated “M” for mature (17 years or older).
The irony in this is that the same parents who might buy a game like Grand Theft Auto 3 for their child would likely not let the same child go to an R-rated movie, although the movie is likely to have less objectionable content. The Kaiser Foundation said among 11-14 year-olds, 75%of parents set no limits about what video games they could play. For older teens ages 15-18, this lack of parental supervision on content jumps to 95%.
Parents may be overwhelmed when trying to decipher the good from the bad. Maneuvering through the video game rating system is not unlike trying to decipher an ancient language. Unlike movie ratings, video game ratings are numerous: seven major rating symbols ranging from “EC – Early Childhood” to “A – Adults Only” and more than 30 content descriptors, including “Mild Violence,” “Intense Violence,” “Sexual Violence,” “Partial Nudity,” “Drug Reference,” and “Simulated Gambling.”
Luckily, there’s a parental Rosetta Stone at the Entertainment Software Ratings Board’s web site, www.esrb.org. The site features a search engine where parents can input the desired titles and instantly get ratings results.
Along with using the ratings system, parents can also reduce the time spent playing video games by ensuring that PCs and consoles are not located in children’s rooms. When children have greater access, they tend to play more.