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Legislation would target violence in video games

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff, 5/22/2003

A grandfather, Congressman Joe Baca (D-Calif) didn't like what he saw when constituents complained about a video game called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Among other things, a player gets points for hiring a prostitute, having sex with her, beating her to death, and taking back his money.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City went on to become the best-selling video game in America in 2002. Baca went on to draft legislation that would make it illegal for stores to sell or rent it or any other adult-content video games to a minor. Whether the bill gets anywhere could depend on whether parents like you and me call our representatives and urge them to co-sponsor HR669 so it can get out of committee.

Video games are voluntarily rated by the industry: M for mature (17 and older), T for teen (13 and older), and E for everyone. With few exceptions, notably some KMart and Walmart stores, retailers do not enforce the ratings. Even 6-year-olds can rent the likes of BMX XXX, which, at the upper levels, rewards players with live video clips from a strip club, or the newly released Postal 2, whose predecessor, Postal, is so violent it was banned in seven countries.

Probably the nicest thing anyone who cares about children can say about all M-rated, most T-rated, and even a big chunk of E-rated games is that they are offensive.

''When you realize what's on them, it's just not something you want your kids exposed to,'' says Daphne White, executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project (lionlamb.org), a grass-roots initiative to stop the marketing of violence to children. She appeared at a congressional briefing last week on behalf of HR669.

This isn't just about our individual children, though. Many researchers see it as a public health issue.

''I fear we are growing a society of alienated, aggressive, untrusting adults,'' says media researcher Joanne Cantor, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin and author of ''Mommy, I'm Scared; How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them'' (Harvest).

Two important caveats:

1. A steady diet of mature-content, violent, video games alone is unlikely to influence a child to commit violent, anti-social crimes. For that, researchers agree, there needs to be a host of other risk factors, including parents who are uninvolved or negligent, genetic influences, and negative social and environmental factors such as poverty and neighborhood violence.

2. Video game research is in its infancy; it hasn't existed long enough to produce longitudinal studies. Because children are active participants, researchers are convinced but can't yet prove that violent video games are worse than violent television. In virtual reality games, players don't just manipulate a character to commit violence, they become the character and look at the scene through his eyes. Sometimes all you see of the character is the extension of his arm with a gun in his hand.

    Find out what's on your child's screen

1 Be an active participant in what children see on all screens, even at the youngest ages. Have conversations about content, make your values clear. The younger children are when you start, the easier it will be to continue to talk about it when the content becomes more offensive. (The difference between Teen and Mature content is that the violence is more intense, more cruel, and, more often than not, targets women and minorities.)

2 Ask school-age and older children to show you the games they have. Play with them. Ask questions: What makes this fun? What do you think about the content?

3 If your children already have games you find offensive, offer to buy them back. Then agree to some new games they can buy instead.

4 Don't accept the video game rating system at face value. A content analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that 64 percent of E-rated games required players to injure characters in order to continue playing. Also, don't judge a game by its wrapping. ''Conker's Bad Fur Day'' (rated M) has pictures of squirrels on the package, leading you to think it might have a nature theme. In fact, it's pornographic.

5 Children who are aggressive by nature or who have difficulty with impulse control are more adversely affected by aggressive, violent content on any screen.

6 The universal messages that come through about violence are that it's a solution to problems, weapons are everywhere, and everyone uses them. Messages about sex are that everyone does it all the time, and it's OK to be violent and abusive against women.

7 The amount of time spent playing at any one sitting counts. Children who are home alone after school are at the highest risk for the negative influences simply because no one is telling them to do something else.

8 If you watch violence on any screen with your child and talk about the content afterward, it mitigates against it. If you don't talk about it, you enhance the negative messages.

9 For reviews of video games, visit www.IGN.com or www.gamestop.com.


There is, nonetheless, potential danger for even the typical child. Researcher Kimberly Thompson, director of the Kids' Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, sums it up in two words: ''Learning happens.''

Think about how your second-grader prepares for a spelling test. She starts off with two or three words from a list of 12. You spell them, she repeats them, you spell them, she repeats them. Pretty soon, she gets them right. You heap on some praise, and move on to the next three words.

''When you practice anything, you get better at it. That's how the brain works,'' says Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson. He is the nation's pre-eminent researcher on the effect of exposure to violent video games.

Indeed, developmental psychologist Douglas Gentile, director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family (mediaandthefamily.org), calls video games natural teachers.

''They get kids engaged, they're highly motivating, and they're repetitive,'' he says. With the right content, that combination can be a good thing; it's why he allows his 6-year-old daughter to play Reader Rabbit and Freddie Fish games. It's also why he worries so much about videos games that have even only cartoonish violence.

Even many E-rated games involve solving conflict through violence. Anderson says, ''The player practices looking for enemies and making the decision to take violent action in response to them. The better you get at it, the more the brain gets wired to do it, and the faster you are at making the decision. That's what gets learned.''

As Anderson and other researchers see it, the bottom line for the typical child is this: ''If your 11-year-old spends six or seven hours a week in focused concentration on violent action in a video game, will it make him a rampaging killer? No. Will it mean that when someone accidentally bumps into him at the cafeteria, he's more likely to interpret it as a threat and respond aggressively? Yes.''

In the immediate aftermath of playing even 15 minutes of a game with violent content, studies show the same results in 7-year-olds as in 17-year-olds: an increase in aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. There's also a physiological response. Heart rate and blood pressure go up and adrenalin flows. Long-term, new research using brain MRI's also shows that the connections that are made in the brain from the repetition are stored in the long-term memory receptacle.

It is this that scares researcher Michael Rich. ''We are giving children an opportunity to rehearse behavioral scripts,'' he says. ''If you are presented with such and such a situation, this is a good way to respond.'' It's not just the violence that worries him, either. He has issues with a snow-boarding video game his son plays.

''You shoot off a course, slam into concrete, get up, and keep going,'' he says. ''If you've been immersed in that environment long enough, something is bound to rub off. As a result of play, will my son take greater risks than he should when he snowboards? It's something I worry about.'' Rich is director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital.

These changes in attitude happen subtly, over time. Parents may chalk them up to a new stage of development or not notice them at all. Children certainly don't. Teens, especially, are quick to say they know the difference between reality and fantasy and aren't affected by these games.

Cantor says that knowledge doesn't protect a child. Neither does intelligence.

''We're talking about an emotional reaction that gets wired into the brain,'' she says. Like any other learning, you don't feel it happening.

The big question, of course, is how much is too much? No one knows. Anderson says, ''There's no such thing as a safe exposure.'' He has two teenage sons and carefully monitors their screen intake. If mature content slips by him and he finds out, he revokes computer privileges.

Even if you set out to eliminate exposure to violent content when your children are young, it's hard to keep it going in today's world. Thompson says the best antidote is having ongoing conversations about content, and monitoring what children see on all screens. It's a big job.

Which may be one more reason why Grandpa Baca's bill makes good sense. E-mail your congressman today.

Contact Barbara Meltz at

This story ran on page H1 of the Boston Globe on 5/22/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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