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The games children play


The public outcry over “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” did not surprise me. What surprised me was that it took this long to be heard. When I was editor of this publication, I performed a detailed and thorough survey of the video game industry at the 3C Convention in Los Angeles. After conducting the survey, I came away with serious concerns about the content adolescents and young adults are exposed to.

Even at an earlier release, “Grand Theft Auto” contained disturbing content that showed a reckless disregard for human dignity. And while “Grand Theft Auto” is possibly the worst of its kind, there are many more like it. I am no prude. But even the most libertarian audience will admit that there is something wrong with a game that rewards players for killing a prostitute rather than paying her for her services. Yet this game was a top seller and available to almost everyone (few stores carded) until the outcry over the secret pornography code in “San Andreas.”

I suppose I should not be surprised that almost no one objected to the game when the violence was graphic and the sex merely implied. But when it was discovered that players could activate secret codes to turn graphic sex on, suddenly the public outcry became deafening, and stores were forced to pull their top selling game off the shelves. As soon as the secret code was removed, though, the games went back on shelves across the country.

My question is, why is graphic violence OK and graphic sex not? Neither should be OK for adolescent minds. And far too many young children are exposed to random acts of graphic violence through open availability with video games like “San Andreas”. The industry’s slow and quiet response to this outcry demonstrates loud and clear that some sort of legislation is necessary to curb adolescent access to games featuring random acts of graphic violence, let alone sex.

Against this backdrop, many proponents of the video game industry have voiced the opinion that nothing is wrong with the industry’s rating system and retail practices throughout the country. The claim is two-fold: First, the industry can police itself without legal intervention; and, Second, if parents don’t like their children engaging in random acts of violence (on screen, if not in their schools), they can simply forbid their children from playing the games.

I think it is na•ve to suggest that the industry can police itself. If a vigilant parent had not discovered the secret code, the industry would have continued to keep “San Andreas” on the shelves, despite that fact that these companies do rigorous competitive analysis to try to pump up sales. In other words, every company in the industry knew everything there is to know about “San Andreas,” and they failed to do anything until the outcry became too loud.

It should not surprise us that the industry will only weakly police itself, if at all. Their chief motivation is profits, and they will create games to increase sales without any moral compunction. Their objections have the false ring of the tobacco industry, which claimed for years that it did not market its products to teenagers, only to be proven wrong by states attorney general across the country.

On a more benign level, the recording industry has just been caught in yet another payola scandal after years of rejecting what every commercial radio listener knew without question. Investors can be tough task masters, forcing industry executives to bend or break the rules whenever sales don’t meet unrealistic expectations.

The industry’s second point–that it should be up to the parents to police their children with video games–has some validity, but not enough. Just as parents can’t keep their kids from smoking or breathing second hand smoke if the children or their friends are determined to smoke, they can’t keep their kids away from every violent video game.

I might be the strictest parent in my town regarding video games. We will never own a Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, or Nintendo GameCube. I have a strongly held opinion that young minds are influenced by media more vividly than adults’ minds. Young minds do not have all the circuitry to distinguish harmful from helpful outside imagery. So I limit screen time and programming severely. And my survey of the video game industry has led me to ban games in our house, unless they are educational games on the computer, in which case I supervise the instruction.

My seven-year-old son John knows that, if he is at a friend’s or family member’s house, he is only to play games rated E for everyone. And if kids are playing other types of games, he is to leave the room and call home. Still, he was recently exposed to “San Andreas” at a family reunion. His 15-year-old cousin owns the game (unbeknownst to his parents) and played it in front of John, as did some of his much younger cousins. Because of the peer pressure involved, it took considerable detective work on my part to uncover this fact. And it proved that, despite all my best efforts, I was unable to prevent my son from seeing his cousin blow the head off a prostitute and kill cops, celebrating all the points he got for doing it.

This does not mean that I want to legislate my strict view on all parents. Only that despite my own very strict parenting, I was unable to prevent John from seeing random acts of graphic violence. My legislative suggestions still rely on parents choosing what their kids can and can’t play. Yet, I believe some content is so harmful, no child should be exposed to it. Games like “San Andreas” that reward random acts of violence against the very dignity of people, especially women, should not be available in stores.

Some might claim that my views on young minds are too controversial to base legislation on them. But I have science on my side. Recent studies suggest that the part of the brain in which the conscience resides does not fully develop until age 20. The studies were conducted in the context of whether to try all these kids who murdered their classmates as adults; and if so, whether they can be sentenced to death.

Setting aside those questions, my question is, do we want adolescents playing games that explicitly reward random acts of violence? The one thing that all these kids who shot their classmates have in common is a fascination with violent video games. I don’t think it is a coincidence. I have seen tapes of kids confessing to killing their classmates who seemed dismayed that the kids actually died. It is as though they can’t distinguish between virtual violence and actual violence, and that violence of any kind is OK because it is rewarded in the games they play.

Indeed, in a case in Fayette, Ala., a boy named David Moore was recently convicted of murdering two police officers and a civilian police worker in cold blood. After being arrested for the crime, Moore admitted his guilt, saying, “Life is a video game. Everyone has to die sometime.” Lawyers for the victims are suing Take-Two Interactive, makers of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”–the precursor to “San Andreas”–and several distributors and retailers of the game, claiming that the parties are responsible for the crimes committed by Moore, which were simulated in exact detail in the game.

Considering that there is even a chance of a link between violent video games and violence in schools and society at large, why do we take the chance? That possible link, like the link between smoking and cancer, leaves the realm of personal choice and enters the realm of societal health and safety. It is time we acknowledge the effects of kids playing violent video games and we do something to put an end to the root cause.

James Mathewson is editor at large for ComputerUser and editor of IBM’s VIC-H Web site.

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