Are Video Games Really So Bad?

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PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY MATT MAHURIN

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 PlayStation, 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 (despite what my wife would have you believe in her accompanying article). 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 GoldenEye 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 PlayStation, a Nintendo 64, a couple of Game Boys and enough desktops and laptops to outfit a small CompUSA outlet. My girls can play as much as they want, and I've noticed nothing aberrant in their behavior.

After April 20, 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."

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