Are Video Games Really So Bad?

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PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY MATT MAHURIN

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Alan Levenson for TIME
YOU'RE OUT! Video baseball occupies Taylor Livingston, 10, right, and a couple of friends

Grossman would like to see federal legislation that treats violent video games like guns, tobacco and alcohol--banning their sale to anyone under 18. Politicians in Washington, Arkansas and New York say they're thinking of proposing such laws.

Lowenstein, not surprisingly, believes the video-gaming industry has become a convenient scapegoat for society's ills. "The difference between cigarettes and video games is that video games are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment," he claims. Indeed, video games represent a type of artistic expression, like movies. Yet even movies have rating systems. When I was a child, it was pretty hard to sneak into an R-rated movie. But any kid can buy any video game, regardless of the rating it has been given by the industry. Lowenstein says that's the retailers' problem--and the parents'. "The purpose of the rating system is to empower the parents to make an informed choice. If a parent wants to give Junior $50 and say, 'Buy whatever you want. I don't care,' that's not my responsibility."

But haven't we been reminded lately that Junior is everyone's responsibility to some extent? As a parent--and a rabid First Amendment advocate--I can't see what harm it would do to make it harder for Junior to get the bloodier stuff. That said, though, Grossman's child-zombie scenario sounds too far-fetched. "We can't make social policy based on the statistical aberrations of a handful of abnormal kids," observes Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jenkins, who co-edited a book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, that examines the way boys and girls react to e-games, says moderately violent video games might even be beneficial, helping girls learn how to compete in an aggressive world. He also points out that if we tried to clamp down on everything that triggered unstable people to kill, "the Bible would be one of the first things we'd want to ban."

Clearly, the responsibility for children starts at home. Two days after the Colorado school killings, the Smith family of Eden Prairie, Minn., discussed the tragedy's fallout over dinner. Katie, 16, Peter, 14, Mike, 12, and Brian, 9, were concerned about the newly tightened security at schools. Their mother Beth was worried too--about what the Nintendo console in the basement might be doing to her kids. She decided that there would be no more violent video games in the Smith house. "I told them they could go jump on the trampoline or play the pinball machine or air hockey," she says. "There wasn't much protest."

While this wouldn't be the path I'd take, experts say it's a perfectly reasonable response. Find your own comfort level, and enforce it. Use your eyes and your gut. If you sense something's agitating your kids, intervene. Michael Thompson, a Boston-based clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, asks parents, "Is the violence that a boy is enacting on Nintendo translating into his daily life? Is he more aggressive when he's playing, or meaner to his brother, or less respectful of his parents? Then you have to put limits on him. But if it isn't affecting his behavior, if it stays in the realm of fantasy, that's a sign of health."

There are no restrictions on the use of video or computer games in the Horan household, in Albuquerque, N.M. Peter, 16, and Frank, 14, spend eight hours a day on weekends and as many as three hours each weeknight playing e-games. Single dad Tom Horan, an admitted computer illiterate, takes a passive role, hoping his sons will outgrow their obsession. A lobbyist and lawyer, Tom only occasionally wanders in to see what they're up to. "I'd rather have them and their friends playing video games here than be out roaming the streets," he says. Although Peter has spent hours playing Quake, he recently told his dad that he especially enjoyed Grand Theft Auto, a particularly violent video game in which the player gets points by stealing cars and killing police officers. Unaware his son had this game, Tom asked him why he bought it, considering his older half brother is a policeman. "Because it's fun," said Peter. "I know cops aren't bad. It doesn't make me want to go out and steal cars. Video games don't influence me." Tom says that had he known, he would have forbidden the purchase. But he hasn't taken the game away.

As violent video games have evolved, the targets have gone from monsters to people. In the racing game Carmageddon, the player tries to run down pedestrians, including old ladies with walkers. Horrible as this sounds, I suspect that most kids who play the game see it as little more than sick humor.

"When the movie Scream first came out, my daughters really wanted me to see it, and I was just horrified," says Brenda Laurel, who founded a Silicon Valley company that specialized in software for girls. Scream, she says, "was like a Peckinpah movie, only worse, but I noticed halfway through that they were laughing. I realized they were perceiving it as satire." Laurel thinks the same holds true for some of the splatter games that terrify parents.

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