Rick and Cynthia Livingston of La Crescenta, Calif., have tried to assert influence over their son's gaming by embracing it. About four years ago, they bought a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Their son Taylor, then 6, had already become a whiz by playing games at his friends' homes. "But we discovered a lot of neighbor kids had no limits, so we decided to buy a system for our home so we could watch him," explains Rick, an actor. "He'd play all day if he could," adds Cynthia, an elementary school principal. The Livingstons gradually limited Taylor's gaming time to one hour a day, explained the rating system to him and allowed him to pick appropriate games. "Believe me, if Taylor can, he will play violent games," said Cynthia. "I don't want him playing them regularly, but will an hour twice a year hurt him? No. In general, I think Taylor has good judgment. He's had training."
Maryanne Culpepper of Fairfax, Va., a programming executive at National Geographic Television, is by no means a rigid mother. Her son Jonathan, 17, has seen the violent movie The Matrix four times in the month that it has been out. Yet she is cautious about the digital world, calling it "a culture that they just slip into." She says, "It's not so much the Internet or the games but which Internet site and which games."
Last fall Jonathan would sometimes stay up all night playing sports games on his video deck. When his grades slipped, his parents cut off access, then limited use to the post-homework hours. Jonathan realized that his gaming was getting out of hand when "a friend called to ask me to go to a movie and I said, 'No, I've got other plans,' just because I wanted to stay home and play video games."
So is this stuff addictive? Psychologists say some players of intense video games show symptoms similar to those induced by drug taking or other pleasurable activities. Participating in the action of a game--pushing buttons to score, shoot, bomb, fight or fly--entails neuromuscular coordination. "So the brain not only is seeing the images and getting stimulated, but it's also practicing a response," says Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist at UCLA. "When the person is exposed to these violent media stimuli and it excites the psychoneurological receptors, it causes the person to feel this excitement, to feel a kind of high--and then to become addicted to whatever was giving him the high."
This is no secret to game developers. Though none of the game companies TIME contacted was willing to openly discuss violence in e-games, one game developer agreed to talk on the condition that he not be named. "A video game is all about adrenaline, and the easiest way to trigger adrenaline is to make someone think they're going to die," he explained. One of the tricks of the trade is to concentrate on the "blink rate." It's an old Madison Avenue ad-agency gimmick, he said. "People stop blinking if an ad has their attention. Same here--if you're into a game, your pupils dilate and your blink rate slows down." The body and brain become fully involved--so much so that dopamine, a neurotransmitter that some believe is the master molecule of addiction, gets produced while you're playing.
I've played lots of video games, at times obsessively. Invariably, though, the obsession gives way to boredom. Even the best games run their course. As a gamer, I always find it sort of sad when a favorite title just doesn't evoke that old spark anymore. But as parents, we may find that this is the best thing we have working for us.
Reported by Maryanne Murray Buechner and Jay Ehrlich/New York, Wendy Cole/Chicago, John F. Dickerson/Washington, Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque, Michael Krantz/San Francisco and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles
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