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Does shoot-'em-up software lead to aggressive behavior?

November 2, 1998
Web posted at: 2:15 PM EDT

by Roberta Furger

(IDG) -- If you have children over the age of nine or 10--particularly boys--they are probably playing computer and video games that you aren't likely to see reviewed in the pages of Computers Made Easy. These games have titles like Redneck Rampage, Total Annihilation and Resident Evil. They feature scantily clad women, testosterone-crazed men and enough weaponry to obliterate a small country. And while they are billed as entertainment, these games have a far greater--and potentially more damaging--impact than the arcade games played by younger kids.

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By the time most children reach the fourth or fifth grade, they've learned to distinguish between the educational games that delighted them when they were younger and the "cool" games that are now the source of endless conversations with their friends. They want a challenge, a thrill. And--often unbeknownst to their parents--that desire can lead them to games more graphic and violent than many R-rated movies.

Most parents wouldn't, for example, let a nine-year-old sit through a movie packed with mutilation, death and sexual situations. But that's exactly what young gamers get in Duke Nukem. The goal is to annihilate aliens, but extraterrestrials aren't the only ones getting blown away--women, which the game refers to as "babes" or "hot vixens," also get caught in the crossfire.

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The aggression factor

And just as with TV and movies, the style and content of game play has a profound influence on children's attitudes and the way they view the world. Although child-development experts disagree about whether playing violent games can actually lead to aggressive behavior, most acknowledge that the fast, adrenaline-pumping pace evokes a definite physiological and psychological response in those who play them.

Children who enjoy computer and video games aren't just passive viewers of the violence. "They're actually the ones knocking people off," says Michael Brody, M.D., a child psychiatrist and member of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Although most young gamers are able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, Dr. Brody emphasizes that some aren't able to make that distinction. "And the last thing these kids need to be doing is engaging in violent game play."

Will violent games lead to violence in healthy, well-adjusted children? Probably not, says Dr. Brody, but that doesn't mean the games don't have any effect. "At best, our children are engaged in a culture of disrespect for others when they play these games; at worst, they become desensitized to violence," he says.

So what do we, as parents, do about it? "We start by paying attention to the games our children are playing," says Patrick O'Heffernan, chairman of the Children's Information Trust. That means reading the boxes before buying a new game. It means sitting with your child to see how he or she acts when playing it. And it means taking the time to play the game yourself to familiarize yourself with its content and style. Unfortunately, many parents fail to do any of these things.

Parents can also learn a lot about game content and appropriateness by investigating the ratings assigned by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) and the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). Both groups rate software based on the age-appropriateness of the content, much the way movie and television content is rated. The ESRB has an excellent explanation of its rating system at its Web site (

Parents should pay particular attention to games rated Teen (ages 13 and up) or older. According to the ESRB, "games in this category may contain violent scenes, mild profanity and/or mild sexual themes." Those receiving the Mature (17 and up) rating may be only slightly more violent but are likely to contain more profanity and more sexual themes.

Once you've educated yourself, talk to your kids about their choices--and yours--for game play. If you decide that some games are off-limits, discuss that decision with them, says Patricia Greenfield Ph.D., a psychology professor at UCLA and editor of Interacting With Video, a compendium of papers dealing with violence and gender issues as they relate to video and computer games. "Discussing these issues tends to neutralize the negative effects of the violence," she says. So even if you can't keep them from playing Doom at a friend's house, at least you can make sure they understand that actual death and destruction are not fun and games.

It's not enough just to ban certain types of games, adds O'Heffernan. Rather, offer alternatives. If fast-paced action is what your child is interested in, suggest one of the many NBA or NFL titles. If challenge or adventure is the lure, then suggest Myst, or its sequel, Riven.

Finally, Dr. Brody recommends moderation. "Kids who are sitting in front of their PC playing games all the time are not playing with other kids; they aren't doing anything physical," he cautions. "Sure, kids need a way to zone out, but they also need balance."

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