Video Games May Not Be All That Bad
By Tara Parker-Pope / Wall Street Journal
Sex and violence in videogames have many parents considering pulling the plug on the console, but banning videogames from the home probably isn't the answer.
Science is far from conclusive on the impact of videogames on children, but there is some evidence that they aren't all bad.
To be sure, many popular games are packed with violence and gore. Most recently, the popular game "Grand Theft Auto" has been in the news after reports it contains graphic sex and violence. Studies have linked exposure to violent content in videogames with lower empathy and a more pro-violent attitude, notes Jeanne B. Funk, psychology professor at the University of Toledo. An emerging body of research also has found differences in brain-activation patterns when children play violent and nonviolent videogames. Whether those changes are meaningful or have any lasting impact isn't known.
In fact, real-world violence statistics don't signal a link between videogames and violence. From 1994 to 2001, when videogame use surged, the rate of juvenile arrests for violent crimes fell 44 percent to the lowest level since 1983, according to an article on media literacy and children in the July issue of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America.
Research shows videogames have become an important component of kids' play and socialization. One study of Japanese kindergartners found that children who played videogames together developed better social skills. A recent survey by Harvard researchers of more than 1,200 seventh- and eighth-graders found that only about 1 percent of children studied had never played videogames.
Until more is known, videogame researchers say parents can take steps to limit children's exposure to game violence.
• Move the games to a high-traffic area. Putting the game in a public place rather than in a child's room can influence how your children play. In a Harvard focus group of teenage boys, for instance, one child noted he wouldn't play a game with nudity because he was worried about his mother walking by.
• Look beyond the rating system. Parents can learn more about the game-rating system at http://www.esrb.com/, but ratings offer only general descriptions of the type of content. For instance, in the SWAT game series, the player gets the most points by arresting the bad guys and keeping everyone safe without violence. But that game has the same rating and description as a game such as "Manhunt," where the player can't progress unless he or she kills a lot of people, notes Harvard's Olson. Go to videogame Web sites such as http://www.gamespot.com/ to read reviews of games and watch videos that show you the type of graphics and content you can expect from a game. Another site, http://www.commonsensemedia.org/ offers reviews of games from parents and children, and practical insights on a game's content, such as the type of swear words used.
• Look at bestseller lists. Parents can see what children are playing by looking at Web sites such as Amazon.com and gamespot.com that post lists of the most popular games. While games such as "Grand Theft Auto" are top sellers, so are sports games like the Madden series, where the player not only plays football but manages a team. Another popular series includes "Railroad Tycoon" and "Zoo Tycoon," complex games where players manage a railroad or zoo. "You can get your kids to do things that are mentally challenging without making them play educational titles," notes Steven Johnson, author of "Everything Bad is Good For You," a book about the increasing complexity of popular culture, including videogames
• Treat games like other media. While there isn't conclusive research about how much video playing is too much, researchers say parents should think about a child's entire media diet of television, movies, books and videogame playing, and set reasonable limits to encourage other types of play and family interaction. In surveys, first- and second-graders play videogames about nine hours a week for girls and 11 hours a week for boys. By the 8th and 9th grade, that changes to 13 hours a week for boys and five hours for girls.
• Play the games yourself. Parents who take the time to learn about the games children play will be surprised at how much skill it requires -- and how much children enjoy watching their parents struggle to play. "It's no different than anything else children do, a parent should be involved," says Dorothy Salonius-Pasternak, a Harvard research associate who has studied the impact of videogames on children. "And it can be a really positive experience for children to develop a level of mastery that their parents don't have."