Video games go from worse to unspeakable

Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Last update: November 30, 2005 at 7:52 PM
Printer friendly E-mail this story Katherine KerstenParents know that today's movies often contain scenes that would send most families running for the exits. TV is no sanctuary, as anyone realizes who turns on the set after 8 p.m. On the Internet, sites featuring Paris Hilton in various states of undress are, well, "hot." But at least we can breathe easy when our kids are in their bedrooms playing their favorite video games, right?

Wrong. This week, the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family released its 10th annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card, along with a 10-year review of the video game industry. Together, these should start alarm bells ringing in parents' heads.

The institute's staff members aren't prudes trying to protect kids from a few naughty words. "Take 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,' " says David Walsh, a psychologist and the institute's founder and president. "In this game -- the top seller of 2004 -- kids can hack prostitutes to death with chain saws. Today we're seeing things we never saw in the late 1990s, like cannibalism. The f-word is now common in video games. Profanity is up 3,000 percent. Sexual content is up 800 percent."

Adding to parents' worries, the institute reports that every year kids spend more hours playing video games. "Our research suggests that one in seven teen boys actually exhibits the signs of addiction," Walsh says.

"Take out the words 'alcohol' or 'cocaine' and substitute 'video games,' " he says. "For some kids, all the behaviors are there: lying in order to play, getting up in the middle of the night to play, thinking about games constantly when they're not playing."

Parents often trust the video games rating system -- T for teen (13 and over), M for mature (17 and over). But Walsh says the system is broken beyond repair. "It's controlled by the industry. Sales considerations are driving the system, not concern for the welfare of kids."

Parents can't trust the retail gatekeepers either. In the institute's nationwide secret shopper survey, children found it much easier to buy M-rated games this year than last. Girls as young as 9 were able to buy M-rated games 46 percent of the time, up from 8 percent last year. Boys were able to buy the games 42 percent of the time.

There was one notable exception in this bleak retail scene: Best Buy, the Richfield-based consumer electronics giant, which has 910 stores in North America. Best Buy scored a perfect 100 percent in clerk enforcement, the first time this has happened in the survey's five-year history. Kelly Groehler, a Best Buy spokesperson, says: "We require age verification at the cash register from any customer who purchases an M-rated game, regardless of apparent age. Video and PC games are a big part of our business, so we take this very seriously."

Walsh believes that protecting our children from antisocial video games should be a top national priority. "Whoever tells the stories defines the culture. Video games have become dominant story tellers for many kids."

Hats off to the National Institute for Media and the Family for defending American children's welfare, and to Best Buy for setting an outstanding example in corporate citizenship. Now we parents need to sit down and have a serious talk with our kids.

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