Why Video Games Aren't Turning Kids' Brains To Mush

By Gannett News Service
It's summer vacation. The kids have acres of time to fill. So, of course, they're in the basement playing some video game that involves either weapons or skateboards.
Who can doubt that their minds are turning into chipped beef on toast as they sit in the dim light, their educations and social lives leaking away? As a conscientious baby boomer parent, you might feel a gravitational pull to say: "Turn that off and read a book!"
Or play piano, or run outside, or get in a street fight. Anything but play more video games.
Except that kind of thinking might be all wrong.
The sense that video games are bad is about to become as dated as the four basic food groups, the philosophy of spare the rod and spoil the child, and asbestos as a safety feature.
Video games might be about the best thing your kids can do to ensure their future success. Better, even, than reading. At least that's what two books (ironically enough) and a growing chunk of conventional wisdom are saying.
Yes. Right. If you want your offspring to pay your Florida condo bills when you retire, better start telling them to put down that stupid Faulkner novel and get back to "Halo 2."
Which feels a lot like the moment in "Sleeper" when Woody Allen finds out that in 2173, cream pies and hot fudge are health foods.
The most prominent argument for video games comes from Steven Johnson, author of the much-discussed and often tsk-tsked book "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter." Johnson's previous book, "Mind Wide Open," was about the brain, which gave him insights into how video games affect the minds of kids.
"With most video games, at every point you have to make decisions," Johnson says. "You have to think about patterns and long-term goals and resources, and then you make decisions and get feedback from the game, and use that to adjust your decisions."
Which is exactly what a Silicon Valley entrepreneur does every day on his or her way to becoming a multibillionaire. Games such as "Halo 2," "EverQuest" or even the lurid "Grand Theft Auto" hone the kind of decision-making abilities that define a successful person.
"And whatever the benefits of reading, you are not making decisions," Johnson says. "You are following someone else's decisions."
Pair that with the social research in a book out late last year, "Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever," by John Beck and Mitchell Wade. They say that video games' importance in the lives of anyone growing up in the 1990s and beyond is changing the way coming generations will work and manage data.
Part of the book's message is: If your kids aren't fluent in video games, they'll wind up at a disadvantage on the job and socially.
"It's hard to see your kids playing a game and feel happy about it," says co-author Wade, a mid-40s parent who struggles with his own boomer instincts that say reading is better than gaming. "But it's worth asking how we know gaming is NOT good for them. If the assumption is that kids should be reading a book, I'm not sure how much good reading will do because it's so unrelated to the way they'll be living their lives."
Isn't the violence bad in video games? Well, yes, but for some reason we don't worry much about violence in books. So what if there's a bloodbath in "King Lear?" Or boys kill boys in "Lord of the Flies?" They're classics!
Now, the authors of the video game books are not saying books are as dead as vinyl records. After all, these individuals decided that writing books was the best way to communicate their points. Writing remains perhaps the most efficient way to get across a lot of complex information. And reading helps kids learn language and how to structure a narrative — both helpful when, say, pitching a company to venture capitalists or arguing a case in court.
But the authors are challenging the belief that books are automatically better than video games. Johnson writes a funny bit about what critics would say if video games had been around for 300 years and books were just invented. The send-up calls books "tragically isolating" and says libraries "are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers."
Here's the test, though: How do Johnson and Wade respond when their kids disappear into video games for hours at a time?
Both say they basically let it go but add that if your kid has an addictive personality and does nothing else, then it's probably time to intervene.
Johnson makes the point that all video games are not created equal. Racing games and shooting games probably don't do a young mind much good. But story games such as "The Legend of Zelda" or "Halo 2" or so-called god games such as "The Sims" or "RollerCoaster Tycoon" push kids to think and make decisions. Parents might want to choose which games their kids play for hours on end.
While you're at it, you might want to ask your kids to teach you how to play their favorite games.
Back in the frontier days, illiterate farmers probably didn't think highly of their young-uns "wasting time" reading. It's not that much different for boomers and video games. It's difficult to like something you stink at.



What Lurks Inside Video Games

Most hidden material is tame, but one case stretches believability of game ratings
By Gloria Goodale Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor GLENDALE, CALIF. –
The video-game industry, it seems, just can't get it right. Long derided for the extreme violence in some games, the industry is now under fire for sexual content - hidden, X-rated material allegedly buried inside this year's bestseller, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
On one side, high-profile critics such as US Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Leland Yee, California Assembly Speaker pro tem, say the game publisher has buried adult content inside the game, easily uncovered by young fans with access to special software known as Hot Coffee, downloaded from the Internet.
On the other side, Rockstar Games, publisher of "Grand Theft Auto," insists the game was not designed with the X-rated material inside and that the software is what's known as a "mod," or modification - software that alters game codes and creates something new. An investigation by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is pending.
Beyond the debate over who is to blame for this hidden content, larger questions loom. How often does a game modification introduce sexual or violent material that exceeds the game's ESRB rating? Further, how do parents know exactly what they're getting for their children now that online modifications are almost as much a part of a purchase as the game itself?
Because "unlocking" new material is a key goal in nearly all games, the answers can be complicated, says Dan Morris, editor in chief of PC Gamer magazine, who notes that an episode like the one with Grand Theft Auto is rare. The simplest kinds of unlockable material hidden in games are known as "Easter eggs." These items are usually gags, Mr. Morris says, "things like giving somebody a head three times too big or dropping a familiar figure such as 'The Hulk' into the middle of some other game."
Another form of unlockable material involves "cheats" - a series of keystrokes that helps players find shortcuts to new levels in a game.
While such content is hidden inside a game's original software, the "mod" community - a somewhat chaotic amalgam of fans, amateur game designers, and hackers - takes a game's original code and plays around with it. But few mods are malicious. "More than 99 percent is a benign extension of the game itself, or absurdly silly," says Morris.
Among the many teenagers taking advantage of game cheats and mods is Charlie Smith of Glendale, Calif. An avid video-game player, Charlie competes in online leagues with his fellow gamers, and he has downloaded mods for the controversial "Grand Theft Auto," or GTA, as well as other games. Charlie hasn't used the Hot Coffee program, he says, nor has he come across any others that might change a game's rating in the same way.
The mods he uses do things like allow his character to fly and make him less likely to die during a game. He doesn't know anyone who's looked at the Hot Coffee mod, he adds. "That seems like sort of an isolated thing," Charlie says.
Far from being a negative force, the mod community in general has come to play an important role in the development of the industry, say media watchers.
"It extends the life of a game," says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. "If I know I can buy, say, 'Quake' and get 20 hours of play, but I know that the developer has provided tools for the mod community to work with, and it encourages mod development, then I know I can look forward to unlimited hours of game-play with extra levels and new tools," he says.
The biggest problem facing the mod community is not rogue programmers but a lack of understanding by mainstream America, Mr. Della Rocca says. When it comes to children and video games, parents need to be as involved in choosing age-appropriate material as they would be with movies or TV, he says.
"Many of these parents and politicians still view games as toys for kids," says Della Rocca, "and if that's your model, and you're presented with such an adult game as 'GTA,' of course, you're going to freak out."
The sophistication and speed of developments in the video-game industry have made the task of choosing age-appropriate games extremely difficult for most parents, Della Rocca adds. "We're talking about technophobia at a fundamental level," he says, "fear of new technology and ignorance of what games really are."
The confusion surrounding video-game content is expressed by Charlie Smith's mother, Kathy O'Dell.
"I'm pretty illiterate. I've heard talk about cheats and codes and all that, and I just throw up my hands," she says. "This and a lot of rap music make me feel like I'm just from another planet. I just don't get it."
The National Institute on Media and the Family has issued what it calls its first national parental warning, hoping to get parents to learn more about the video-game industry and how it works. "The average Internet-savvy kid knows how to get a mod, and parents need to know about this," says spokesman Blois Olson.
The group hopes to strip away the confusion about what's going on, using the leverage of a high-profile incident like the "GTA" modification to get retailers and game manufacturers to clarify game content and, most important, to wake up parents.
"Parents just don't understand," Mr. Olson says. "The message is that it's time to watch what these kids are buying and what they're playing."


Game Industry's Brass Ring: Female Player

By Scott Banerjee Knight Ridder News Service
SAN FRANCISCO - Engrossed in her Nintendo DS hand-held on the bus ride to work, Melinda Whitehouse looked up and realized she had missed her stop - again. For months she's been getting high on ''Wario Ware: Touched,'' her latest pickup in the hyperkinetic puzzle-game series. But her video-game addiction doesn't stop there. She plays ''Kingdom of Loathing'' on her PC at work, then heads home to log an hour of "Animal Crossing'' on her Gamecube console before switching over to ''Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando'' on the PlayStation 2 in her bedroom. The San Franciscan is bent on reserving early copies of ''Nintendogs'' and ''Zelda: Twilight Princess'' at her local Gamestop later this year, and she plans on taking a day off from work when ''Animal Crossing'' arrives for the DS in November. Whitehouse, 35, says she plays for about three hours each day. She is a ''hard-core'' gamer, and the avid collector of ''Hello Kitty'' T-shirts is also evidence that the fickle video-game industry, which has made a mint catering to the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, can rouse the women's market. It's a bet that has flat-lined in the past, but clever new games, new platforms and targeted marketing campaigns are the latest evidence that, this time, a lucrative market of female gamers will emerge. One thing we can be sure of: The women's market won't grow on the back of testosterone-fueled blockbuster franchises like ''Madden NFL,'' ''Grand Theft Auto'' and ''Halo.'' Rather, bets are on fresh titles like ''Nintendogs,'' ''The Movies,'' ''Bratz Rock Angels'' and ''NeoPets,'' as well as forthcoming versions of established franchises like ''The Sims,'' ''SSX'' and ''Dora the Explorer.'' Like Whitehouse, many female gamers got started with simple yet addictive arcade, puzzle, card and strategy games both in game rooms and on their PCs. Now a bevy of titles is beckoning them to hand-held devices such as the DS, the PlayStation Portable from Sony and even mobile phones. But the industry's ultimate hope is to whet girls' appetites for console gaming, where multimillion-dollar-budgeted games account for 70 percent of the industry's software revenues. ''To sustain the industry's growth rate, the publishers need to develop the kind of games that turn the casual female gamer into a core gamer,'' said Anita Frazier, an analyst with NDP Group. ''The casual female gamer is underserved; the challenge is to convert them.'' This conversion could eventually be gravy for video-game publishers' revenue figures and stock prices, which have largely languished this spring amid an ongoing transition to the next generation of console hardware. But a respectable foundation on which the industry can build the ranks of female customers appears to be in place, as 43 percent of all gamers now are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average female gamer over the age of 18 logs 7.4 hours a week, a number that's closing the gap on male gamers, who play for an average of 7.6 hours a week. That growth, however, does not appear to be occurring on the console, where IDC reports the percentage of women as the household's most active gamer has remained flat at 30 percent since 1999, a time spanning the entire current-generation console hardware cycle. Whitehouse, the 35-year-old San Franciscan, says she doesn't play ''shooter,'' ''action'' or many sports games - categories that represent 57.5 percent of all games sold for consoles, according to NPD. According to Virginia McArthur, senior producer of ''The Sims'' hand-held titles at Electronic Arts Inc., women are buyers of games with smart, immediate rewards and engaging play that gives them a certain element of control. ''They choose to play again because the game rewards them and not because they got killed, lost or were taken back to same screen over and over again,'' said McArthur. ''The Sims'' - arguably the most engaging franchise of all time for female gamers - boasts a following that's more than 50 percent female, mostly on the PC. But the franchise has since expanded to the console, DS and PlayStation Portable (known as PSP), selling over 54 million total units since 2000. When Electronic Arts introduced its original version for the PC in 2000, women accounted for 40 percent of the game's registered users. Within a year, the split evened out to 50/50. EA began its marketing strategy targeting the male gamer on MTV and Comedy Central, but then - sensing a trend - took out ads in such female lifestyle media outlets as ''Teen People'' and the WB network, and it started placing product at Hollywood parties. This year, publishers are unleashing a spate of games that they hope can finally hit the sweet spot. EA is upping its ante for the October release of snowboarding game ''SSX: On Tour,'' as female gamers grow increasingly keen on the upstart sport. The game allows players to customize their rider's hair style, hair color and body shape, and they can even apply makeup - and outfit them with clothes and accessories available in stores this snowboarding season. EA says it's expanding its ad buys in female-oriented magazines and programs for the fourth iteration of the franchise, as well as offering Web logs on the popular social networking site MySpace.com. Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., which has risen to prominence due to action and sports games, thinks it has a couple of female category winners on its hands later this year in ''Dora the Explorer'' for the PS2 and the ''Civilization'' series on the PC. THQ Inc., which has a lengthier PC game lineup than most rival publishers, has also benefited from women playing console games ''SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie'' and ''Finding Nemo,'' according to surveys from NPD Group. This summer THQ Inc. brings to the table ''Bratz Rock Angelz'' - a game based on the popular line of fashion dolls - for the PlayStation 2, Gamecube, PC and Gameboy Advance. THQ hopes to benefit from a $50 million marketing campaign targeting girls between 6 and 12 - as well as their parents - to sell the game, dolls, accessories, home video and a music CD. Even as publishers develop an assortment of new titles, research reveals that action and horror franchises have cultivated an ongoing appeal among women - especially when those titles have a female protagonist. Gamespot Trax, a new service that taps into the interests of more than 6 million users, reveals that games in the action/horror category, such as ''Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly,'' ''Silent Hell 3,'' ''Resident Evil'' and ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' have fared disproportionately well among women. Further, focused research from NPD reveals that racing games such as ''Grand Tourismo'' and ''Need for Speed'' and the skating game ''Tony Hawk's Underground'' have been popular among women.


How Do Video Games Get Rated?

Warning: contains cartoon violence and partial nudity.
By Daniel EngberPosted Friday, July 15, 2005, at 3:47 PM PT

Grand Theft Auto: Hard Core
Sen. Hillary Clinton has called for an investigation of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas after hackers discovered a secret section of the game that depicts graphic sex acts. The game has a rating of "M," for mature audiences. Clinton says the game probably deserves the more restrictive "AO," for adults only. Where do video game ratings come from?
An industry-funded group called the Entertainment Software Rating Board. The ESRB was founded in 1994 amid chatter that the government would start to regulate game makers. Software developers aren't required by law to submit their games to the ESRB, but many retailers only sell titles that receive a rating from the board. If a company does ask for a rating, it must comply with the rules of the ESRB or face penalties, which can include cash fines and product recalls.
When submitting a game for the board's scrutiny, the developer fills out a questionnaire that describes potentially offensive material, especially sequences involving drugs, sex, or violence. The company must also supply the rating board with the scripts for any scenes with dialogue and material like song lyrics. The package sent to the ESRB will also include a videotape showing the game's basic plot and each questionable scene. Such videos can be several hours long.
At least three raters watch the videotape and answer a series of questions about its content. They are more likely to be homemakers than hard-core gamers. They must be at least 21 years old and have no connection to the video game industry.
Most new games require 50 hours or more to complete, so the ESRB doesn't play titles all the way through. For certain games, members of the board will perform a spot-check using manufacturer-provided cheat codes that allow access to higher or hidden levels. The board combines all of this information to issue a final rating and a set of official content descriptors—like "Use of Alcohol," "Fantasy Violence," "Partial Nudity," and "Comic Mischief."
The ESRB issues seven designations. They range from "EC" (Early Childhood) to "AO," adults only. Most titles receive either an E (for children over the age of 6), or a "T" (for teens over 13). Out of thousands of games that have been reviewed, only 18 have received the AO rating—including such titles as Water Closet: The Forbidden Chamber and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude Uncut and Uncensored.
The new Grand Theft Auto game's M rating includes content descriptors for blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, and drug use. The ESRB suggests that retail stores limit sales of M-rated games to those 17 and older. AO-rated games, almost all of which have the "strong sexual content" tag, are limited to those 18 and older. So, what's the big deal if a game gets bumped up to the higher rating? Big retailers like Wal-Mart won't stock AO-rated games; that means potentially huge revenue losses if you can't eke out an M from the board.
Some game companies submit their product to the board repeatedly to ensure they get a desirable rating. Others send developers to New York City to meet with members of the board. The ESRB generally doesn't say which specific scenes or dialogue should be trimmed to get a more child-friendly rating. But by speaking with the raters in person, a company's representatives might learn, for example, that a particular character is probably a bit too busty for an "E." [Clarification, July 18: Game developers meet with members of the rating board, not the independent "raters" who review and write reports on each game.]


Cheers! Video Games Can Ease Pain

REUTERS[ SUNDAY, JULY 17, 2005 03:20:36 AM]

LONDON: In young children and adolescents they can lead to excessive use and aggressive behaviour, but a leading expert said on Friday that video games ease pain, distract patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and help to develop dexterity. “The degree of attention needed to play such a game can distract the player from the sensation of pain,” said Mark Griffiths, professor at Nottingham University in England. In patients with arm injuries, the games have been used to increase strength and dexterity, while children with learning disabilities have played them to develop spatial ability. “Therapeutic benefits have also been reported for a variety of adult populations, including wheelchair users with spinal cord injuries, people with severe burns and people with muscular dystrophy,” Mr Griffiths said.
Although negative effects, which include wrist pain, hallucinations and repetitive strain injuries, have been widely reported, Mr Griffiths said they tend to be temporary and could be caused by other factors. “Some of these adverse effects seem to be rare and many resolve when the patients no long play the games,” he added. Mr Griffiths, a professor of gambling studies, called for more studies into the long-term effects of video games and what constitutes excessive use. “Further research should examine factors within games such as novelty, users’ preferences and relative levels of challenge and should compare video games with other potentially distracting activities,” Mr Griffiths added

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