NEW YORK — If there was any doubt about the popularity computer and video games have in society, one need only look at sales numbers for 2004. According to the Entertainment Software Association, consumers set a record with sales of $7.3 billion for computer and video games in the United States alone.
Researchers continue to explore the effect computer video games have on the behavior of children and teens, especially when exposed to violent themes and action. While not everyone agrees that those games lead to aggressive behavior, they do agree that parental monitoring is critical.
In May, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, created in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association, released the results of a telephone survey in which a majority of U.S. parents say they “never” allow their children to play Mature-rated computer and video games. The “M” rating designates that a video game is suitable for age 17 and older.
In June, however, research in the United Kingdom from Swiss consultancy firm Modulum concluded that while children and parents are aware of ratings, parents “divorce themselves” from active involvement in deciding what their children play.
How teens and children get their hands on M-rated games is less ambiguous. The software association notes in its 2005 sales, demographic and usage data that parents are present 92% of the time when games are purchased or rented; 87% of the time children receive their parents’ permission before purchasing or renting a game; and 32% of parents play games with their children weekly.
Beyond the ratings, parents also can obtain more information on video games from PSVratings Inc. (www.psvratings.com), which monitors and collects information and incidents of profanity (P), sexuality (S) and violence (V) in the media, including movies, TV and video games.
The firm uses a traffic light logo to rate the entertainment of red, yellow or green, categorizing the extent of profanity, sexuality and violence. The rating system is developed and evaluated by PSVratings’ board of child psychologists and psychiatrists, said founder and Chief Executive Officer David Kinney, “based upon the available research as to the potential negative sociological or psychological outcome of exposure to a child.”
While the International Game Developers Association opposes any effort to restrict creative freedom on any form of art or entertainment, the association's Executive Director Jason Della Rocca said that the issue of violent video games and the possible effect on players does concern fellow game developers.
“They want to better understand if they are having a negative effect,” Della Rocca said. “If they are, they want to understand the effect and what people are concerned about. At the same time, there are developers who say, ‘I am an artist. I am creating art, so tough luck. That's the way expression works.’”
Della Rocca warned against parents taking an “It's-just-a-game” approach with their children's game play.
“One of the reasons that we have this panic over games is that too many politicians, adults, teachers and the media still view [video] games as toys for children,” he added.
Some warned against parents using video games as a babysitting tool.
“If parents are looking to games to raise their children, they have the wrong idea,” said Brock Dubbels, a Minneapolis middle school and high school teacher and researcher at the Center for Human Factors Research and Systems Design at the University of Minnesota. “Violent games are very provocative, because of the way they have been presented as forbidden fruit. What [parents] don't know is that many games are designed for adult consumption.”
At the same time, Dubbels said that society tends to generalize that all video games are aggressive and violent, but that concept is far from the truth.
“There are games that have questionable content,” he said, “but there are games that have interesting content and provide learning experiences for children.”
Jeanne Funk, professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, has evaluated five studies on the effect of violent video games and found that, in every case, a preference for aggressive games was associated with lower empathy and strong pro-violence attitudes.
“I am in agreement with active researchers that think violent video games are one factor that increases the relative risk of aggression in both kids and adults,” Funk said. “There are other risk factors that have a greater impact, such as poverty and abuse, but playing violent video games is something that is more controllable than some other variables.”
A German researcher recently found similar patterns in the brains of young men who were playing a violent video game and subjects who have had brain scans during other simulated violent situations.
To see that more uplifting video games and Christian-based themes get in the hands and minds of young people, three California men created Digital Praise Inc. in 2003.
The Fremont-based company is the brainchild of Peter Fokos, a 25-year veteran of video-game development and director of engineering for the former Learning Co., where he co-created the brands of Carmen Sandiego, Reader Rabbit and Oregon Trail.
After The Learning Co. was acquired, rather than work on gambling or risqué video games, Fokos teamed with friends Tom and Bill Bean. The three men, who first met in Sunday school many years ago, were so committed to the venture that they mortgaged their homes to start the company.
“Most games today are not uplifting; there is no redemptive value to them,” said Bill Bean. “They minimize life, and encourage violence and hatred, and reduce the value of women, minorities and tolerance.”
Digital Praise began distribution in March with two Adventures in Odyssey video games. Designed for children 8 and older, the games can be played on a Windows-based PC or Macintosh computer. Bean estimated the retail price from $20 to $25.
The company plans to release five more games later this year. Both Apple computer and Amazon.com have approached Digital Praise about selling the games.
“Our games have the message of ‘Don't lie, cheat, or steal, and take responsibility for your actions.’ We feel that is what every parent wants for their kids,” Bean added. “You don't have to have Scriptures to communicate that message. Christ led by example; in our game play, we try to get the characters to lead by example.”
Wayne Forrest is based in Providence, Rhode Island.