Violence Under the Christmas Tree

A new report shows that 80% of violent video games are sold during the “holiday shopping season.” The Register looks at what’s out there — and what parents can do.

DRYDEN, Mich. — Aside from birthdays, Christmas is the time when teenagers Paul and Mike Brestovansky ask for video games as gifts.

“As far as luxury items, that’s all they want,” said their mother, Laura.

Still, she limits the games they own.

“I only let them play E-rated [Everyone] games. I don’t let them play the T-rated [Teen] games because I have a 6-year-old daughter who is often in the same room with them,” said Brestovansky. Neither my husband nor I will allow M-rated [Mature, 17 and above] or ‘first-person shooter’ games in our home.”

The Brestovansky children aren’t alone. According to a recent Game Crazy poll, 80% of children age eight to 17 plan to ask for video games as a Christmas present. Other reports suggest that upwards of 80% of violent video games are sold at this time of the year. The increasing prevalence of such games is causing concern among many experts.

Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy and the neighborhood community group Hood Research annually release a list of the 10 most violent video games, urging parents not to purchase them for their children because of the violence and drug-related content. The titles from this year’s list include games with names such as “Killer-7,” “Manhunt” and “God of War.”

Lenoir-Rhyne College associate professor of psychology Karen Dill is an expert on the topic. She has studied violence in video games since graduate school in the mid-1990s. According to Dill, hundreds of research studies have paralleled those conducted on television and movie violence over the past 40 years.

“Exposure to violent images leads to more aggression, violent thoughts and violent emotions,” said Dill.

The key struggle, said Dill, is trying to convince people that the media can have a negative effect.

“All our free time is spent with media,” said Dill. “American children spend about 45 hours a week looking at screens. Yet, people don’t accept the notion that they are affected by the media.”

“Media violence isn’t going to have an immediate and extreme impact,” added Dill. “Its effects are more subtle and long-term.”

As one example of the media’s impact, Dill has a study under review by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In it, she demonstrated that when men were exposed to sexist images of men and women, they were more likely to show a crass attitude toward sexual harassment.

While the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) provides ratings for video games, ratings alone do not keep children from playing inappropriate games. Recent studies show that parents don’t understand the ratings system.

A MediaWise-Harris Interactive poll claimed that 72% of parents surveyed had little to no knowledge of the ESRB rating system. Up to 38% of parents reported not playing or monitoring what games their children are playing. 50% of gamers age eight to 12 admitted playing M-rated games.

Dill pointed out that while the ratings system is helpful, it has its problems.

“All media ratings systems in this country are funded by their own industry,” said Dill. “The ESRB are all employees of the industry.”

Overall, the MediaWise-Harris poll found that parental involvement is much lower than it should be in supervising the role of video games in children’s lives.

That has led others to be concerned about the habits developed by frequent gaming.

“There certainly can be a link between video gaming and Internet addiction,” said Bernardine Sister Patrice Klausing, a licensed professional counselor and author of Breaking Free of the Web: Catholics and Internet Addiction (St. Anthony Messenger, 2007). “People who begin to play video games excessively may have started out with legitimate needs to reduce stress, but when it becomes their primary relationship, real relationships cease to matter. Very often the ones doing frequent game playing may develop an addictive personality.”

Even the Brestovanskys, who control the games played and the amount of time they are played, said they could see how that could become a problem.

“We have the television in the living room where everyone can see it and where media consumption can be controlled. During the school year, they can use it, at most, an hour a day. During the summer we let them play it just on weekends,” said Brestovansky. “If it was left up to them, they would abuse it.”

Sister Patrice said that she would like to see the Church directly address the topic of addiction. In doing research for her book, she was surprised to see that addiction isn’t mentioned in any of the Church’s documents or encyclicals.

“The word ‘addiction’ doesn’t appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” said Sister Patrice. “Perhaps the U.S. bishops need to consider writing a pastoral on the topic. It’s certainly an area that is ripe with material and timeliness.”

Also, computer addictions can impact anyone, at any stage of life.

“Gender isn’t a safeguard,” said Sister Patrice. She said that while boys may become addicted to action-adventure games, girls can become addicted to shopping online or virtual communities.

“To get sanity back into the use there needs to be a process or agreement of sane use that is boundaried and limited with accountability to a spouse, parent or boss,” said the nun.

Sister Patrice added that there’s a generation gap that contributes to the crisis.

“Younger people are very in touch with this, but there’s a whole generation, including pastors, that doesn’t know what’s going on” in terms of gaming and Internet addiction.

The news isn’t all bad.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that senior citizens are finding video games such as the Nintendo’s Wii useful for boosting hand-eye coordination and providing activity to those who might live sedentary lives. One chain of retirement communities in Illinois has provided a Wii in each of its facilities.

Others stress that there are both negative and positive games out there, including many that can help teach valuable skills.

Dill admitted that she has played “Guitar Hero” with friends. She believes the popular music video game can help improve a person’s musical rhythm.

While Brestovansky’s sons are the major video game players, 6-year-old Mary Beth has her favorites as well.

“She plays ‘Nintendogs,’ a game where you raise puppies and learn money management,” said Brestovansky. “My cousin’s kids have ‘Cooking Mama,’ where you chop vegetables and learn about cooking. There are studies that show that it helps with hand-eye coordination and that video gamers in general have a potential to be good surgeons because of the dexterity required by some of the games.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.