Whose fault: The uncomfortable debate on video games and children

Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto 3. The game has been the topic of fierce criticism, and often blamed for driving children to violent behavior. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKSTAR GAMES.

By Alexander Leach

This blog post is about video games and the effects on children.

There, maybe that’ll make it easier to write.

I really, really would rather not write this blog post. The entire discourse about the effects of video games on children starts to veer into the ‘vaccines cause autism’ territory in terms of spurious logic and scapegoating and just plain yelling. However, it’s something that has to be addressed, because lawmakers and politicians keep making it an important issue.

With Oklahoma shooting down a proposed tax on violent video games, and the Red Cross debating whether video games should fall under the Geneva Convention, there is still a lobby saying that video games are destructive influences on children, exposing them to thoughtless violence, sex, and glorification of drugs, or whatever else they’re going to fixate on.

Frankly, the war on drugs is a far better use of time and money than forcing regulations on the gaming industry. It boggles my mind that the Red Cross – an organization that’s known for providing aid to dangerous parts of the world – is so disconnected as to think a work of fiction needs to be regulated in this manner. Video games can’t ‘violate international law’ – they’re not real. It’s no more real than a movie or a book, and like those media, video games properly represent violence and fantasy as what it is.

Screenshot from Doom 3, with a demon standing over a bloodied corpse. Doom 3 is rated Mature under the ESRB rating. PHOTO COURTESY OF ID SOFTWARE.

We already have the ESRB rating system, produced by the industry itself and approved by United States congress, which tells people what kind of content is in a game and what age it’s recommended for. Stores aren’t supposed to sell these games to people under the age, just like movie rental places aren’t supposed to rent Saw to a five-year-old. Faced with Joe Lieberman and Jack Thompson, the gaming industry has done a good job of regulating itself by doing everything in their power to ensure that games are clearly marked for content, so that parents won’t wind up buying Mortal Kombat Extra Bloody Edition for their toddler.

Yes, I do think that it’s the parents’ responsibility to decide what’s appropriate for their children, just as it’s a responsible adult’s job to decide whether a game’s content is right for them. I also think that children as young as twelve have enough of a grasp on reality that they won’t think that Grand Theft Auto is an acceptable way to act in real life – those that don’t most likely have other issues that aren’t caused by exposure to what are, essentially, interactive stories.

The New York Times has an interesting article, detailing a study linking ‘pathological gaming’ to people with depression. Now, before I’m quoted out of context (too late), I’m pulling a quote that summarizes the intent of the study and clarifies the findings:

But Dr. Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, says his latest results don’t prove that playing video games causes depression. Rather, he says, in young people a range of mental health problems and what he calls “pathological gaming” may develop in tandem, much as illnesses like the flu and pneumonia can set off one another and lead to new problems.

“You can get the flu, and then get pneumonia, which is a different thing, but it kind of came along with the flu, and flu made you at greater risk for it,” Dr. Gentile said. “And then, once you got the pneumonia, you’re at risk from something else.”

I’m rather heartened by this study. While video games don’t cause violent or antisocial behaviour, marathon gaming – playing for hours and neglecting your health – is in fact a concern for any parent. Stories of people dying because they play 50 straight hours of Starcraft crop up from time to time, and illustrate the need to be responsible with your gaming time. However, there’s nothing inherently addictive to gaming – you can get up and walk away at anytime, unlike quitting cigarettes or heroin.

That the scientist clarifies that gaming is not the cause of this depression is a step in the right direction for addressing the issue properly, which means that people can approach any actual problems, rather than imagined ones.

For children, it’s easy enough to watch to see how much your kids are playing and regulate their activities accordingly. Limiting how much they play a week – like my parents did with me for most of my young life – is entirely viable. Talking to them about a game’s content, reading up on the game and its content, is a great idea too. It’s up to the parent – the industry’s given them the tools to do so.

Sorry to sound sanctimonious – I’d simply prefer if people would put their time and effort to good use rather than attacking a perceived threat. It is, ultimately, up to the parents.

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