Video-Game Violence: Higher Stakes

New Generation of Products Raises Fears

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LOS ANGELES, JUNE 4, 2005 ( Details of the new generation of video games consoles were released during the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. The video games industry has evolved into a high-stakes industry, with sales of video and computer-game software in the United States alone hitting $7.3 billion last year, the Washington Post reported May 18.

The increased processing capacity and advanced graphics on the new consoles has some observers concerned that the violence depicted in some of the most popular games will be more realistic — and attractive.

Last Saturday lawmakers in Illinois voted to ban the sale of violent or sexually explicit video games to minors, the Associated Press reported June 1. The state’s governor, Rod Blagojevich, proposed the ban late last year after hearing about a video game which puts the player in the role of President John Kennedy’s assassin. Similar bans in other states, however, have been struck down by federal courts, on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment, the AP noted.

Earlier this year the Spanish daily newspaper El País reported on two studies that criticized the levels of violence and sex in video games. A Jan. 9 article noted that around 7 million children and adults in Spain now play video games. The industry generates more revenue, around 800 million euros ($981 million) in 2003, than either movies (636 million euros) or music (550 million euros).

A report published by Enrique J. Díez, a professor at the University of León, analyzed the 250 best-selling games on the market and he also interviewed 5,000 users, ranging from 6 to 24 years of age. He concluded that the players ended up considering violence as something «trivial.»

Díez acknowledged that there is no definitive proof of a direct link between video games and violent conduct on the part of individuals. He did conclude, however, that there is a strong risk of creating insensitivity toward violence as a result of the games.

Another report, based on an analysis of 50 video games, was published by the Spanish branch of Amnesty International. It criticized the fact that more than half of them fomented the abuse of human rights. Behaviors such as assassinations, rapes, slavery, torture and extermination of civilians in war zones were common features, according to Amnesty director Esteban Beltrán.

Not all bad

But the video game industry is not all violence and sex. In a report on the recent Los Angeles Expo, the Wall Street Journal on May 12 observed that «Despite a preponderance of gritty games, publishers still are pumping out games for children.» One adventure game for children, the article noted, has sold 42 million copies since its release in the mid-1980s.

The Associated Press explained last Jan. 9 how one company, Activision Publishing, has produced several games suitable for children. The company’s president, Kathy Vrabeck, who has a 7-year-old son, said she would hesitate before letting him play some of the other, more violent games, which the company also promotes.

The article also explained that the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory body set up by the gaming industry, has rated more than 10,000 video games. According to their data, 57% of all games rated in 2003 were «E,» suitable for children 6 and older, compared with a combined 42% for «T» and «M» games, for teens and mature audiences.

There are also attempts at developing Christian games, the BBC reported May 24. The article profiled Ralph Bagley, who began developing alternative games in 1996. So far his company, N’Lightning Software, has sold some 80,000 copies of his «Catechumen» game. And earlier this year, Bagley founded the Christian Game Developers Foundation, with the aim of further stimulating the production of Christian games.

«Simply forbidding our children from playing video games is not the answer,» he said. «We have to give them quality alternatives that match the excitement of secular games while promoting Christian values — without the violent or sexually explicit content.»

One of the obstacles is financing. Several million dollars are needed to develop and promote a new game. Still, at the May expo the company Crave Entertainment managed to release its «Bible Game,» which casts players as contestants on a game show, having to answer questions on a variety of biblical topics.

Other attempts to harness video games for constructive ends include the «Food Force» game developed by the U.N. World Food Program. In an April 12 press release the agency said the game tries to teach children about the logistical challenges of delivering food aid in a major humanitarian crisis.

It is set on a fictitious island, Sheylan, which is affected by drought and war. The game sets children the task of completing six missions that reflect real-life obstacles faced by WFP in its emergency responses both to the tsunami and other hunger crises. The game’s Web site also includes education material for use by parents and teachers.

Neil Gallagher, WFP director of communications, explained that the game not only provides an action-packed alternative to the gratuitous violence in other video games. It also «will generate kids’ interest and understanding about hunger, which kills more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined,» he said.

Effects on emotions

There is legitimate cause for concern over violence, both in video games and in the media overall. London’s Times newspaper on Feb. 18 reported that children exposed to violence face a significant risk of displaying aggressive behavior.

A study carried out by the University of Birmingham found that both the «passive viewing» of television and film and «interactive viewing» of video games have substantial short-term effects on children’s emotions.

The lead author, Kevin Browne, said the study showed the need for guidelines to help parents to gauge when and how to protect their children from the increasingly bloodthirsty, sexually explicit and amoral content of some video games and films.

The article noted that public pressure obliged the withdrawal of one game last year, after it was linked to the murder of a 14-year-old boy. And another British teen-ager last year confessed to having watched a violent game nearly 100 times before killing his best friend. The teen-ager later said he said he had been instructed by the main character of the game to commit the crime.

Another study, prepared by the Center on Media and Child Health at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, also raised concerns on violence in the media. Published in January by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the report concentrated on the issue of media use by the youngest children, up to 6 years old. Even at this stage they are heavily exposed to the media. One study carried out in 2003 found that 30% of children up to 3 years old and 43% of children 4 to 6 years old have televisions in their bedrooms.

The report noted that in the early years of development children are particularly vulnerable and the experiences in these years lay the groundwork for the future. Many leading media researchers, the report affirmed, «believe that the evidence that media violence contributes to anxiety, desensitization, and increased aggression has been compelling and virtually unanimous.»

There is good reason, therefore, to be concerned over violence in video games and the media. But, as technology continues to develop, Christians also have the challenge to create positive alternatives.

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