Keeping kids from violent video games

Warren Stanley doesn't play video games in arcades as much these days. The lanky teen has a Nintendo 64 at home and says his parents pay close attention to the games he plays.

But he can't say the same thing about many of his classmates. "I have friends who spend their allowance in the machines until it is all gone," says Warren. "Most of my class likes the blood-and-guts or combat types best."

Now, the Arkansas General Assembly is considering lending parents a helping hand. It is one of a growing number of states taking aim at violent games in public arcades.

If a bill now winding its way through the state House eventually passes, Arkansas would ban games full of blood and gore from public view and make them off limits for youths under 18. One year after the Jonesboro school shootings here, the move is emblematic of a new desire among lawmakers - both in Arkansas and nationwide - to limit young people's access to violent influences.

"The video games basically numb our youth to the issue of ... violence or ... violent acts," says Republican Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, the author of the bill.

The push to monitor arcade games more closely has been mounting during the past few years. Last year, Pennsylvania and Florida tried to pass laws that would limit access to violent games, but both bills failed. Also, last summer, the arcade industry - along with Democratic US Sens. Joseph Liebermann of Connecticut and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin - unveiled a ratings system for coin-operated video games. It included parental advisories and color-coded content warning stickers.

The system is voluntary, but many industry officials have voiced their support.

"As parents and responsible members of the business community, we share many of the concerns ... about the levels of violence in a limited number of coin-operated video games," said Mike Rudowicz, the president of the Chicago-based American Amusement Machine Association, in a statement released last year.

Still, the warning-label system is not enough for parents in Arkansas, who are rallying around Lieutenant Governor Rockefeller's bill. It would target games rated R for restricted and MA for mature audiences. Parents and legislators want these games placed in a back room, much like adult films in video stores, away from children's eyes.

Warren's mother, Ann Stanley, says this is a good idea.

"These games are the pinball games of the 1990s, but far more vicious than a silver ball rolling into lighted triangles with girlie pictures on the glass top," says Mrs. Stanley. "The games give the child control. Their skills determine [what happens to] the characters."

Indeed, unlike television, video games make children active participants in the violence.

"They're actually the ones knocking people off," says Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist and member of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

For her part, Stanley says the prevalence of these games can have a harmful effect on young people. If there's "too much exposure to this sort of activity, a numbness develops in the child's mind regarding hurtful actions," she says. "If these violent video games are in public view, kids will want to play them."

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Pediatrics found that among seventh- and eighth-graders, 49 percent of the games they preferred involved human or fantasy violence. The study, by Jeanne Funk, said more than 80 percent of all youths who play video games play ones with at least some violent content.

Most youths are able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, says Dr. Brody. But he emphasizes that a few aren't able to make that distinction, "and the last thing these kids need to be doing is engaging in violent game play."

These were some of the concerns that prompted Rockefeller to act.

At a conference on youth violence held after the Jonesboro tragedy, many state leaders including Rockefeller and Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee learned about video games in which players kill one another and then hear crowds cheer when they succeed.

Governor Huckabee, the author of a book about children who kill, says he will sign Rockefeller's bill if it makes it to his desk.

"The governor believes violent video games are one piece in a large puzzle of violence that American children are subjected to," says Rex Nelson, Huckabee's spokesman.

Yet the potential Arkansas law doesn't make everyone happy.

"Will this be the end of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter?" asked teenager John Daniels. "Will they just start banning anything that hints at violence? What about movies and any other thing we do for fun that may be seen by others as not right?"

On one level, even Huckabee agrees. No law can fix every problem, he says.

"We have to remember the real solution is not so much the government passing laws, but more in convincing parents that children do not need to be exposed to these games," he says. "Ultimately, it is going to have to come from the home and not government."

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