Gauging the effects of violent video games

At the Fun Factory arcade here, five-year-old Yazmine Greenridge and her mother are duking it out against a video game bad guy. Yazmine pushes the button to make her animated muscleman jump and duck, while mother Tershama uses the joystick to maneuver him on the screen.

The two are here together because Mrs. Greenridge wants to know what games her daughter is playing. "I felt the video games that kids are using at home are too violent, so I brought my daughter here," she says.

The influence of violent video games on youths - amid a greater culture of violence from TV entertainment to news programs - has become a cardinal point in the debate spawned by the school shootings in Littleton, Colo.

As the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry, video games are coming under increasing scrutiny from psychologists and parents who wonder what influence graphic scenes of shooting and stabbing have on young people. At the same time, many experts say parents - who purchase 90 percent of all video games - must become more aware of what they're buying.

"There can perhaps be no more important question in American society today than why is violence a mainstay of our children's amusement?" says Gloria DeGaetano, researcher and author of "Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy." "Companies make these games because they sell," she adds. "We need to ask why are they selling, and why are we as a culture buying them to keep our children entertained?"

Targeting video games

The current rush for to find out what prompted the Littleton shootings has led many people to probe the potential role of violent video games. This week, Sens. Joseph Liebermann (D) of Connecticut and Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah held hearings on the entertainment industry, criticizing ultraviolent video games - among other things. On Monday, President Clinton plans to hold a White House conference on violence in the media and how it affects students.

But experts who study teens and the pop culture say the search for solutions should not simply center around holding the media more accountable.

After the shootings, people were "trying to assess what are media doing to kids, when we really needed to be asking: What are our kids doing with media?" says Henry Jenkins, director of the Center for Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "We need to start listening to our children and engaging them on how they use these things, rather than rushing to judgment on the media."

Indeed, many observers say violent video games do not spark copycat behavior. They say troubled youths use them to act out negative attitudes.

"What is critical is not what is the activity of the TV show, movie, or video game, but what is in the mind of the user," says Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychologist.

For their part, officials in the video-game industry say the amount of violence in games has been shrinking for years. Gamemakers are reaching out beyond their core group of users - 14- to 18-year-olds - and these new buyers won't pay for gore.

"Gamemakers are now going after women and adults in numbers never before seen," says Doug Lowenstein, president of Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group for in-home computer games. The result has been a boon for the industry. It took in a record $6.3 billion last year and is growing faster than any other segment of the entertainment industry, with 1998 sales up 29 percent over 1997.

"The casual gamer is now the buzzword in the industry," says Mr. Lowenstein, noting that three-quarters of PC entertainment-software users are over 18 years old, and 38 percent are women.

A new focus

This influx of new buyers has meant that new games - sports, strategy, role-playing, and driving games - are in part crowding out the "shooter" games, which now make up only 8 percent of the market. And of last year's top 20 titles, Lowenstein adds, only one was rated for "mature" players.

The voluntary ratings system was created five years ago after parents and politicians criticized the industry. Yet Lowenstein notes that partly because of the games' cost - about $40 to $65 on average - parents purchase 9 of 10 home video games. "It's the parents who are bringing these games into the home," he adds. "So now, with the ratings system intact, they must take responsibility for what their kids are using and playing."

But regardless of ratings systems or who brings video games into homes, many researchers say Americans should be wary of of any medium - video games, TV, or film - that neglects to show the consequences of violence.

"Showing violence that is paired with its true result actually can serve a social goal of education," says Kathy Pezdek, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. "The trouble with video games is they show a pretend world that divorces the debilitating effects from their cause."

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