Study of video games sought

Effects: The debate continues over what influence computer violence has on children.

June 26, 2000|By Dave Scott | Dave Scott,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

There was a time when the "Endless Summer" for a child referred to hours spent at the beach, on a dusty baseball diamond or romping with the neighborhood kids.

Kids still do all of those things, but today's kids have more ways of having fun, including hours and hours in front of computers or game consoles playing interactive games - contests that can feature a lot of blood and gore.

More than 200 million electronic games are sold each year and millions of kids play them as part of their normal, nonviolent lives. But there also is speculation that the games play a part in violent outbursts like the killings last year at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Dr. David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, told Congress that more needs to be known about the influence of games on kids, but he is convinced there is a problem.

"While the research linking violent electronic games with attitudes and behavior is in its early stages, the research on other forms of violent media - including television - is so overwhelming that few researchers even bother to dispute that screen has an effect on the kids watching it," he told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee March 21.

Parents who wonder whether their children are spending too much time playing video games or staring at computer screens won't get definitive answers from psychologists and other professionals.

Laurie Lipper, co-director of the Washington-based Children's Partnership, said she has no professional opinion on the subject, only the common sense that she uses as a parent.

"As a mom, I'm like almost every parent who is struggling with how to strike a balance between media and other activities," she said.

Jeff McIntyre of the American Psychological Association said interactive media are so new, scientists are uncertain how they affect young people.

"We're not sure about it," he said. "We are real involved in getting research funded to get some ideas about that. The social community is really struggling with these issues."

Skeptics might ask about all the studies done on the effects of television on children, but McIntyre said electronic games are fundamentally different.

Watching television is a passive experience, McIntyre said. The couch potato kid just sits there and watches it all happen on the screen. More than a few parents have noticed the irony of a teen sitting motionless while watching frenetic action on the screen.

Electronic games are different, McIntyre insists, because the player takes an active role in the experience. Players hold controllers in their hands and conduct virtual battle. It's a more personal experience that includes winning or losing, and imaginary life and death.

Sometimes after a mass shooting like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado last year, there are claims that video games played a part, but there is no real understanding of what happens in the minds of children who experience violence on a video screen and then act out the killing in real life.

"As we try to sort this out, we have to address the major role media plays in shaping the culture today's youth are growing up in," said Walsh. "I am not suggesting that video and computer games directly caused Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's murderous rampage [at Columbine High]. I do not believe that it was their favorite game, `Doom,' that led them to load up their guns. I do believe, however, that media shape the norms and that influences the extremes."

McIntyre understands the claimed link between gaming and violence, but says there is no science to back them up. He wants to change that and is part of a campaign backed by President Clinton to fund basic study of the issue.

He noted that most studies that are done now are limited to a particular "platform" or specific kind of game. He is among a group of psychologists who are calling for studies that bring a more fundamental understanding of the effects of interactive games. They are concerned that technology will bring more intense games that heighten the involvement of the gamer.

"In five years down the road, we are going to have something other than video games, so we have to do something more basic about the dynamics of interactive technology," he said.

Wes Nihei, president and editor in chief of GamePro magazine, said he supports the idea of more research into the effects of games, but said most of the control and responsibility is in the hands of parents.

"It's always a parental issue," he said, "because a parent should always be aware of the games, books, movies or whatever their children are being exposed to."

He said surveys of his readers indicate gamers are not totally sedentary and devoted to games.

The surveys show readers of the 510,000-circulation magazine spend about 12 hours a week playing games and another 14 hours online. But they also spend about six hours participating in sports, leading him to conclude: "At least our readers have somewhat rounded lifestyles."

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