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Video Games More Violent Than Labels Say

Study finds even most mild titles show aggression

TUESDAY, July 31, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Even the most benign video games can contain violence that could make an impression on children, new research shows.

And though industry ratings generally give parents a good sense of the content of video games for young children, Harvard University scientists say more than 40 percent of the games don't warn of violence they depict. Although much of the violent content consists of minor hitting and fighting, it also often involves weapons, shooting and death.

"There does appear to be a fair amount of inconsistency in these content descriptors," says Kimberly M. Thompson, lead author of a study appearing in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. To make matters worse, essentially identical games may have different content descriptions on different playing systems, creating confusion for parents.

Video games have become a major source of entertainment for America's youth. Nearly 50 million American households have at least one such system, a number that's expected to reach almost 75 million by 2005. An estimated 70 percent of children ages of 2 to 18 have access to video games at home, and a third have game players in their bedrooms.

Evidence suggests the violent themes of some games may make players more aggressive in the real world. A study last year by U.S. researchers found that male college students who played violent video games regularly in junior high and high school displayed more aggressive behavior as young adults. The researchers also showed that students who played a violent game were more aggressive toward their opponents than those who played a non-violent game.

In an earlier work, Thompson showed that G-rated movies often show violence, as well as alcohol, tobacco and drug use, despite their innocuous ratings. She says the latest findings are further evidence of a troubling trend: "There is a lot of content in media that people may not be paying attention to or may not be noticing that parents may be concerned about. Kids are consuming a lot of media, and it might be having an impact on them."

Thompson and Harvard graduate student Kevin Haninger gathered a list of 672 video games rated "E" for everyone by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). All were available for Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo 64 and Sony's PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2.

Those with an E rating, which include most sports games, as well as some action, adventure and racing titles, are intended for players ages 6 and older. They may "contain minimal violence, some comic mischief or some crude language," according to the entertainment group. More violent games can receive either a "Teen" or "Mature" rating, while "Adults Only" software may show scenes of both graphic violence and sex.

Using a representative sample, the researchers found that 35 of the 55 games they played had periods of intentional violence that spanned an average of 30 percent of play time. In 33 titles, or 60 percent, injuring a character was rewarded or was essential to continue playing, and nearly 50 percent depicted violent deaths. Among action titles, 21 of 22 games had killings.

Not surprisingly, action and shooting games were more violent than others, as were those with content descriptions that explicitly mentioned violence. However, 14 of 32 titles, or 44 percent, that did not have a content description for acts of violence in fact depicted them.

"The lack of a content description for violence doesn't mean violence-free," Thompson says.

Nor were games that had cute characters pacifistic.

"Some of these games are cute, but they may also be violent," Haninger says.

Arthur Pober, ESRB's president and an originator of the rating system, says no such scheme "is going to be silver bullet" that shields children from all violence. As a result, Pober says, "parents have to have a very active role to know what the products are," and what's in them.

But in general, Pober says, reading a game package carefully, from the artwork to the rating letter, should tell parents everything they need to know about what's on the disc.

What To Do

To learn more about how video games are rated, visit the Entertainment Software Rating Board. And for more on the latest study, visit Thompson's Harvard Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Kimberly M. Thompson, Sc.D., assistant professor, risk analysis and decision science, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Kevin Haninger, doctoral student, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Aug. 1, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association
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