Does no one get hurt? Vince Hammond, a sociologist with the National Coalition on Television Violence, cites a controlled study of playground behavior of 600 children that found aggressive behavior increased 80% on days the children played violent video games. A study of 5-year-olds described by UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield found certain games increased aggressive play and decreased pro-social play.
But the same researchers cited by Greenfield found that two-player games, whether cooperative or competitive, reduced the level of aggression in play and did not affect cooperative behavior. This lends credence to the argument advanced by some game producers that violent video games let kids work out hostilities. Greenfield concludes that the most harmful aspect of such games may be that they are solitary.
But even if a child faces a hostile video world with a playmate, an important additional ingredient needs to be considered. Both television programs and video games are viewed on the same equipment. Televised news brings images of real planes crashing, real killing, real tragedy. Responses to those images contribute to a cultural attitude, which, in turn, influences the creation of the events pictured on the screen.
Can the game "Contra" be unscrambled from the real thing? The National Coalition on Television Violence sees violent video games as desensitizing. "You can't win these violent games with nonviolent tactics," says Hammond, who finds them fostering an increased acceptance of force as a means of dealing with conflict.
"I wouldn't want to create a violent game," says game-designer Fox, "but I do think that there is some benefit to using a game to act something out, to finish something, or to explore something." Psychologist LePage also believes that video games can be cathartic; "There is deep satisfaction in the power, the control." She suggests that the key is for parents to supervise the choice of content.
There is no official code, such as there is for films, to evaluate the sea of video games for children. Tortorigi has never seen a parent deny a child a game because of content. LePage suggests that many parents defer to children because they are less comfortable with computers than their youngsters, who have used them for years in the classroom.
The parental decision with the greatest impact on the child involves the choice of equipment for play. There are three categories, which, to a large extent, determine content:
- Arcade games. These are reflex-dependent action games. The predominant theme is survival by force in a hostile world. In a local video arcade, 33 out of 39 games are violent. PacMan, an occasional maze game, and sports games like "Golf" and "Tennis" are examples of others. To gain enough mastery to complete a game on a single quarter (one hour) costs from $20 to $100.
- Home video games. These are played with systems connected to a television. Nintendo, a 99-year-old Japanese firm, introduced its video-game system in 1986; it is now the best-selling toy in the United States, taking the greatest share of what is expected to be a $2-billion video-game market this year. The National Coalition on Television Violence studied the 95 Nintendo games and found 83% had violent themes. Maze and role-playing games have lighter motifs ("Super Mario Brothers") or fantasy and logic ("Zelda"). Home systems cost about $100 and games are around $40.
- Games for personal computers. Some of these use the more primitive joy sticks or button controls of video games, but others require a keyboard. Although there are computer games of the arcade type, most are more complex and less visceral. Many require hours to play rather than minutes. There are whole genres of games to challenge an active mind--magic and fantasy, mystery, science fiction, role-playing adventure games. The Rev. Steven Payne of the Carmelite Monastery in Washington, an avid computer-game player, sees them as "puzzles that talk back to you. They seem to appeal to an inborn capacity for wonder and play, a desire for transcendence. . . ."
Interactive fiction games for the computer offer text with adventures of J.R.R. Tolkein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Arthur Conan Doyle. These games require concentration, strategy, and logical thinking. Fox of Lucasfilm has designed "Zak McKracken," a clever and challenging adventure game in which the tools for success include a kazoo and a fish named Sushi. Personal computers cost from $800 and games range from those available free for a call to electronic "bulletin boards" to around $50.
'Like a Foreign Culture'