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Is it just a game?

Virtual violence has parents and politicians worried about real-world aggression. The science behind those fears hasn't made it to the next level.

September 12, 2005|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

If the makers of the nation's most popular video and computer games were to square off with politicians in a virtual world, the exchange of fire would be furious, the escape maneuvers audacious and the screen, in the end, a jumble of photorealistic carnage.

Violent games breed violent behavior, charges a growing group of lawmakers, who have called for tighter government controls in the marketing and sale of violent games. But the software entertainment industry, its annual $28 billion in sales paced by a nation's thirst for action games, is shooting back. There is no proven link between game violence and violent behavior, say industry leaders, only a link between politicians and pandering to the public's fears.

Add an arsenal of fantasy weapons and immersive sound effects and graphics, and it's the kind of exchange that could leave players pumping their fists and ready to reload. But the real-life battle is leaving many parents and researchers bewildered, divided and ready to unload.

Los Angeles father and screenwriter Gregg Temkin calls it his "constant conflict" -- this wavering between fear and complacency about violence in video games. Temkin's 14-year-old son, Josh, plays a slew of nonviolent games, but he also likes to get together with friends and play the fantasy-violence game "Halo 2" and the graphically violent "Grand Theft Auto."

Temkin says he has read plenty about these games' purported effects -- both good and bad -- and finds that the experts are as confused as he is. He believes that playing them "desensitizes you" to real violence. "But I don't know if I've got a leg to stand on or not. And I'm not sure that if it does happen, that's a bad thing," he adds.

Josh and his friends have heard some of the furor over video game violence. He says it makes playing "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" more fun to know that adults are wringing their hands over it.

First-person shooter games don't make him angrier, Josh says, and he never "feels like" the shooter, just like a kid controlling an image on a screen. But he suspects that some kids he's played with are not quite so detached.

Research published in recent months hasn't helped clarify the risks, or benefits, of these games. In mid-August, members of the American Psychological Assn. adopted a resolution calling for less violence in video and computer games sold to children. Reviewing 20 years of studies on the subject, psychologist Kevin M. Kieffer told fellow mental health professionals during the meeting that playing violent video games does, on balance, make children more aggressive and less prone to helping behaviors.

"There really isn't any room for doubt that aggressive game playing leads to aggressive behaviors," says Iowa State University psychologist Craig A. Anderson, one of the pioneers of research in the area and a guiding force behind the association's resolution. "The naysayers don't have a leg to stand on."

But the association's action came just weeks after University of Illinois researcher Dmitri Williams, in a study of 213 players of a violent online game called "Asheron's Call 2," concluded that a month of steady, intensive play did not increase participants' aggressiveness. His study did not focus on children, but included some players as young as 14.

Williams suggests that members of the American Psychological Assn. have gotten ahead of their research.

"I don't think the data to date warrant the strength of their claims," he says. "I don't think they're going to be proven wrong long-term, but I don't think they've proven their case yet." Williams adds that his research findings have made him "persona non grata in some quarters, champion of truth in others."

His study, published in the June issue of Communications Monographs, has provided defensive firepower to the entertainment software industry at a time when it has come under siege. The Federal Trade Commission this fall is to launch an investigation into the ratings system for video games -- particularly the rating that made the sex- and violence-laden "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" available to most teens.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who called for the FTC study, is set in the coming weeks to propose legislation to tighten enforcement of video game ratings. And a group of Democratic and Republican senators has proposed that the National Institutes of Health oversee a comprehensive, $90-million study on the effect of violent media, including video games, on children's development

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