How Video Games Affect Children

Introduction

Violence plays a major role in popular video games and movies. It encourages adolescents to mimic the violence displayed and portrayed on the screen, and it may have played a major part in influencing violence and aggression in teenagers. Research has shown that playing violent video games such as Mortal Kombat, Doom, or 3D can increase a person’s aggressive thoughts and behavior in both a laboratory venue and in real-world situations. In addition, playing violent video games may be more detrimental than viewing violent television shows or movies because they are especially enthralling, interactive, and necessitate the player to associate on a personal level with the violent character of the game. As video games are progressively becoming more ferocious and explicit as well as more prevalent, additional research is needed regarding the effects on the impressionable minds of those that play them and illuminate to parents the risks associated with these games. This discussion examines the myriad of effects violent video games have on all youths including the direct effects on boys and the unintended consequences for girls.

Violence Produces Violence

Media Can Shape Behavior

Infamous events have generated extensive debate regarding the effects of video game violence. For example, a nationwide conversation ensued regarding what connection video games had to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre where two students murdered 13 and wounded 23 before killing themselves. While many motivations were likely involved, it is not possible to identify precisely what provoked these teenagers to shoot their classmates and teachers but violent video games have been mentioned as one possible contributing factor. The two students had often played Doom, a brutal and bloody firearms game that is used by the military to teach the U.S. armed forces how to kill more efficiently. To what degree this game influenced the actions of these two youths has been argued since this incident. The Entertainment media, it is widely accepted, is an extremely influential factor in everyone’s lives. “What behaviors children and adults consider appropriate comes, in part, from the lessons we learn from television and the movies” (Huesmann & Miller, 1994).

It is reasonable to expect video games, especially those that portray violence, will have a similar and possibly a more expansive effect on violent behavior.

The Connection

Currently, few papers exist which have thoroughly studied the connection between violent video games and subsequent violent actions.

“Although the belief that the media are causing a harmful effect is widespread in the public, knowledge about the nature of the negative effects and how they work seems to be lacking. A good illustration of the misinformed nature of the topic among well-meaning people occurred just after the shooting at Columbine High School” (Potter, 2002 P. 3). The studies are few and the public lacks knowledge concerning the effects of video games on young minds. However, this deficiency of credible information doesn’t stop amateur psychologists, parents mainly, from accusing anything but their precious children or themselves of the violent acts their kids commit. A comparison can be drawn from a parent that attributes their child’s drug use, violent tendencies, or suicide to a passage contained in a certain song. If a child tragically takes their own life, listening to the song may have lit the fuse but the underlying powder-keg of emotions causing their feelings of depression and hopelessness was much more responsible for the act.

Not the Good ‘Ole Days

Parents of today did not play with sophisticated, violent video games as children but witnessed enormous amounts of violence on television.

The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour alone displayed more instances of graphic violence than kids today witness during an afternoon session of Doom. Watching violent acts alone, especially those in the world of make-believe does not necessarily translate to violent actions. “When certain motives or cues occur in a child’s real-life environment, the child will not be able to make the association between those cues and the image he or she saw in the media. Thus children seem to be protected from an imitation effect because they do not understand the significance of violence as a tool for solving problems and do not see the utility in imitating it”

(Potter, P. 75). Children understand the difference between what is real and what they are viewing on a television screen or game unit. No one argues that video reality affects children’s development in varying degrees, however, “a child’s cognitive limitations do not translate consistently into higher vulnerability. There are times when children’s cognitive limitations actually protect them from negative effects” (Potter, P. 75). Children, as an example, have far less capability to comprehend connections between aggressive acts and motivations that would initiate those actions therefore are less likely to emulate unacceptable behaviors such as violence.

When video games first appeared about 30 years ago, they were simplistic and seemingly innocuous. Atari pioneered the video game with Pong in the mid-1970s which was a video version of table tennis. The 1980s saw arcade games such as Asteroids and Pac-Man become popular.

“In Pac-Man, a yellow orb with a mouth raced around the screen chomping up ghosts and goblins. At this point, some eyebrows were raised questioning whether young people should play such violent games” (Elmer-Dewitt, 1993). The nature of video games took a dramatic turn from cartoon-like ghost chomping to unabashed violence in the 1990s. Mortal Kombat, the most popular video game of 1993, featured realistic representations of human characters fighting bloody battles.

The goal of the player in Mortal Kombat, as the name implies, is to slay the enemy combatant. Violent games such as this dominate today’s market. A study that tested 33 of the most popular Nintendo and Sega video games found that almost 80 percent were violent in nature (Dietz, 1998). The study also revealed that a disturbing 21 percent of those games portrayed violence towards women.

Gender Differences

What They like

Typical characteristics of the video game crowd include boys and single men, often into their 30s or greater, who find the world of the video game intriguing. Johnny wants the war game. Sally isn’t as interested, but why? The answer, it has been suggested, is both biological and sociological in nature.

While acknowledging that behavior differences between boys and girls are inherited to an extent, this discussion explores the societal reasons that Johnny is expected to be the aggressor and Sally the submissive one. This circumstance leads to unfavorable consequences for women. Not surprisingly, boys usually prefer games that involve fighting, sports, gun-play, strategy, fantasy, simulations, and adventure to a greater extent than do girls. Females prefer more conventional computer games, board, card, arcade, puzzle, and trivia games for example. “Girls perform better on verbal tasks and pattern-matching, which may explain why quiz-trivia or puzzle games such as Tetris are favored by females. Older girls tend to prefer educational games while younger girls seek more entertainment-oriented content” (Chunhui Chu, et al. 2004).

Interestingly, both genders embrace racing video games to about the same extent. This is the one area that does not fit the gender ‘mold’ created by society as described by feminist theory. Studies credit the gender neutrality of racing video games to both yearning to drive during the high school years. Boys are more prone to violence and therefore more likely to choose a video game containing violence. About half of the boys questioned in a study identified their favorite game as one that involved high amounts of violence. Less than one-fifth of girls’ first choice for a video game was one that involved high levels of violence. Many studies have demonstrated that violent video games begat violent behaviors. The propensity of boys to violence as compared to girls is exacerbated by their seemingly inherent need to play violent games. “Boys are generally at greater risk for aggressive behaviors, and they compound that risk by playing more violent games for greater amounts of time than girls play” (Gentile, et al. 2004).

Stereotypical Gender Roles

The messages of video games mirror the message that society imparts to girls, men are the protectors while women are compassionate and submissive.

Of the more than a thousand video games reviewed in a study, the number of male characters appearing in games outnumbered females by more than four to one. Of the characters that can be controlled by the player, almost 90 percent were male. Female characters are often bystanders or simply used as props in games. Nearly three-quarters of male characters fit the role of a competitor while about a third of female characters were used in this role. Male characters are more likely to use physical aggression while females are likely to be verbally aggressive. Female characters are more likely to share or be helpful in some way and more than six times more likely to scream when in trouble. They are hyper-sexualized while male characters are portrayed as overly masculine. Stereotyping in video games not only reflects but accentuates society’s view of women’s roles.

This reinforces what girls have been taught and observed during their formative years and confirms the feminist theory. “Although sexy female characters are created to appeal to males, they can send harmful messages to both males and female players. Just as young girls may interpret highly sexualized characters as symbols of the ‘ideal woman,’ so too may many young boys” (Glaubke, et al, 2001).

The stereotypical gender roles that video games impart or reinforce to girls could negatively influence their self-esteem and shape their perceptions of value and standing in society. These games could also have an effect on boys’ expectations of girls both in physical and social terms.

The Evidence

Playing a violent video game also has been shown to encourage the susceptibility to aggressive thought patterns by the ‘semantic priming process.’ “We know from related research that merely seeing a picture of a gun or other weapon can increase the accessibility of aggressive thoughts” (Anderson et al, 1996). This process, in all probability, accounts for the ‘weapons effect’ first reported by Berkowitz and LePage (1967). However, there is presently no scientific evidence to conclusively report whether or not playing a violent video game increases susceptibility to aggressive thoughts. Current research demonstrates that aggressive behaviors arise both in everyday life situations and during orchestrated studies using objective, scientific procedures; the playing of video games that were violent in nature unquestionably correlated to an increase of aggressive conduct. In a college study, students who played a violent video game, not surprisingly, acted with increased aggression towards a playing partner than did those students who had played a nonviolent game. Another study was conducted which examined the video game habits of students during their four-year college career which reported that when playing in a normal, dorm-room type environment, playing violent video games over a period of these years encouraged more aggressive behavior.

This increase occurred, not only during the game but in other facets of the student’s lives as well. Both studies found that violent video games negatively influence a person’s current emotional condition escalating feelings of hostility or anger. The similar findings of these different study methods give further credibility to the premise that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive behavior (Calvert & Tan, 1994). Though the propensity for increased levels of violent behavior based upon playing violent video games cannot be definitely and scientifically established on the basis of one pair of studies, this evidence supports the findings of similar research.

Concerns

Considering what is known regarding the effects of media violence, especially television, the prevalence of violent video games, especially given the current trend in the realism of video game violence verify that parents, teachers, and society as a whole are justified in their concerns.

“The present data indicate that concern about the potentially deleterious consequences of playing violent video games is not misplaced. Further consideration of some key characteristics of violent video games suggests that their dangers may well be greater than the dangers of violent television or violent movies” (Eron et al, 1987). At least three rationales have been established to explain why irrational behavior results from playing violent video games. The first concerns are associated with the aggressor. “When viewers are told to identify with a media aggressor, post-viewing aggression is increased compared with measured aggression of those who were not instructed to identify with the aggressor” (Leyens & Picus, 1973).

Players Become Characters

When playing a video game that allows for ‘first-person interaction, the player very often prefers to choose a character whose persona the player wants to identify with. The player, by controlling the action of their character usually attempts to view the game from their character’s perception. In other words, the player ‘becomes’ the video character, which enhances the game’s enjoyment. Anyone who has seen two teenage boys playing video games has witnessed them pretending to be the person they are controlling. The second rationale concerns the enthusiastic involvement while playing video games. Studies regarding the catharsis hypothesis suggest that willingly behaving in an aggressive manner typically intensifies future aggressive behavior. “The active role of the video game player includes choosing to act in an aggressive manner. This choice and active component of video games may well lead to the construction of a more complete aggressive script than would occur in the more passive role assumed in watching violent movies or TV shows” (Geen, Stonner & Shope, 1975).

A third rationale involves video games’ addictive nature and the negative stimulus that results from repetitiveness. The reinforcement characteristics of violent video games may enhance the learning and performance of aggressive scripts.

Video games are “the perfect paradigm for the induction of addictive behavior” (Braun & Girioux, 1989, p. 101).

Braun and Giroux’s research concluded that as many as 20 percent of teenagers are pathologically dependent on video games. “Video game addiction may stem, in part, from the rewards and punishments the game gives the player much like the reward structure of slot machines” (Griffiths & Hunt, 1998). In a very real sense, violent video games supply a comprehensive learning atmosphere for “aggression, with simultaneous exposure to modeling, reinforcement, and rehearsal of behaviors” (Loftus & Loftus, 1983). This combination of learning approaches has been revealed to be very influential. “When the choice and action components of video games are coupled with the games’ reinforcing properties, strong learning experiences result” (Loftus & Loftus, 1983).

Conclusion

From the playing of video games, boys learn to become more violent, that it is an accepted emotional response and that women, being the subservient gender, can be the recipients of this outward response. In addition, both girls and boys realize that video games are made for boys as a rule. This sends a strong message that boys are expected to be more technologically savvy than girls which supports the pre-1970’s perceptions of women.

Video games trivialize the role of women in society in the minds of both girls and boys. These games underscore and strengthen stereotypical, traditional gender biases which are ultimately harmful to women. Violent video games provide a compelling and additive medium that conditions young minds to employ aggressive measures in the resolution of conflicts. Evidence suggests that the effects of violent video games seem to be cognitive in composition.

Playing violent video games, in the short term, appears to affect hostility by prompting aggressive thoughts. Long-term effects are liable to be long lasting as well because the player is trained then practices aggressive acts that become progressively easier to access on a sub-conscious level for use when confronted by future aggravating circumstances. Repeated exposure to violent video games has been shown to, in effect, alter the player’s basic personality structure. The resulting changes in everyday social relations may lead to a steady escalation in aggressive actions. The interactive learning environment the video game presents suggests its influence is more powerful than the more broadly studied movie and television media.

With enhanced realism and the growing trend to include increasing amounts of graphic violence in video games, those that play (and those that buy) violent video games should be alerted to the possible consequences.

References

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