Playing at Killing

Should kids be playing videogames aimed at adults?

My 13-year-old son and his friends are expert killers. They each spend up to 10 hours of their spare time every week killing people, zombies and monsters with a variety of weapons in videogames like Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo and Assassin’s Creed, a game that boasts “Master the Art of the Kill” on its back cover.

These games are rated “M” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and are clearly labeled “Mature 17+,” which means the content is suitable for people ages 17 and older.

The rating on each game lists why it’s “M.” Reasons include blood, blood and gore, drug references, intense violence, language or suggestive themes, to name a few.

Anyone younger than 17 must convince a parent or another adult to buy an M game for him. GameStop, the popular videogame store chain, has a strict policy of not selling M-rated games to anyone under 17. Other retailers are encouraged by the ESRB to restrict the rental or sale of mature videogames to customers 17 and older.

According to the ESRB, 67 percent of U.S. households play videogames, and the average gamer is a 34-year-old who spends an average of eight hours per week playing them; therefore, many homes already have M-rated games.

“They’re fun,” says Adrian, a polite Spokane middle school student, whose parents purchased a Call of Duty game and other M-rated games for him.

“They’re a stress-reliever. For a short time, it takes you away from the stress of real life,” says Chris, a bright, well-read seventh-grader who is allowed to play M-rated videogames at his dad’s house, but not at his mom’s.

There are many different reasons young kids have access to M-rated videogames. Some parents just don’t think the games are detrimental. One father of a 13-year-old says his son sees violence on the TV news every day.

“You can use the games as a moral educational tool: look what war does,” he says. “I know this is only a game, but it really hurts people. I know you don’t feel the pain, but look at the destruction.”

But some parents may not really be aware of what’s in the games their kids are playing, says Gavin McKiernan, national grassroots director of the Parents Television Council.

“Most parents who are old enough to have kids of videogaming age think videogames are kids’ stuff, and don’t think much about it when they get one, but the industry says the majority of their products are made for and marketed to adults,” he says.

Other parents allow their kids to play M-rated games because everyone’s doing it.

“Like most things, it’s ‘Johnny got this great game. Will you buy me one?’ Well, I know Johnny’s parents, they’re good people. It’s the domino effect,” McKiernan says.

Other parents have ambivalent feelings about shoot ’em up videogames, but they remember playing endless hours of war games with fake guns when they were kids, so videogame violence doesn’t seem so different.

Videogames are everywhere, but are M-rated games adversely affecting young peoples’ minds and behavior?

There is no scientific evidence that children are suffering ill effects from videogames, but 50 years of research about violent television and movies has proven there are negative effects on children.

As far back as 1982, the National Institutes of Mental Health identified three major effects of children seeing violence on television:

1. Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
2. Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
3. Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

There is less research on violent videogames because they are a more recent phenomenon, but according to the American Psychological Association, research by psychologist Craig A. Anderson and others shows that “playing violent videogames can increase a person’s aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior both in laboratory settings and in actual life.”

Anderson conducted a study in 2000 that suggests violent games maybe more harmful to children than violent TV and movies “because they are interactive, very engrossing and require the player to identify with the aggressor,” reports the American Psychological Association.

Kevin Roberts is a recovering videogame addict and the author of Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap. He says the vast majority of kids who play videogames are not going to have problems, but there’s one group of children who he suggests should never play the games.

“Videogames are addicting for kids who have certain traits: in psychological terms, it’s low agreeableness, high neuroticism and low extraversion. It’s kids who have trouble relating to others, and kids who tend to get into negative moods and stay there,” Roberts says.

Roberts, 41, is an educational consultant based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He runs support groups for teens with videogame addiction problems. Roberts says he thinks one reason children are drawn to M-rated games is because their lives are overscheduled and overprotected.

“When we were kids, there were lots of opportunities for adventure and discovery. Today, kids don’t have positive ways to get their needs for adventure, excitement and intensity met, so they turn to the cyberworld,” he says.

To help children not get hooked on videogames, Roberts suggests parents find ways to make sure their children are getting adventure, excitement and intensity in the real world.

“So paintball, geo-caching, martial arts, adventure bike riding — there are dozens of opportunities. We can’t look at this as, ‘M games are wrong.’ Let’s look at why are kids so drawn to them and engaged in them?” Roberts says.

The Parents Television Council supports legislation to make it illegal for stores to sell M-rated games to anyone under 17. McKiernan says that might help. “If parents discovered there’s a law that underage kids can’t buy them, it’d educate them and wake them up to what they’re buying for their kids,” McKiernan says.

He emphasizes there are a lot of positive and good videogames available for pre-teens and young teenagers, so parents should decide what is appropriate for each child.

“It’s the parents’ decision, ultimately, and every kid is different, but for those parents who allow some or a little video violence, be very cautious about it and don’t take the decision lightly. Too many parents view it as kids’ stuff.

“Certainly not every kid who plays a violent videogame is going to pick up a gun and start firing off rounds, but at the same time, as we raise our kids and build our society, we want to remove risk factors that don’t need to be there,” says McKiernan. “There are plenty of good games, there’s no reason to be playing the problematic ones.”

Rating the Games

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a non-profit, self-regulatory body established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association. ESRB assigns computer and video game content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines and helps ensure responsible online privacy practices for the entertainment software industry. The organization’s mission is to empower consumers, especially parents, with the ability to make informed decisions about the computer and video games they choose for their families through the assignment of age and content ratings, and to hold the computer and video game industry accountable for responsible marketing practices. These are the ratings on their scale; you can find them on the game box and in advertising for the games. For more information, go to

Teaching Through Tackles

The makers of at least one videogame are hoping that the game’s content will carry over into real life. The upcoming version of Madden NFL 12 will graphically depict football players sustaining concussions and then having to spend the rest of the game on the bench. The on-game announcers will emphasize the seriousness of head injuries, and animation will no longer depict helmet-to-helmet tackles or other dangerous plays. In an interview with the New York Times, the game’s executive producer, Phil Frazier, said, “I wouldn’t say this is a full public-service announcement, but it’s a means to educate.”

— Anne McGregor

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