Video Games & Violence... - Digital Literacy Dover

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Video Games & Violence...

Much has been written about this subject, maybe too much, but someone must be interested as the The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) in the UK, published a document reviewing official government recommendations to improve children’s digital and video game safety. POST is an office of both Houses of Parliament, charged with providing independent and balanced analysis of policy issues that have a basis in science and technology.

The original document, in its entirety can be located here.

I have taken the liberty of highlighting the points that I as gamer and a father find particularly interesting.

First I should come clean, am I biased? Yes - absolutely, as a gamer of many years, and one who not only permits his children to play games, but actively encourages it, and have done since they were very young. Here's my son playing Dora and the Purple Planet when he was 4.

The backpack actually waits for my answer? No way!
Truth be told given the choice between coming home from work and seeing my kids slouched on the couch passively gazing at a television screen or excitedly interacting and participating in a video game, I'll always choose the latter.

My concern is what I can only call media bias, for some reason it's considered OK to blame games for the ills of the earth, but not TV, or film? If someone is a little hot under the collar after playing a video game, it can only be because of the violence, right? Wrong. Speaking personally, yes, games can sometimes leave me a little hot under the collar, but then very often so does sport, for the same reason, frustration, good old simple - this is really challenging, and I can't believe I find it so hard, frustration.

No, it's not mine. Really.
If anything, I am more likely to get wound up by a level in a Mario game than a level in Call of Duty.

So - to the article, all are direct quotes selected by myself, with my contributions in brackets or italics:
"There is debate surrounding the impact of violent video games on behaviour. This document summarises the key aspects of the discussion, and other potential impacts of gaming such as addiction. It also examines the educational use of games, and reviews mechanisms to ensure children’s game safety.

As gaming increases, particularly among children and adolescents, so have concerns over the games’ content, influence and excessive use. While the main focus of research and policy has been on violent games, other impacts of games on addiction, brain development, social interaction and education are also considered

  • Some, but not all, research suggests links between violent video games & aggression. However, causation cannot be proved.
  • A small minority may play video games excessively, but there are no firm criteria for diagnosing video game addiction.
  • Video games can be social, educational, and allow for personalised learning

Research suggests that social, cultural and genetic factors have a stronger influence on aggressive behaviour than video games. For instance, gender, personality and violence in the immediate family environment are important influences on aggressive behaviour.

Desensitisation is the result of reduced emotional reaction due to repeated exposure to violence. It is thought to increase aggressive responses in individuals and to fuel a demand for more extreme games as gamers search for new excitement levels. However, this is not specific to games and applies to all media.

Many young gamers (aged 15) are upset by violence in games that are rated 18. Just as exposure to violence in films, television and the internet can be upsetting so can violence in games, and this is why content in games is age restricted (my emphasis).

[Young children are] more susceptible to negative, especially scary, content in video games and media. [Again, all forms of media, not just video games].

Despite the media focus on violent video games, the impacts of gaming are diverse and can be positive.

On average, 5-16 year olds play 1.5 hours of video games a day, but many gamers acknowledge that it is possible to devote too much time to games and many parents also worry about this. [Of course, it is possible to devote too much time to all media… Especially television]

A recent review of the literature reports that (only) 8-12% of young people (mean age 21) engaged in “excessive gaming”, whereas “problematic gaming” was present in (only) 2-5%."


"There remains debate over whether gaming addiction is a valid concept, with some researchers claiming that dependency and withdrawal are not observed in video game addiction. The American Psychiatric Association has stated there was not enough evidence to include video game addiction in the latest edition of the widely used Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."

In my experience the symptoms often attributed hastily to 'addiction' would be better attributed to 'flow'. Something game developers work very hard to facilitate, and something that only the very best games are capable of inducing.

"A sense of that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous." (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)

"Educational" Games

Some of the most popular games are 'educational' (e.g. brain training games). Generally, educational games are developed to increase pupils’ motivation, communicate information, improve specific skills and test competencies. They can allow for personalised learning by being able to target specific learning difficulties and can also be used with groups of children, allowing players an active role that demands a wide range of skills.

Importantly, there is a difference between learning skills such as problem solving, and learning behaviours from video games. Playing video games can improve reaction times and visual skills related to attention and problem solving regardless of their genre. However, it is more difficult to show that behaviours, both positive and negative, transfer from video games into the real world (my emphasis).


Video games that contain film footage or include violence, criminal or sexual activity are accounted by for by only approximately 6-7% of all games. (BBFC)

"There is an on-going need to educate parents about their responsibility to monitor game play."

Here in Singapore, most games originate in the USA, and as such their ratings will be governed by the ESRB. The problem is the ESRB ratings have been over politicized, to the extent that they are not that useful, this is because the 'adults only' rating is rarely used, instead they prefer to use the 'M' rating, which is misleading, as many games that get the M rating are definitely adult games. For this reason I advise parents to refer to the European ratings instead.

Ratings from the USA—not so helpful

Games from the EU will be governed by the PEGI classification system . Both classification systems have indicators that are obvious, but the advantage with PEGI is that they are more practical, as they are not afraid to use the adult rating (18).

European ratings, not afraid to use the 18 rating

The problem is, even when a game is rated adult, as they err on the side of caution, this can also be a little overzealous... eg both the Batman games, and GTA get rated 18, but there is no way you can compare those games, and when they do it makes a mockery of the whole ratings system.

Fortunately, there are sites out there like Everybody Plays, that include reviews for parents.  Common Sense Media have also got a great review section which is very helpful, although I do find they also err a little too far on the side of caution to be useful, just aping the rating on the box. The Parent posts are a better way to gauge whether or not a certain game would be appropriate for your child.

Put simply, if in any doubt, go by the rating on the cover—ignore this at your peril!

Last, but certainly not least, the best approach is communication. If there is a game your child is desperate to play, there will almost certainly be plenty of game play footage on YouTube that you can use to get a sense of the level of appropriateness of the gameplay. Below I've included an example from the 'adult' rated Batman games, which I allowed my son to play when he was just 12. Having watched the gameplay footage (search with the keyword 'combat') I felt the level of violence was no worse than a typical action film—far be it from me to be guilty of media bias!

These sites also provide guidance on the kind of content you can expect to find in all popular video games.

If you're interested in learning more on this subject, you can download my presentation in PDF format here.

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