The name of the game ... is violence

Do you really know what's going on in your child's video games?

January 2, 2004
Toronto Sun
By Joanne Richard

Just what were you thinking when you wrapped up a bloodthirsty video game and put it under the tree a few days ago? It's not too late to take Manhunt away from your 10-year-old -- just tell 'em Santa made a mistake.

The viciously violent video game content gravely concerns experts -- reviewers have labelled Manhunt an "extended snuff movie." The name of the game is to kill. In this brutal blood sport, players are rewarded for killing using weapons ranging from glass shards and garroting wire to plastic bags and machetes. The more gruesome the kill, the more points awarded.

"In Manhunt, killing everybody all the time is the only way to score and win," says Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a child psychiatrist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. "Violent video games teach kids not just to defend themselves against violence, by outsmarting a violent villain, for instance, but to maim, destroy and kill in order to win."

Says media specialist Cathy Wing: "When the most marginal and vulnerable in society are beaten to death with baseball bats and it's deemed entertainment, just what does this say about us as a society?"

Studies in Canada and the U.S. indicate that not only are mature-rated games extremely popular and played by young boys, but parents rarely check the ratings system or the content of the games their children are playing.

"Manhunt makes Grand Theft Auto (GTA) look like a walk in the park," says Wing, adding the interactive and addictive GTA series has also come under fire for graphic violence and sexual content.

Manhunt, a newly released PlayStation 2 video game, was recently banned from distribution in New Zealand, reports CBC news online. According to the news service, Manhunt is one of the most popular games rented by the Blockbuster chain in Canada.

"It used to be that you were the good guy out to save the planet from aliens; now the trend is that you are the thug stalking and killing innocent people to win points," says Wing, of Media Awareness Network, an educational organization based in Ottawa.

The game, developed by Scotland-based Rockstar North, has a mature rating, but that doesn't prevent or dissuade younger kids from playing it.

A recent study of over 5,000 students by the Canadian Teacher's Federation (CTF) shows most kids have played mature-rated video games. The ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto series is aimed at 18-plus and contains murder, bludgeoning and prostitution, yet it's a favourite for Canadian boys in grades three to six. The CTF also found 75% of kids receive no parental supervision.

A study by the National Institute on Media and the Family in the U.S. reveals boys have easy access to "increasingly ultra-violent M-rated (mature) games." Their survey found the popularity of video games among children and youth continues to increase.

While the popularity and sales figures -- $18 billion worldwide -- bode well for the rapidly growing yet unlegislated industry, concerns about the unquenchable consumption of violence, and gender and racial stereotyping, as well as the link between game time and obesity are front and centre with health professionals.

There is little research available on the impact on children's development and socialization as they devour vast amounts of increasingly realistic and graphic brutality, but, says Wing, "a steady diet of violence is not going to be healthy mentally or physically for our youth."

According to www.media- awareness.ca, "there is growing evidence, however, that performing violent actions repeatedly in video games may promote aggression in some kids, especially those who already exhibit high levels of anger and hostility."

Meanwhile, it's important to put everything in context, stress the experts. Video games are not all bad, as long as one adheres to a balanced diet of good games, including choosing games wisely and controlling the amount of time children spend in front of the screen, says Wing. "But concerns centre around the amount of time devoted to playing them, the sedentary lifestyle it promotes, and the violent or sexist content of many games."

Lefebvre has seen the harmful effects of slavish devotion first- hand: "I am definitely seeing more and more kids who describe themselves as 'addicted' to videogames."

Lefebvre says online games that "involve both simulation as well as accolades (or demerit points) from an online community of players seem to have the highest addiction potential for teens.

"Right now I am treating four teens who have stopped going to school to play video games on a console or on the Internet, for hours ... each day. Most of their parents thought initially they were doing homework until the wee hours of the night ... it's only when these kids started skipping school that the truth came out and by then it was too late to establish ground rules to prevent addiction."

According to Lefebvre, it's up to governments to establish ground rules for what is appropriate entertainment for children and teens of different ages, in consultation with health and education professionals as well as parents. "Manufacturers have only one concern: That is to sell as many products as possible, whether that product is cigarettes, videogames or educational products.

"Parents have a crucial role to play: They can choose to buy or not to buy, they can write to the manufacturers and explain why they are boycotting a certain product, they can write to editors of newspapers and express concern about the increasing use of violence everywhere, in toys, in videogames, in sports, etc. They can involve their MPs in fighting for a less violent environment," she adds.

She recommends:

- Be aware of what kind of games your child plays at home and at friends' houses.

- Note impact of these games on behaviour, sleep, attention span.

- Make your own values clear and choose games in keeping with these values.

- Limit the amount of time children play videogames per day -- one hour is plenty.

- Keep the videogames and Internet access in the family room or other public area until you are sure your child has enough maturity and self-control to be able to moderate and limit his/her own use of these.

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Avoid hit list

According to the Eighth Annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card by the National Institute on Media and the Family at www.mediafamily.org, avoid these games:

- Manhunt
- Road Kill
- Outlaw Volleyball
- Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball
- Def Jam Vendetta
- True Crime: Streets of L.A
.- Backyard Wrestling: Don't try this at home
- Max Payne 2
- Postal 2