Do computer games increase tendencies to violence in children? There is a growing body of opinion that the high level of violence depicted in many computer games does have a deleterious effect on children, contributing to the observed increase in violent behaviour exhibited by juveniles.
From a very early in their lives, children have been subjected to concepts of violence for centuries, if not for the entire history of civilisation. Fairy tales reek of violence, Grimms tales are usually quite grim, and many children's stories have overt themes of violence. As a child I read the Grimm stories, and a little later, all the Biggles books, in fact I believe I read every book by the late W E. Johns, but I am very distinctly a pacifist. Of course one case proves nothing. Is there anything different in the experiences of children today that explains the actual increase in juvenile violence?
According to an article in the June 1994 issue of Psychology Digest, a definite correlation has been established between the growing violence on television and in movies and the increase in aggressive behaviour of people in general, but especially in the young. Why should exposure to these depictions of violence have a greater effect than those of an earlier period? Perhaps a part of the answer rests with the level of reality in what is seen today.
As recently as ten years ago, Australian television newscasts would display little direct violence. Now we see dead bodies and pools of blood on even the most conservative channels" and viewers, including children, know this is real, it is not fictional; and this reality appears to have a desensitising effect. Movies of an earlier generation may have depicted violence, but there was always a Hollywood style that prevented even the best films from ever seeming totally real. Contrast this with modern cinema, where computerised special effects, overwhelming Dolby surround sound, and an aggressive cinematic style make even the most implausible of plotlines seem totally realistic on the screen.
Now children have a good sense of fantasy and I believe this is why the portrayal of violence in the past has not necessarily contributed to creating a violent personality; the child has made the distinction between what is real and what is make-believe. In fact, the introduction of some level of violence in a context of fantasy has a cathartic effect, channelling the natural violent tendencies present in most personalities into harmless outlets.
So where does this leave computer games? The same article in Psychology Digest suggests that it is the interactive nature of computer games that helps to desensitise the juvenile attitude to violence. The youngster can take actions and bring about a death, with blood spraying everywhere. In contrast, reading a book or watching a movie is a passive experience, in which the child can do nothing to alter the outcome.
However, this notion does not necessarily withstand examination. High levels of violence were established in television and cinema at a time sufficiently before the significant advent of highly violent computer games to separately observe the effects of the two influences. It has been clearly established in various studies, that violence on television and cinema screens has had a clear adverse effect on people over a wide age group. Now these sources are not interactive, so one must assume that it is the apparent (or actual) reality of the material that allows it to have its effect. There is no scope given to the young mind to clearly separate fantasy from reality.
On the other hand, video games are definitely in the realm of fantasy; the child can see the distinction from reality, and so might this not suggest that violent computer games may not make a significant contribution to violent tendencies in children? In fact, might these games instead provide a harmless outlet for the natural aggression that exists to some degree in the child's subconscious? The argument about the interactive nature of these games is also questionable. Children have indulged in play that involves death for ages. They fight battles with swords and guns and pretend to die. It is not that long ago that children had toy soldiers and set up complete armies that did battle (of course, some might argue that that form of juvenile experience may have helped lead to the two world wars!). They have toys that are replicas of weapons of war, and while, personally I am against the sale of these toys, it has yet to be conclusively proven that they have any real harmful effect.
So the verdict is still to be decided. Arguments can be made that violent computer games are harmful and lead to aggression: equally, arguments can be made that these same games provide a harmless release of the aggressive instinct. In the meantime, Australian society has decided that computer games must be rated according to their suitability to various age groups. Software vendors are being given a difficult time. The process of classification takes time and costs money. And what is more, a classification can be made and it takes only one complaint that the classification is too conservative for the real possibility that the game will be re-classified to a more stringent category. This means reprinting of packaging, as the rating must be included in the printing of the box cover; adhesive labels are not allowed.
Are we over-overreacting? In a reaction against the real increase in violence within Western society, it is natural that people will wish to take action, and all sources that clearly depict violence are a natural target. Governments are also swayed by general public opinion" they are conscious of the polls" and may take lesser note of expert opinion. On this topic, expert opinion is clearly divided, making public emotional reaction an even greater force on government policy. But should public opinion, which is generally uninformed, hold sway? Public emotion, unsupported by fact, can be damaging if acceded to" take McCarthyism as an example. One point we must keep in mind with the rating of computer games is that generally it is just that, a rating. There appears to be limited possibilities that the system will prevent any significant numbers of program from being offered for sale in Australia; the system just means we must wait a month or two for local release after a game has appeared overseas. A rating appearing on the package does give the more concerned parent some guidef or formulating a decision on whether a given game will be a suitable purchase for their children or not.
It is not my intention here to plead for either side of the argument but rather to suggest that the debate is more complex than many people may realise. Ultimately parents buying a computer game must make their own decision on whether that game is suitable for their children, just a they decide whether they approve of war toys or not. It will be interesting to see the outcomes of further psychological studies over the next decade. Like it or not, the huge market for computer game means that computer violence is not going to pass away, at least not in the near future.
Reprinted from the October 1994 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia