- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

Marie and Peter Lewis of Chevy Chase resisted electronic games for the first eight years of son Matthew's life. They didn't buy the games, didn't play them and didn't want them.

Matthew filled his time with low-tech diversions: play dates, romps outdoors, bike rides, animal videos and frequent visits to the zoo.

When his grandmother gave Matthew a Game Boy, his mother says she knew it was the beginning of something big.

"I was like, 'Oh, gosh, he's going to be so hooked on it, and it's going to be another thing that I have to put limits on,' " says Mrs. Lewis, a stay-at-home mother. "And, in fact, it was."

Balance, limits and supervision are key to parenting children who have been bitten by the video-game bug, say media watchdogs and members of the medical and mental-health communities. Many children who play endless hours of video games face obesity because of a lack of exercise, witness virtual violence and may be deprived of the social interactions of the third-dimensional world, they say.

Electronic games, whether played on a computer, a television console or a hand-held system are an undeniable force in popular culture and have become part of the social experience of America's youth.

In fact, Americans last year spent an unprecedented $6.9 billion on computer and video-game software, according to the NPD Group, a global market information company based in New York.

The Lewis household has expanded its technological arsenal over the years. Matthew, now 12, and brother Patrick, 8, own several Game Boys as well as two TV console systems: a PlayStation2 and a Game Cube. Their mother says she is vigilant about the amount of time the boys spend using these systems, limiting their sessions to two-hour stints on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"I don't mind having them, but it's really something I have to think about to make sure it's not their sole source of entertainment," she says. "For us, having the games is not really a big deal because we encourage them to do other things. They really don't have all that much time to play."

Popular with children

Apparently, though, many people do manage to fit high-tech entertainment squarely into their schedules.

A survey of 1,281 people in 816 households found that 60 percent play computer and video games and 37 percent of players are ages 6 to 17.

The 2000 survey was done by the local polling company Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Interactive Digital Software Association, a nonprofit D.C.-based trade group.

IDSA president Doug Lowenstein says he's not surprised by the popularity of electronic games with children.

"Of all the entertainment out there, this is the only form that's rooted in technology and interactivity, which is very central to the lives of young people today," he says. "They are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, with computers. For them, interactive entertainment is as natural as listening to radio or watching TV was to previous generations."

An incredible variety of games, boasting sophisticated graphics and story lines, is available, Mr. Lowenstein says.

"And contrary to what a lot of people believe, they are extremely socializing," he says. "Most kids play [these] games with their friends" as a team or in single competition, which "holds a lot of appeal."

The video game is an appealing as well as engaging, entertaining and potentially mind-building form of media, says David Walsh , a psychologist and family therapist. He's also the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit national resource center focusing on the media's impact on children and families.

"Some really get kids into problem-solving and strategizing in some pretty complex ways," he says. "But there's a lot of stuff on the market that's not kid-friendly content. It's a pretty immature industry in terms of content. The creativity that goes into the technology is not being matched, so many are the same formula: kill people, racing games, point and shoot."

Ratings and violence

In the wake of congressional hearings about industry standards, the IDSA in 1994 established the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory body that applies ratings, advertising guidelines and online privacy principles that are adopted by the industry.

The two-part grading system comprises rating symbols, which suggest the age group most appropriate for specific game use, and content descriptors, which list content elements that may be of interest or concern to consumers.

To date, the ESRB has rated more than 8,000 titles submitted by 350 publishers, and 65 percent have been rated E, for "everyone," ESRB president Patricia Vance says.

However, not all observers have been satisfied with the accuracy of this rating system. One such voice of dissent is the National Institute on Media and the Family, which in December 2002 released its seventh Mediawise Video Game Report Card, offering a peek into the interactive gaming industry and focusing on issues related to child welfare. NIMF awarded the industry a very poor grade for ratings accuracy.

In fact, the ESRB is undertaking a review of the ratings process, and the results probably will be available this spring, Ms. Vance says.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City has been a top seller in the United States since its debut in October 2002. The game carries an M rating, for "mature." ("Content may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. May contain mature sexual themes or more intense violence or language.")

Grand Theft includes graphic elements of blood and gore, strong language, strong sexual content and violence, according to the rating.

Vice City invites gamers to step into the shoes of a street hood (characterized by the voice talents of screen actor Ray Liotta) who uses weapons of every shape and size to fight against local civilians and law enforcement and gang members.

Mr. Walsh says Vice City also reflects a misogynistic and violent attitude toward girls and women, and it's a hugely popular game with children.

"We know that because we asked kids what is the hot game this year," he says. "I surveyed over 600 parents and asked them, 'How many of you are familiar with the content of these games?' Less than 5 percent knew the content. The games cost $40 and $50. Parent after parent bought the game for their kids without knowing the content."

The most recent best-selling games "glorify and reward extreme violence, particularly toward women," Mr. Walsh and his colleagues noted in the NIMF 2002 report card. Mr. Walsh says he has questioned children about this.

"The best they can do is say, 'It's cool, and it's fun,' " he says. "That's the best they can come up with. 'Do you think about what you're doing?' 'No, it's fun. I know it's a game.' They make no connection, even though the evidence is mounting that clearly points to a carry-over from violence on the video screen to aggressive behavior in kids. They're in complete denial, and many of the parents are, as well."

'Mean and rude'

In a 2002 study of more than 200 third- to fifth-graders, for example, Mr. Walsh says he and his colleagues found that "children who played more violent video games were more likely to be described by their peers and teachers as mean and rude.

"While boys were more likely to play violent video games than girls, both boys and girls who played violent video games were more likely to show what are known as relationally aggressive behaviors," Mr. Walsh says.

Iowa State University psychology professor Craig Anderson and colleague Brad Bushman in 2001 showed a consistent pattern of results across 35 studies of video games. Exposure to violent games increased aggressive thoughts in children and adults as well as aggressive feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviors, they concluded.

These are just a few of numerous examples of the link between aggression and gaming, Mr. Walsh says. Taken together, they suggest that both the amount and the content of video games should be important considerations for parents, he says.

Tastes vary, and development ranges, Ms. Vance says in discussing the ratings board, and it's a parent's right to choose what to buy for his or her child. However, she says, parents often will walk into a store and buy a game without really knowing what's in the product.

"The awareness of the ratings system is actually quite high," she says. "Why parents are still purchasing M-rated games for young children, I'm not sure. I think it's kids talking parents into it. The other part is just parents making an assumption that it's a game, and it's fine for their child to make their own judgment call. They do that as well with movies, renting PG-13 movies for 10-year-old children."

Mr. Lowenstein of the industry's trade group offers another theory.

"When it comes to interactive entertainment technology, parents in their 40s and 50s are at the outer edge of when video games became big. For you, it's not your thing. Many don't get it and are intimidated by it.

"They essentially adopt the attitude that, 'This is for my children, and I trust them. I don't want to get involved.' I have talked to a lot of parents about this. Parents are not bringing the same level of oversight to their children's diet when it comes to video games as they do when it comes to entertainment forms they're more familiar with, such as TV."

The lure of the games

District residents Wendy Clark and her husband, Kim Bruno, didn't give much thought to electronic gaming while their children were young. When they decided to purchase a Nintendo system for their older son, Zachary, now 12, they found themselves already behind the curve.

"There's an enormous social pressure for the kids to know all the TV shows and the Nintendo games," says Ms. Clark, a stay-at-home mother who's a former attorney. "Our son was 7 or 8, but all of his friends already had the games some had two or three.

"I think it got to the point where we decided that he'd either go to other people's houses all the time to play it, or if I wanted him to bring his friends here to play, then having that type of entertainment was a necessary thing. I know one other family who never got one, but that child comes to our house every possible opportunity and heads straight to the Nintendo. As far as I know, everybody else has some type of electronic gaming system."

Ms. Clark says she has regretted the decision many times.

"It's a struggle to try to give them a childhood and not let them jump to adulthood and not sedate themselves by staring at a screen," she says. "My kids have a hard time limiting themselves; it's like a black hole that they dive into. We set time limits; they don't follow them, so it's up to me to make sure I enforce the limit every day. The magnetic draw of these games is really hard for me to understand."

Ms. Clark says she believes in the "all-things-in-moderation theory." However, she says, gaming activities can become so all-consuming that they crowd other, more desirable activities from children's schedules.

In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics' most recent data indicate that 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 almost 9 million are obese.

There's no question that video games are addicting to children, says Dr. Donald Shifrin, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

"The visual aspect of [these games] is much more affable or enticing to us than audio," says Dr. Shifrin, who also serves as the media spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We're a visual nation. [Electronic games] are action-oriented; they are made for short attention spans we don't have to slowly turn a page."

Compare the activity with sitting in a classroom, he says.

"If you are an avid video-game player and you have the attention span that focuses on very sharp, quick transitions so that you have to make decisions quickly, both mind and hand, imagine trying to focus and incorporate the lessons a teacher is trying to teach you," Dr. Shifrin says. "It's incumbent on parents to realize that machines are ineffective teachers of what we might call 'cultured learning.' "

As with everything in life, balance is crucial, he says.

"How much fast food should they get, what and how much TV should they watch, how much basketball should they play? Video games fit into this context," he says. "The difficult thing is, when do they become a substitute for social interaction? It's up to parents to be aware of what they want their children to be exposed to. How do we want our children to grow up? That's the question."

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