Snipers. Rape. Cars targeting pedestrians. Heads
exploding in a shower of gore.
These scenes can all be found in violent video
games, and this month the Journal of Adolescence
published several studies looking at their effects
on youth. I was involved in one study (Gentile,
Lynch, Linder, & Walsh, 2004). After looking at
more than 600 Grade 8 and Grade 9 students, we found
that playing a lot of violent video games was a
serious risk factor linked with children's
anti-social and aggressive behaviour -- even after
controlling for the amount the children play, their
gender and whether they have naturally hostile
personalities. Surprisingly, even the kids who are
not naturally aggressive are almost 10 times more
likely, if they play a lot of violent video games,
to get into physical fights than kids who do not.
Our study is only one of about 40 peer-reviewed,
published studies that demonstrate that playing
violent video games increases aggressive feelings
and behaviours. These games are not the Pac-Man and
Pong of earlier generations; as technology has
advanced, violent video games have become extremely
graphic (in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a man
encounters a prostitute, has sex and then beats her
to death to get his money back).
Although such ultraviolent video games carry an M
(mature) rating, a recent study by the American
Federal Trade Commission found that children can buy
them easily. In a separate study of nearly 800 Grade
4 to Grade 8 kids, 87 per cent of boys reported that
they play M-rated games, and one in five admitted
that he had bought an M-rated game without parental
As the research evidence about the negative
effects of violent games become more compelling,
parents, educators, and policy-makers are
increasingly concerned about what to do. From my
perspective, there are three pillars of
responsibility: the video-game industry, the rental
and retail industry and parents.
The video-game industry must clearly and
accurately label the content of games, so that
parents know what they are getting before buying.
Recently, the authors of a study of teen-rated games
pointed out that there is a "significant amount
of content in T-rated video games that might
surprise adolescent players and their parents"
(including violent sexual themes and drug use).The
second responsibility of the video-game industry is
to market its products appropriately. Yet
advertisements for M-rated games have appeared in
Sports Illustrated for Kids. It's unfair of the
industry to label games as "not for kids"
while marketing them to children. True, the industry
has taken steps to reduce this, but there is still
significant room for improvement.
The rental and retail industries also have
responsibilities. First, they must create policies
under which children under 17 may not buy or rent
M-rated games without parental permission. Many
stores, including large chains and superstores, have
no such policies. Some of those who do don't enforce
them. In one sting operation conducted by the
National Institute on Media and the Family, children
as young as seven encountered no problems in about
half of their attempts to buy M-rated games. Parents
should be able to expect that stores won't allow
children access to M-rated games -- just as they
expect movie theatres won't give children access to
an R-rated movie when parents drop them off at the
The third pillar of responsibility is parents --
who must start by educating themselves about the
differences among video-game ratings ("E"
for everyone, "T" for teen, "M"
for mature) and to learn why it is important to pay
attention to the ratings. Here is where the research
is so useful: Studies show that both amount and
content matter. Children who play a lot of video
games get poorer grades in school. Children who play
violent games appear to become more aggressive over
Finally, parents need to act on their knowledge.
Just as playing violent games is what scientists
call a risk factor for negative outcomes for
children, active parental involvement in children's
video-game habits acts as a protective factor.
Should local, state, province or federal
governments get involved?
The video-game industry is responsive to some
parental concerns and to pressure from politicians.
Still, there probably are areas where legislation
could be helpful without rising to the level of
censorship. Just like the 1996 U.S.
Telecommunications Act, which mandated that TV shows
be rated, new legislation could require that the TV,
movie, and video-game industries create a universal
rating system so that parents need not learn the
full alphabet soup of different systems.
Legislation could also mandate that the ratings
be administered independently of each medium
(currently, U.S. TV ratings are assigned by the TV
networks, movie ratings by the Motion Picture
Association of America, etc.) Legislation might also
mandate the creation of an independent
ratings-review board to do research on the validity
of the ratings and maintain standards.
There have been legislative attempts to restrict
the sale of M-rated games to minors in the United
States. This approach seems reasonable: The
video-game industry itself acknowledges that these
games are not for children (hence the M-rating), and
legal precedent in the United States has established
that the government has an entirely appropriate role
in limiting the influences and activities to which
children are exposed.
In my country, state and local authorities
routinely restrict minors' access to tobacco, guns,
pornography, and gambling. In fact, the U.S. Supreme
Court, in Ginsberg v. New York (1968), upheld
limiting minors' access to pornography on the basis
of whether it was "rational for the legislature
to find that the minors' exposure to [such] material
might be harmful [emphasis added]."
The research conducted to date has clearly met
that test, and shows that, for some children,
exposure to violent media is harmful. Oddly, the
video-game industry has fought every legislative
attempt to restrict the sale of M-rated games to
minors. That is puzzling; it suggests that the
industry is unwilling to stand behind its own
ratings. That fact alone makes it clear that parents
should be very cautious before they buy that next
"hot" game for their child.
Douglas A. Gentile is director of research at
the National Institute on Media and the Family, and
an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State