Are Game Players at Risk?

The 12-year-old boy “cornered an unarmed opponent and held the gun to his head at point-blank range. ‘You can’t get away!’ the boy said with a maniacal sneer, taunting the character on the screen. ‘You’re mine!’ The boy pushed the button and shot the character in the face. Blood splattered the lab coat of the character as he whirled and fell. ‘You’re down!’ the boy said, laughing.”

THIS example of a certain computer game situation, quoted from the article “Computer Violence: Are Your Kids at Risk?” by Stephen Barr, raises the question in our title. There are over 5,000 different computer and video games on the market. A segment of them are considered to be both educational and harmlessly entertaining.

One such game teaches geography; and another, how to fly an airplane. Others train the player in logical thinking and problem solving. There are even games that are intended to have a therapeutic effect on the player. For example, one is designed to help those with a reading disorder. Some games may also help  young people to become more computer literate, which is increasingly important in this technology-driven era.

Experts Point Out the Dark Side

“A segment of games features antisocial themes of violence, sex and crude language,” says David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family. “Unfortunately, it’s a segment that seems particularly popular with kids ages eight to 15.”

One study in the United States showed that almost 80 percent of the video games young people preferred contained violence. Rick Dyer, president of Virtual Image Productions, says: “These are not just games anymore. These are learning machines. We’re teaching kids in the most incredible manner what it’s like to pull the trigger. . . . What they’re not learning are the real-life consequences.”

Public outcry against violent games was made as early as 1976 in response to the arcade game Death Race. The idea of the game was to run over pedestrians walking back and forth across the screen. The player who ran over the most pedestrians won. The new, more sophisticated games have better graphics and allow the player to participate in even more realistic violent acts.

In the game Carmageddon, for example, the player will have driven over and killed up to 33,000 people by the time all levels are completed. A description of the sequel to the game says: “Your victims not only squish under your tires and splatter blood on the windshield, they also get on their knees and beg for mercy, or commit suicide. If you like, you can also dismember them.”

Is all this simulated violence harmful? Approximately 3,000 different studies have been conducted on this subject. Many have suggested that there is a connection between violence in games and increased aggressiveness in the players. Incidents of violence among youths are often seen as evidence of a connection.

Some specialists downplay the influence of the games, saying that other factors must be taken into consideration, such as the possibility that kids who already have violent tendencies are choosing such games. But could it be that violent games still play a contributing role? It seems unrealistic to insist that people are not influenced by what they see. If that were true, why would the corporate world spend billions of dollars annually for television advertising?

 “The Skill and the Will to Kill”

Military psychologist David Grossman, author of the book On Killing, claims that violence in computer games trains children in the same way that military training teaches soldiers to overcome their inborn resistance to killing. For example, the military discovered that it was possible to break down this reluctance in a large percentage of people in the infantry simply by replacing the normal bull’s-eye targets with man-shaped targets during shooting practice. In a similar fashion, claims Grossman, violent games teach children “the skill and the will to kill.”

According to research appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, video- and computer-game violence may be even more dangerous than violence shown on television or in films, since the player identifies himself with the characters carrying out the violence. Television can make us spectators of violence; computer games can make us feel like participants. Furthermore, a movie may take a child only a couple of hours to watch, but a child may spend up to 100 hours mastering a typical video game.

Some countries have implemented a classification system designed to point out that brutally violent games are only for adults. But such a system is useful only to the extent that it is enforced. One study in the United States showed that 66 percent of the parents surveyed were not even familiar with the rating system. The director of the Entertainment Software Rating Board says that the system is not primarily designed to prevent children from getting certain games. He explains: “Our role is not to dictate taste. We give parents the tools to determine what they do or don’t want for their children.”

Addictive Games?

The new on-line games, played on the Internet with people around the globe, let each player choose to play the role of a certain character, which can advance through various challenges, making the player feel increasingly successful. The time that a player spends on his character becomes an investment and gives the player a sense of reward that draws him back for more. For some, playing can seem almost addictive​—perhaps this is one reason why an on-line game can continue for months or even years.

 Time magazine reported that lately in South Korea there has been great interest in the on-line game called Lineage. In this game the participants fight for victory in a medieval environment. The player progresses through various levels, seeking to achieve special rank. Some youths play all night long and have trouble staying awake during school the next day. Parents worry but do not always know how to handle the problem. One young player explained in an interview: “When people meet me online they think I’m sharp, but when they meet me off-line, they advise me to lose weight.”

The Korean psychologist Joonmo Kwon offers his explanation of why Lineage has won such popularity: “In the real world, in Korea, you have to repress your drives and hidden desires. In the game they come out.” Young people thus flee from reality into a fantasy world. One astute commentator describes game players this way: “For the gamer, the game world is much more attractive than reality. Reality is only a space in which he makes a small amount of necessary money for continuing the game.”

Effects on Health

Statistics from the United States show that the average sixth-grade student watches four hours of television per day​—and that does not even include the time he spends playing games while staring at a computer or a TV screen. In a 1995 survey, more than 60 percent of the children admitted that they often played longer than they intended. Neglect of schoolwork can easily result. A Japanese study showed that computer games stimulate only a limited part of a child’s brain. According to the study, children need more reading, writing, and arithmetic. But for their brains to develop fully, they also need the stimulation of playing outside with other children and interacting with others.

Reportedly, some 40 percent of U.S. children between five and eight years of age are clinically obese. Likely contributing to the problem is a lack of exercise because of too much time spent in front of the TV or computer screen. One company has even developed exercise equipment that can be used while playing computer games. Obviously, though, it would be far better to limit the time spent playing such games, leaving ample time for other activities that help a child to develop a well-rounded personality.

Another health issue: Eye problems may result from staring at a screen for great lengths of time. Surveys show that at least a quarter of all computer users experience visual problems. One reason is that the blink rate may slow  down, causing dryness and irritation of the eye. Blinking clears the eye, stimulating tear production and washing out contaminants.

With their limited measure of self-awareness, children can play computer games for hours on end, with few breaks. This may cause eyestrain and focusing problems. Experts suggest taking regular breaks of several minutes after each hour of computer use. *

A Global Business on the March

Interest in on-line games seems to be on the rise all over the world. In more and more places, Internet cafés are being opened. They are furnished with a number of computers, and the guests pay to play network games. It is not unheard of for youths to spend $200 a month at such cafés.

No doubt about it, the gaming industry is on the march. It is expected that the market for on-line games will increase by over 70 percent in the next five years.

Clearly, though, this booming industry has its dark side. The risks are real. None of us can afford to endanger our health, waste inordinate amounts of time and money, or become accustomed to violence and killing. Our children are even less able to afford such costs. So it can hardly be said that computer games are always educational or harmless entertainment. David Walsh, quoted earlier, warns: “The media are probably more powerful than we realize.” He adds: “If parents are responsible for caring for their children, then our definition of caring has to keep pace with a changing media world.”

Indeed, as the Bible says, “the scene of this world is changing.” (1 Corinthians 7:31) And nothing, it seems, changes faster than the entertainment media. More than a few parents feel overwhelmed just trying to keep up with the ever-shifting trends and influences that bombard their children from day to day. Do not lose heart, though. Many parents are finding success in raising their children by helping them to focus on what truly matters. Children, like the rest of us, need to know that our greatest needs can never be filled by entertainment​—whether through the computer, TV, or any other medium. True happiness, as Jesus once said, comes to those “conscious of their spiritual need.”​—Matthew 5:3.


^ par. 24 Additionally, some recommend that all computer users relax their eyes every 15 minutes by looking away from the screen at objects farther away. Others suggest sitting at least two feet [60 cm] from the screen and avoiding computer use when feeling tired.

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ELECTRONIC GAMES​A Summary of the Risks

▸ Playing violent computer and video games may encourage aggressive behavior.

▸ Electronic games can make you more than a spectator of violence; they are designed to make you feel like a participant.

▸ For the impressionable, games may blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.

▸ Like an addiction, game playing can lead to neglect of important obligations and relationships.

▸ Games can consume time that children should spend on other important activities, such as studying, interacting with others, and playing creatively.

▸ Prolonged staring at the screen can cause eyestrain.

▸ Lack of exercise, a possible result of game playing, can lead to obesity.

▸ Games can rob you of money and time.

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One Way of Kicking the Habit

Thomas, a 23-year-old Christian, recalls: “When I was a schoolboy, my homework suffered a lot because of my game playing. Later in life it affected other things. I continued playing, even after I became a full-time volunteer minister. I finally realized that it was taking up too much of my time and energy. Sometimes when I had played before going out in the ministry or to a Christian meeting, I found it very difficult to concentrate. I was almost always thinking about how I would solve a certain game problem after getting home. My personal study and regular Bible reading suffered. My joy in serving God began to decline.

“Late one night when in bed, I felt that I just couldn’t go on like that. I got up, turned on my computer, selected all the games, and pushed the delete button. Gone in a second! That was really tough. I realized that I was more attached to games than I had thought. But I also experienced a great feeling of victory because I knew that I had done it for my own good. I admit that I have bought a few games since then. But now I am far stricter with myself. As soon as I find it difficult to keep my playing at a balanced level, I just push the delete button again.”

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Some say there is a connection between game violence and aggressiveness in the players

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An Internet game room in Seoul, Korea