"What did you do at your friend's house?" you ask your teenaged son over dinner.
He grins. "Stole a car, drove it into a crowd, and then fired a rocket launcher at a helicopter!"
Don't panic – he's probably just describing a session playing a new video game, Grand Theft Auto IV. Like its predecessors, the newest Grand Theft Auto is packed with raw subject matter: It features graphic violence, profanity, and sexual themes, set against the backdrop of a city that resembles New York almost exactly. Although the game isn't intended for kids under the age of 17, chances are that your kids or their friends won't have any trouble acquiring a copy.
Some parents have no problem with their kids playing violent games, because they trust them to know the difference between fantasy and reality, and they're glad to know where their kids are and what they're doing. Others see violent games as nothing more than murder simulators that desensitize kids to real-life pain and suffering. You might find yourself wondering: Are violent video games really bad for kids? And how can I find out about the kinds of games my kids want to play?
Be Aware of Possible Effects
Despite numerous studies, the effect of violent media on kids is difficult to pin down - not least because any such effect is bound to vary from one individual to another. One recent study by UK-based researcher Dr. Tanya Byron concluded that even trying to determine whether a game can be good or bad for all children may not be asking the right question:
"The very same content can be useful to a child at a certain point in their life and development and may be equally damaging to another child. That means focusing on the child, what we know about how children's brains develop, how they learn and how they change as they grow up. This is not straightforward - while we can try to categorize children by age and gender there are vast individual differences that will impact on a child's experience when gaming or online, especially the wider context in which they have developed and in which they experience the technology." (From Byron Review.)
Video games encourage experimentation within a set of rules that may not always be clearly defined at the outset. Part of playing a game is figuring out what its particular boundaries are. Furthermore, unlike movies or books, the experience of playing a video game is dictated in large part by the decisions the player makes. In the case of something like Grand Theft Auto, many of the gameplay possibilities that seem so horrifying are optional, and are in fact punished within the context of the game when the police start to chase the character.
Nevertheless, there's no question that many people do play mostly for the chance to engage in simulated criminal activity, free of any real-world consequences. And while no conclusive studies exist to prove any kind of long-term effect on kids who play these games, several reputable trials have shown that playing games does temporarily raise one's aggression level (as does playing sports). If video games lead to temper tantrums or even fights in your house, then you may have a problem.