In a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled last week that it's unconstitutional for California to try to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. The law may not be close to changing, but parents still have a right to be concerned about the impact of violent video games on their children.
"I'm against any level of video violence -- for any age group. There's enough in real life," says Patrick Aievoli, director of the Interactive Multimedia Arts program at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in Brookville. He also teaches video game design at Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. "As unpopular as this may make me, I believe that no child needs to re-enact any violent scenario, such as shooting, blowing things up, stealing cars, and running through a city and gaining points by hurting or killing people. These games are addictive and unnecessary."
What follows is a guide for monitoring and handling your children's exposure:
Buy Quality Games
Aievoli says he hopes that games by educational publishers will take over the multibillion-dollar market. "The gaming industry is pushing to teach science, social studies and math in a gaming structure," he says, "and it's the parent's responsibility to seek out quality games." He cites Oregon Trail, a survival video game that teaches kids how to make their way across the United States in the 1800s, as an excellent example of a mix of fun and learning. He touts sports games that teach technique and strategy and others that promote literacy and critical thinking such as Words With Friends, Hangman With Friends and Chess With Friends.
"There's remarkable music software called Smart Music that helps students learn how to play instruments, write music and hear their creations back with a fully accompanying orchestra," he says. "Drawing apps like Brushes that work on the iPad or on a Wii are cool and creative. And Kinect by Microsoft is a controller-free system that enables the whole player's body to be the game control instead of just the thumb."
Preteens and teens who spend a significant amount of time playing video games -- violent or not -- rather than engaging in sports and other after school activities can be struggling with social problems, warns Joan E. Hertz, Ph.D, a psychoanalyst based in Hicksville. "Feelings of alienation can leave these children socially isolated and angry. While violent video games provide an outlet, they do not teach positive social skills and helping behaviors," warns Hertz. Instead, they reinforce destructive behavioral patterns. "Whether our legal system bans these videos or not," says Hertz, "I think it is incumbent upon parents to redirect their children toward healthy activities and to seek professional intervention as needed."
Learn about the technology
"You can try to put all the laws you want in place -- parents need to know about the technology and games their kids are using," says Allison Squillace, a licensed social worker in private practice in Great Neck who specializes in treating people with technology issues. Squillace says she believes that although many parents are familiar with computers and cellphones, they are unfamiliar with the video game systems and apps their children are using and that they need to get over their fear and reluctance.
"While the rating system is important, it doesn't take the place of parental involvement and responsibility. I know children in elementary school who are playing games that are rated for adolescents and adults," says Squillace. Just like you should want to know about the content of the movies and television shows your kids are watching, you need to know the content of the games they are playing.
How distracted are you?
Another issue of concern to Squillace is that many parents are distracted by their own technology use -- email, texting and Facebook -- and that may interfere with their availability to research what their kids are playing. "You have to think about how much time and energy you are putting into learning about your child's computer and video game usage," she says.
She says she believes that many adults are more likely to spend time researching Consumer Reports for an auto or other important product than they are willing to research the games they buy for their child. Squillace advises putting video games and computers in a family space because they will be more likely to view what their children are looking at.
Is your child addicted?
"I see more and more kids and adults with technology-related issues every year," says Lawrence Alssid, a Wantagh psychologist. From his experience, while kids who play these games may experience physiological arousal and aggressive thoughts at the time of play, it doesn't translate into a life of crime.
"I'm, however, more concerned about the addictive nature of the games," he says. "The kids I see tend not to have many friends and sometimes are even bullied. They feel a sense of mastery and a temporary boost to their self-esteem when they play these games. But they are not doing the things they are supposed to: working hard in school, doing homework, getting a job, socializing or playing sports. Some kids even stop eating, sleeping and grooming themselves properly. Many come home from school and play video games until they go to sleep. Parents feel helpless and try to set limits, but the kids have a lot of unsupervised time."
Alssid advises that parents to seek psychological help if they believe it's necessary. Treatment may include anti-depressants. At home, parents should set up a reward system (often with money) for doing things not connected to technology: going to a movie or the mall; taking a walk, bike riding or shooting hoops; drawing or joining a sports team.
There's no way around it: Gaming is here to stay. Says Aievoli, "It has a deep acceptance and effect on children's lives and learning, and it may very well become the backbone of our education system. Ultimately, that will have a huge impact on the future of our economy," he says. But, as with anything, there's always good that comes with the bad. Be sure to keep a close eye on what your kids are eyeing.
The rating system
The Entertainment Software Rating Board is an independent organization that rates every game that you can buy in a store, and their labels are clearly printed on both the back and the front of all video game boxes. Keep in mind, however, that a rating may not give you all the information you need about a game's content.
A Harvard School of Public Health study found that roughly three out of five video games rated E -- which should be suitable for children as young as 6 -- contained significant levels of violence.
While the major manufacturers will adhere to the standards, be aware that independent gamers and online games may not adhere to the rating system, says Aievoli. Some games may also have optional, user-created content that is not rated.
Finally, you should find out whether the game can be played with others over the Internet (through a service such as Xbox Live) and if those conversations will be moderated.
Bottom line: Always check out a game yourself before letting your kids play it.
FOR HELP: What They Play
(whattheyplay.com) is a parents' guide to video games, providing expert insight into the themes and content of hundreds of today's most popular interactive entertainment products.
THE RATINGS: What they mean
* Early Childhood (EC): Early Content may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Titles in this category are supposed to contain no material that parents would find inappropriate.
*Everyone (E): Content may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence and some comic mischief and/or mild language.
* Everyone 10+ (E10+): Content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
* Teen (T): Content may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violent content, mild or strong language and/or suggestive themes.
* Mature (M): Content may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain mature sexual themes, more intense violence and/or strong language.
* Adults Only (AO): Content suitable only for adults. Titles in this category may include graphic depictions of sex and/or violence. Adults Only products are not intended for people younger than 18.
* Rating Pending: Used only for advertising and/or marketing materials created for titles that have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting a final rating.
* Content Descriptor: More than 30 standardized phrases that indicate content that triggered a particular rating and may be of interest or concern.