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Violence in Video Games: Play at Your Own Risk

Q U I C K S C A N

The Shame Game
Playing With Fire
What's the Final Score?

Let’s play a game. Your name is CJ—a hard-bitten gang member combing the violent and chaotic streets of your old neighborhood. Your mission is to avenge the murder of your mother. Along the way, you can commit burglary, beat prostitutes until they die, steal cars and gun down rival gang members, if you choose.

If vigilantism is not your game, try this: You are an armed assassin hiding out on the sixth floor of a Dallas warehouse in November 1963. Your objective is to execute the man riding in the backseat of the convertible limousine:  our 35th president, John F. Kennedy.

It sounds too vulgar to be believed, but video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and JFK Reloaded are on the market today, offering players—many of them children—a landscape where unspeakable acts of brutality and sadism are within reach.

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The Shame Game

Perhaps the most unsettling feature of violent video games—aside from their teen-targeted marketing—is that they allow the player, regardless of age, to become the main character of the games—vicious, brutal tendencies and all.

Case in point: JFK Reloaded, which was released on the 41st anniversary of Kennedy’s death, is structured around a point system. Shooting the president in the precise areas of his body—based on the findings of the Warren Commission—garners more points. Shooting the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, or other occupants of the limousine will deduct from the overall score.

The Scottish firm Traffic Games, which developed JFK Reloaded, argues that the product is not in poor taste. Kirk Ewing, managing director of Traffic Games, explains his company’s purpose in releasing it.

“We believe that the only thing we’re exploiting is new technology,” he says. “We genuinely believe that if we get enough people participating, we’ll be able to disprove once and for all any notion that someone else was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy.”

Is this a tool for solving a mystery or an at-home assassination tutorial? Ewing’s real motives are unclear. What is unmistakable is the grotesque nature of the game itself: Not only can the player trace the direction of the bullets inside John Kennedy’s body, but with the simple press of a button, blood can erupt from his wounds.

Equally alarming is its accessibility: JFK Reloaded can be downloaded from the Internet for a meager $9.99.

Playing With Fire

Even though games such as Grand Theft Auto are rated “M” for mature players, according to the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), an independent, nonprofit organization and media resource for parents, 34 percent of children and 50 percent of boys frequently purchase video games that are designed for older, more mature players.

That’s a staggering number of young people being exposed to a buffet of  adult situations such as drug use, prison rape, pimping, nudity, arson and murder, as is the case in Grand Theft Auto.

Certainly, not every child who plays these games will turn criminal, but the NIMF believes that exposure to such adult situations, coupled with the often-susceptible, always-developing teenage mind, could be a dangerous recipe.

“The groundbreaking discoveries about the teenage brain reveal that the growth spurts continue throughout adolescence, making teens more impressionable,” the NIMF’s Web site reports.

“Teenagers are wiring the circuits for self-control, responsibility and relationships they will carry with them into adulthood. The latest brain research shows that violent games activate the anger center of the teenage brain while dampening the brain’s ‘conscience.’”

It seems young people today haven’t a chance: With an onslaught of gratuitous and inappropriate films, as well as a lineup of sometimes distasteful television programs, children are bombarded with visuals far too mature for their young minds to process.

Outlets of entertainment such as Grand Theft Auto, unlike other forms of media, take it to a darker, more sinister place by inviting the player to participate in appalling behavior. It’s one thing for a minor to sit in a darkened theater watching a crime being committed onscreen. It’s quite another for a child to sit inches away from a television, controller in hand, and pretend to commit the crimes.

What's the Final Score?

As a proud Generation X-er, I’ve played a video game or two in my day. When I was growing up, the biggest fear that adults had for an excess of video game playing was a lack of fresh air.

Times have changed. Parents of today must be conscious of how their kids choose to entertain themselves, and they must give significant thought to the imagery being presented before their unsophisticated eyes.

Video game violence does not breed damaged people, but consistent exposure to such material can accomplish something truly alarming by desensitizing young people to the value, the beauty and the fragility of life.

Recent history offers a telling example: Five years ago on a quiet April morning in a Colorado town, two troubled teenagers, both enthusiasts of a first-person-shooter video game called Doom, walked into their school and opened fire, killing 13 people and wounding 23 others before ending their own lives. Their names: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Their high school: Columbine.—C.H.


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