Expert: Children who play violent video games desensitized to violence

Game ratings play role in helping parents

After an hour or two of playing a video game like Clash of Clans, Elisabeth Wilkins’ 11-year-old son tends to be grumpy.

He’s definitely in a worse mood than when he started playing the game, particularly if he keeps losing, Wilkins said. The game allows players to build their own villages and raid and pillage from others.

“He gets discouraged,” said Wilkins, the Maine-based editor of the online parenting magazine EmpoweringParents.com. “And he wants to keep playing, so there’s an addictive quality to the game.”

The popular game, available through the Apple and Android operating systems, is recommended for ages nine and older. Wilkins cautions parents to pay attention to these recommendations, especially as graphics in video games evolve and become more life-like.

“People for some reason think video games are toys,” said Wilkins, who has covered the topic on her site . “I think they need to understand that certain video games contain a lot of violence.” 

IN FOCUS | Tuesday at 6 p.m. ABC2 News takes a closer look at video game ratings and the organization that rates mobile game apps.

The notion of whether violent video games lead to violent behavior in children and adolescents is controversial.

Last year, a study done at Texas A&M International University found violent video games don’t cause “high-risk” teens—those with depression or attention deficit disorder—to become aggressive.

Professors studied 377 American children who were an average of 13 years old and had ADD and depressive symptoms.

The study , published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that playing video games actually had a calming effect on youths with ADD symptoms.

But at the very least, said Jonathan Mattanah, a professor of psychology at Towson University, children who play violent video games regularly grow desensitized to violence.

“But it’s not clear at this point that a child would become violent by playing a violent video game,” Mattanah said.

Still, ratings are a useful tool for parents, he said.

“It’s good to have a system that allows parents to determine how much violence their children are being exposed to,” Mattanah said.

Since 1994, the Electronic Software Rating Board has been the main arbiter of video game ratings.

“Our goal is not to restrict or censor video games, but rather to provide guidance that helps inform a parent’s decision about whether they deem a game suitable for their child,” said Patricia Vance, the ESRB’s president. “Having consistent, trustworthy standards on which parents can rely cannot and should not be taken for granted … especially considering the recent proliferation of games and devices on which they can be played.”

In order to handle the high volume of digitally delivered games and mobile apps, a more “scalable” rating process was introduced in 2011, Vance said.

Games that are only available via download on a console, PC, tablet or mobile device are rated using this process, while publishers complete a series of multiple-choice questions that address content across relevant categories.  The responses to these questions automatically determine the game's rating category, content descriptors and interactive elements. 

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The ESRB tests games post-release to make sure its ratings have been appropriately assigned and quickly makes adjustments if necessary.

“We anticipate that the digital games market will continue to grow, and ESRB ratings will be more broadly available across mobile devices,” Vance said.

Could a child or adolescent with anger problems and a proclivity toward violence be influenced by a graphic video game? It’s possible, Mattanah said.

On the other hand, he said children with no tendency toward violence seem not to be affected at all by such games.

“There’s no evidence they’ll turn down that road,” he said.

While Mattanah couldn’t say that video games are growing more violent, there are certainly more video games on the market than ever before — giving children, and their parents, a lot more choices.

Think hard about those choices, Wilkins said.

“You don’t have a lot of control over what happens outside your home. You do have control over what happens inside,” she said.

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