November 29, 2004

ARTICLES: Beware parents: Some video games not for kids

Beware parents: Some video games not for kids
By: Robert Cristo , The Record

It may be hailed as one of the most innovative and popular video games to date, but media watchdogs are warning parents to think twice before placing the sexually explicit and ultra violent Grand Theft Auto: "San Andreas" adventure under the tree for their children this holiday season.

The days of kids writing to Santa Claus for straightforward presents like board games, train sets and remote control cars has long been replaced by a wish list of more ambiguous little boxed gifts of software that fail to reveal what's inside unless some investigation is done by the parent.
In recent years, the multi-billion video game industry has quite simply taken over the hearts, minds and imaginations of children and adults alike, and has morphed into one of the biggest players in the holiday season shopping binge with consumers snapping up hundreds of titles at around $50 a pop.
One of those games is the third installment on the Playstation II console of the mature-rated pop culture phenomenon known as Grand Theft Auto: "San Andreas" (GTO) adventure game. Over the past three years the game has taken in more than $32 million, but has also been listed as one the "worst games of the year" for its offensive violence by the National Institute on Media and Family.
"Just because it's a game doesn't mean it is OK for kids to play anymore," said Dr. Doug Gentile, the institute's director of research and a psychology professor at Iowa State University. "The aggressive violent tones and explicit sexual nature of games like Grand Theft Auto are nothing like parents remember when they played innocent games like Asteroids, Pac-Man and Space Invaders."
The highly realistic adventure game is admired for its realistic graphics depicting fully rendered cities a player can drive, swim, walk, fly (a plane) in, while also interacting with numerous characters while walking down the street.
A player can even gamble at a casino, parachute out of an airplane, bet on the horses, work-out at a gym, buy stylish clothes, take photographs, listen to radio stations as they drive, watch a sunset on the beach, eat a pizza, get a haircut or a tattoo and even become an ambulance driver or a firefighter.
While there might be innocent and admirable qualities to the game, critics call GTO the poster child for unbridled video-game violence and overt sexual themes that should never get into the hands of a child.
The game begins in a Los Angeles-type city that is still crippled by the crack-cocaine, gang-related drug wars of the early '90s. It puts the player in the shoes of an African American character who vows to avenge the murder of his mother while also restoring glory to his neighborhood gang.
Sounds innocent enough, but once a player gets started he or she has the ability to gun down police, commit car jacking where the player punches the driver in the face and pulls him out of the car, burglarize homes, lead drive-by shootings, shoot and kill innocent people and take their money, use foul language and pick up prostitutes.
Players can actually ride up to the sidewalk, beep their horns and lure a prostitute into their car and then drive off and find a quiet spot to park.
Once parked, a player never actually sees a sexual act performed (as you can't pick up a prostitute in a convertible) but from the outside of the car a player can see the car shake, hear the woman making noises, the health meter go up as the player's cash amount goes down.
After the implied act is completed the player can get out of the car and beat up the prostitute to get his money back.
A study conducted by Gentile of fifth graders playing violent video games like GTO at the beginning of the school year found that by the end of the year, the students were behaving more aggressively than students who weren't interacting with the software.
Members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) are looking to alert "unwary" parents to the "blood-soaked" and "anti-social" content of the game. They believe parents are faced with "confusing" advertising and "vague, poorly" promoted ratings systems for videogames like GTO and others with mature content.
"While I doubt that many parents or grandparents would deliberately put a copy of Grand Theft Auto in the hands of a pre-teen, it is all too easy to see how that could happen," said Sister Pat Wolf, executive director of ICCR.
Dr. Martha Burk, president of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, said video game retailers "must commit" to keeping video games with graphic violence or strong sexual themes away from games more palatable for children.
"Too many newspaper ads today mix in the videogames for toddlers with ones no child should see," said Burk, who added that websites give away free children's items with games considered more for adults. "That makes the violent video games seem like something designed for kids."
National video game retailers like Electronics boutique (EB games) and some members of Congress say the best guide for parents to determine if the game is right for their kids is the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB)
The rating is usually on the bottom left-hand side of the game box and goes from rated "E" for everyone, "T" for teen or "M" for adults. GTO is rated "M" for 17-year olds and up. There is also an AO (adults only) rating that many people believe GTO should fall under, because it would then keep high school seniors from legally purchasing the game.
As it stands now, video game retailers are not required by law to ask for identification of the purchaser, but come Dec. 31 it will be as part of a national agreement last year in Washington.
"In New York state, most retailers have already enforced it, but after Dec. 31 nobody under 17 will be allowed to purchase an "M" rated game," said Paul Koulogeorge, EB games director of marketing.
Donna Marsoud, a Rotterdam resident with five children ranging in ages 11 to 15, says she pays close attention to the video games her children play by reading their magazines on the subject, going on the Internet to learn specifics about the game, talking to friends with children and renting the game at Blockbuster Video and checking it out before purchasing it.
"Every year when those Grand Theft Auto games come out, my kids want it, but I don't think it's appropriate for children," said Marsoud. "Parents these days have to be very careful, because they (video game companies) market games exclusively meant for adults to kids."
"I think if parents took a look at what their kids were playing they'd be really stunned by the level of brutality and anti-social behavior the games involve," she added.
For parents looking for new hot-selling video games the whole family can enjoy, there's the adventure titled Spiderman 2, which allows the player to swing around on tall buildings and protect citizens from criminals.
There's also the takeoff of the fairy tale Shrek 2, where players can revisit key locations from the movie sequel.
Tony Hawk's Underground 2 is also a hugely popular skate board sports title with teenagers.
Community activist Alice Green said she never heard of GTO before, but when she learned about the negative African American stereotypes that were celebrated in the game; she was offended and troubled by it.
Green, who leads the Center for Law & Justice in Albany, pointed out that studies show black teenagers watch more television than white kids on average and she's guessing the same hold true for video games.
"We already have enough negative stereotyping of black culture in movies, television and on the news that portrays black people who are violent, on drugs and buffoons," said Green. "This type of video game only reinforces those negative stereotypes in young black kids as well as whites who already get enough negative information on black urban culture from the media."
Parents interviewed said they either never heard of the game, knew their kids were playing it but were unsure about the content or, in rare cases, were fully aware of the GTO series and kept their children far away from it.


Chris Schuepp
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