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Do Video Games Really Spark Bad Behavior?

There should be less violence in video and computer games sold to kids, says the American Psychological Association.

The group adopted the resolution just as thousands of psychologists descend on Washington, for this week's annual APA meeting.

Private-practice psychologist Elizabeth Carll, PhD, and a past president of the of APA's media division, led the effort.

"Generally, the research shows that violence in video games increases children's aggressive behavior and decreases their helpful behavior," Carll tells WebMD.

Media Violence May Affect Children's Minds

Game Violence Worse for Kids Than TV Violence?

Carll says that kids who watch violent television shows become more aggressive and less empathic. But learning theory says that actually participating in violence — as kids do when playing many video and computer games — has a much stronger effect.

"If you are actively involved in learning, you remember things better," Carll says. "So in a game you do things over and over again, whereas in the movies or on television you watch it once. And in the game there is reinforcement for it. So if it is killing people that you're doing, you get a reward for that."

That's true, says Kevin M. Kieffer, PhD, professor of psychology at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Fla. Kiefer presented a paper to the APA that reviewed psychological studies of kids who play violent video and computer games.

"The bottom line is we see three things," Kieffer tells WebMD. One is short-term change toward more aggressive behavior. Two, there are gender differences: Boys play more often and they are more likely to be at risk of behavior changes. And three, some more vulnerable kids are drawn to these games — kids who are already more violent, and those with low self-esteem."

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Parents, Game Makers Should Act

The APA calls on parents to make their kids more "media literate." This, Carll says, will let them better understand the consequences of violent acts.

"It is important for parents and educators to review what the kids are viewing and to teach them," Carll says. "For example, a parent could play a game with a child. When someone gets killed, the parent could say, 'You know, this is just a game, and the dead person comes back the next time you turn on the game. But in real life, if you kill someone, he is dead forever.' Teaching empathy, this is what is missing from these games. Teach your children what it would mean in real life if you killed somebody."

Here's what the APA wants:

· Parents should teach kids media literacy.

· Game designers should make bad things happen to characters who do violent things.

· Game makers should improve their ratings system. Games should be rated for their actual amount of violence.

· Game developers should face up to the possibility that their products may have stronger effects on children than either television or movies.

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Study: Violent Games Not Linked to Aggression in Older Players

Kieffer and Carll admit that not all studies link violent video and computer games to problems. And Kieffer notes that there aren't any studies that look at the effects of playing these games over a longer period of time.

The first study actually to do this got surprising results. A month of playing a particularly violent computer game had no effect on player aggressiveness, finds Dmitri Williams, PhD, assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Williams looked at a particular kind of computer game — a multiplayer online role-playing game (MMRPG) called Asheron's Call 2 or AC2.

This kind of game is quickly becoming the most popular form of online game. The environment is constantly "on," and a player creates an alter ego — an avatar — that gains power as play goes on. Huge numbers of players are in the virtual game world at any one time. Cooperating with other players is essential for success.

Violence in AC2, Williams says, is nearly constant. Players must fend off attacks from various monsters armed with different weapons. When killed, the monsters gush blood and writhe in agony. However, players rarely fight against one another.

"AC2 is typical of its genre, but it's pretty middle-of-the-road for its violence," Williams tells WebMD. "The typical MMRPG player plays for 22 to 25 hours a week."

The typical computer game player, Williams found, does not conform to the video game player stereotype. Over 60 percent of Americans regularly play some form of interactive game. Nearly a third of game players are over 35. Almost half of all Internet users have played an online game — and this includes 38 percent of Internet users over the age of 65.

The study did not target children. The 213 participants ranged in age from 14 to 68; the average age was 28. None of these 167 men and 45 women had ever played an MMRPG before; some were entirely new to video/computer games.

Williams' study appears in the June issue of Communication Monographs.

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A Month of Violence

Williams gave copies of AC2 to 75 study participants; the others acted as a comparison group. He asked them to play the game for at least five hours a week; more than two-thirds of the players played more. Overall, the players averaged 56 hours of game playing over the month of the study.

Compared to their own test results before they played the game — and also compared with nonplayers — the AC2 players did not become more aggressive.

"For aggression, I found really nothing," Williams says. "This is in terms of the acceptability of aggression as a way to solve problems, how often they got into arguments with a spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend, or how often they got speeding tickets. We used both attitude and behavioral measures."

Williams says his findings don't necessarily mean the APA is wrong to condemn violent video and computer games. But he does say that far too little is known about these games.

In addition, the new study findings don't tell us much about the possible long-term effects of violent video games on children since most participants were adults.

"The APA concern is based on this evidence showing increased aggression after a short play. But there has been no research on long-term play, or play outside labs, which is not representative of normal play," he says. "It doesn't mean there aren't harmful effects, but I am not convinced by the studies so far. And since I did the first [longer-term] study and found no effects, this gives me pause."

Visit WebMD's Parenting Center

Social Effects of Gaming

Williams warns that not all games are created equal. In fact, not all games of the same type offer the same kind of experience. And it makes a difference, he says, whether a game is played in solitude or with others, in an arcade or at home, and whether the game requires players to meet and cooperate with other players.

With AC2, he found that players find the time to play by watching less TV and fewer movies, although they watch the news just as often. Players tend to "cocoon" — that is, to withdraw from casual interactions with others.

"That is sort of disturbing. However, they found a fair amount of community online with new people," Williams says. "So if a person needs exposure to a wider range of people, and already has good social support, this is good. But if this is someone with a lot of so-so friends and no strong friends, it is going to make this problem worse."

Williams also found that the more people play online games, the more they think the real world is like their virtual world.

"The classic case is someone who watches a lot of TV news and sees a lot of violence and crime. They tend to predict more crime for their neighborhood, even if they live in a low-crime area," he says. "And that is an effect I saw in the game. People who played were much more likely than the comparison group to think the world was a more dangerous place in terms of being hit with weapons."

That, too, could be good or bad.

"It is only good if they previously saw the world as safer than it really is," Williams says. "And it's bad if they previously saw the world as more dangerous than it is, and became paranoid. And a lot of these games encourage good social behavior. So imagine if they played and then thought people in the real world were much more likely to help each other than they really are. Does that make them gullible schmucks or better people?"

By Daniel J. DeNoon, Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Williams, D. and Skoric, M. Communication Monographs, June 2005; vol 72: pp 217-233. Nicoll, J. and Kieffer, K. Presentation to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C. Aug. 19, 2005. Elizabeth Carll, PhD, private practice psychology, New York; past president, media division, APA. Dmitri Williams, PhD, assistant professor of speech communication, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.