It's time parents started taking perils of online games seriously

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2005, 12:00am

WHEN WILL SOCIETY stop kidding itself that violent virtual games do no real damage?

Last month, a 20-year-old who kidnapped and robbed a terrified Auckland teenager told police it was like playing the PlayStation game Grand Theft Auto. Meanwhile, GTF is under fire for supposedly inspiring the triple murder of three Alabama police officers and has driven United States Senator Hillary Clinton to say: 'Children are playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them.'

Now, a Shanghai online game player is accused of killing a rival in a virtual spat that turned personal. Hearing that Zhu Caoyuan had sold his 'dragon sabre' used in the online game Legend of Mir 3, Qiu Chengwei, 41, apparently confronted him, brandishing an actual knife. Qiu repeatedly stabbed him in the chest, a Shanghai court was told.

No matter how much pixie dust you spread on your console, you must admit that such reports more than hint at a causal link between gaming and violence. In fact, the link seems as plain as the pistols the GTF gangsters pack.

Sure, Legend of Mir 3 is hardly the nastiest game on the block. Indeed, the atmosphere is all tousled hair and swirling mist. Nevertheless, the covetousness it evidently fosters drove a middle-aged man to murder in revenge for the theft the teen committed. So the game effectively generated two crimes.

Parents need to start taking the perils of electronic play seriously. They assume it is no more likely to inflict or exacerbate psychological damage than baseball or hopscotch and tacitly embrace it as a convenient tranquilliser like television, only more effective thanks to the interactive element that makes it 'immersive'.

They do not even want to consider what off-screen forces gaming might unleash. Instead, they cheerfully advertise their bumbling incompetence in relation to all things techy and brag about how slick their children are.

I know because I child-mind for friends. The kids are so casual about how shooting a cop in GTA wins you respect points. Doubtless, soon someone will invent a game where you gain from training a blowtorch on cops and prostitutes.

Maybe it already exists. The momentum of development mirrors the head-long thrust of the action.

Next up is Sony's Narc, in which the police depicted take drugs such as crack, which gives them a lift that helps them catch criminals. Forget ginseng, guarana or ginkgo, the 'game' seems to say. If you want drive, take the hard stuff - corruption is cool.

Sure, nobody sane would pretend all games are depraved. Some, such as the classic puzzle Snood, are deliciously whimsical, their only danger their addictive ability to consume time.

Perhaps, games in the opposite combative mould can sharpen your reflexes and encourage quick thinking, as proponents claim. They insist even pre-pubescents know the difference between events that unravel in pixels and what happens in the 'meatspace' inhabited by carbon-based life forms with nerves and feelings.

No cast-iron correlation between digital games and violence has been proven, the apologists say, apparently deaf to media reports and blind to scientific research.

The latter stacks up too. David Grossman, author of a book about the dynamics of homicide called On Killing, has conducted in-depth research showing how 'point and shoot' games echo the strategies used by the military to dehumanise troops. He said at the end of the second world war, the US military found at most only 20 per cent of soldiers fired their guns in combat.

By replacing bulls-eye targets with man-shaped targets during training, the military succeeded in demolishing pacifist hang-ups. Consequently, by the Korean war, 80 to 90 per cent of the troops were disposed to shoot and kill. By extension, by buying our children the toys that let them waste virtual humans, we are training them to kill, the theory goes. Confirmation of the brutalising effect of violent games comes from British research. A Middlesex University study involving 204 children aged 12 to 14 found they became noticeably more belligerent - shoving and striking other children - the longer they played them. Likewise, researchers at Nottingham Trent University found children as young as four who were allowed to play mildly violent games showed a drastically higher aggression level. Whatever you make of the research and reports, is it not obvious exposure to any violent medium can be aggravating?

Just try watching House of Flying Daggers or Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. In the aftermath, when you waltz out of the cinema, you are bound to feel a little more aggressive than when you walked in - such films are designed to fire you up, trigger adrenalin.

Diving into a game where fists and bullets fly at your alter-ego must surely make you feel more involved and so more aggressive. Especially if you are so tender that you have scarcely kissed goodbye to believing in Santa.

Roll on Hillary Clinton's proposed US$90 million investigation into the impact of games and other electronic media on the 'cognitive, social, emotional and physical development' of children. For a generation of vicarious gangsters and swordsmen, however, the damage may have already been done.