Not Just Child’s Play: Potential Pitfalls in Console Video Games (Part 1)

Part 1 of 3

Do violent video games make violent kids?

It’s a common and important question, and one that was on the forefront of many parent advocacy groups and gamers alike at the end of June, when the Supreme Court struck down California’s ban on selling violent video games to minors. Gamers rejoiced at the Supreme Court’s commitment to free speech, and parent advocacy groups were concerned about the removal of the ban and therefore the removal of another layer of protection between kids and inappropriate content.

But what does it mean for a video game to be violent? Is that the only risk of video games? And what are parents and gamers to do to protect themselves?

Understanding Video Game Genres

The first thing to understand is that video games are not in and of themselves a genre. Like movies or books, there are different genres and different audiences, and just as the violence in Lord of the Rings is different from the violence of The Godfather, so too is the violence in Street Fighter different than that of Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers.

Before we look at some of the negative elements of video games, we need a brief overview of some of the most popular genres.

Role-playing games

On a technical level, a role-playing game (RPG) is simply a game where you play a specific role in a story. Usually you (by yourself) control a team of 6-7 characters from a third-person point of view. These games involve lengthy preset storylines with some customization. Lightning, the primary protagonist in Final Fantasy XIII, will always have the same storyline, regardless of who is playing the game. However, recent developments in video game technology have led to an increasingly customizable experience. In the Dragon Age series, for example, you can choose your main character’s name, race (e.g. elf vs. dwarf), gender, role (fighter, wizard, etc.), and appearance.

Most RPGs are based in a fantasy world and use magic. However, the term itself is all-encompassing; games like Grand Theft Auto have been described as RPGs.

Popular RPG series: Final Fantasy, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Kingdom Hearts

First-person shooters

In first-person shooters (FPS), you directly take the role of a character as seen through his or her eyes. On the screen, you will likely only see your character’s hands and any weapons you’re holding. FPS games tend to focus on action and fighting.

Popular FPS series: Halo, Bioshock, Call of Duty

Strategy

Strategy games focus on tactics and planning to achieve victory. Usually you have an omniscient view of the resources you’re controlling, and have direct control over all of the actions you take (e.g. troops may defend against enemies automatically, but won’t move unless you tell them to).

Strategy games will either take place in real time (RTS), meaning you and your enemies act at the same time, or in individual turns. Most strategy games focus on warfare, though there are exceptions. For example, the popular board game Settlers of Catan (also downloadable on consoles) is a turn-based strategy game about acquiring territory and more settlements than your competitors.

Popular strategy games: Civilization V, Starcraft 2, Settlers of Catan, Valkyria Chronicles

Simulations

Simulation games are generally open-ended; there may be small goals to accomplish, but the game doesn’t have a distinct endpoint. Some simulations aim for accuracy, like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, which presents realistic flight controls. Others may focus on more cartoonish world-building, such as The Sims, where you control the finances, relationships, and careers of individual families.

Popular simulation series: Flight Simulator, The Sims, Spore

Puzzle games

Puzzle games are generally family-friendly and focus on solving a problem to get from one location to another. In Portal 2 (2011), for example, you create portals in the walls of a science laboratory that allow you to walk through one portal in one part of the room and out the other portal in another part of the room. Although you have to destroy a handful of robotic enemies, you do so through clever problem-solving more than outright violence.

Not all puzzle games are kid-safe. The upcoming game Catherine, for example, is technically a puzzle game, but is centered around the protagonist’s sexual relationship with his girlfriend and a one-night stand with another woman.

Popular puzzle games: Portal 2, LEGO Star Wars, Catherine

Questionable Content

While there are certain common elements to most video games, how they play out will vary depending on the nature of the individual game, and the description of “violence” in an RPG may be significantly different from violence in an FPS.

So what are some of the common dangers, and where should you set the lines for yourself or your kids?

Language

As more and more adults play video games, concerns about language will continue to decrease, and foul words will sneak into games with increasingly lower ratings. Portal 2, for example, drops a limited number of foul words in recorded messages. Characters in RPGs (usually considered appropriate for teens) will also spout single obscenities at emotional points in the storyline. The older the intended audience, the less concerned game developers will be with avoiding foul language.

Violence

The reality is that fighting is one of the most common game mechanics, and game companies will continue to make violent video games unless there is compelling evidence (and legal directives) that violent games create violent kids (and so far, little evidence supports that theory, according to researchers like Henry Jenkins and Cheryl Olson).

The very term “violence” is almost too broad to be useful. There is a vast difference between the gratuitous or overly-realistic violence of games like Grand Theft Auto or Bioshock and the fantasy violence of an RPG like Final Fantasy. One of the primary mechanics in all three games is the death of enemies. But it’s a very different experience to run over prostitutes with your car, compared to defending yourself from zombie-like humans, compared to watching monsters dissipate in a puff of smoke. Even non-violent games may have violent elements. In The Sims, if two characters dislike each other, they may fight in a comedic cloud of dust and smoke.

If you’re worried about video game violence, the U.S.-based Electronic Software Review Board (ESRB) offers age-based ratings as a baseline. It may be enough to tell your teenager that he isn’t allowed to play games rated M (Mature) in your house, and set parental controls on all current consoles to enforce that. Alternately, you may draw the line at FPS games, but the more cartoonish RPGs are fine. Or you may dislike the magical elements of RPGs, but decide that the slightly more realistic violence of strategy games is okay, since they help train the brain to think strategically.

Sex

Sexual content in video games is also a concern, though surprisingly a less controversial one. While fighting is a primary game mechanic, sex is a much less important one, and if a game has highly sexual content (e.g. nudity or intercourse) it will get a higher rating from the ESRB.

Interestingly, researcher Cheryl Olson has pointed out that when she runs focus groups on video games, the boys she speaks to are more likely to see kissing as inappropriate content. Because kissing is something they are likely to do in real life (unlike participating in extreme violence, which they recognize as fiction) games that include kissing are in a way “too real” from their viewpoint. While there is little or no research on the effects of sexual content in video games on the brain, the related research on pornography, in combination with the surprisingly concerned reactions of young boys for the simple act of a kiss, indicate that this ought to be a major concern for parents.

Because sexuality shows up in things as simple as a female character’s outfit, sexuality is a lot more prevalent than one might think. Once again, the question is, what does it mean to have sexual content in video games? How does it play out between genres? And where do you draw the line?

In most FPS or RPGs, the biggest concern is with female outfits. In an FPS, a female enemy may be scantily clad; in an RPG, it may be one of the characters you control. Although significant research states otherwise, the stereotype is that only males are gamers. To appeal to this male demographic, female characters are given large breasts and impractically revealing armor. Of the three female protagonists of Final Fantasy XIII, two of the three have bared midriffs, and all three wear either shorts or short skirts.

Revealing outfits aren’t the only concern with RPGs. Some action/adventure games will actually include sexually charged minigames. At the end of Dragon Age: Origins, one female character will request that either you or one of the male characters impregnates her (the act takes place off-screen). You can also romance your characters, resulting in a PG-13 scene wherein both parties wear underwear; there’s a similar option in Bioware’s Mass Effect. These romances are not limited to Male-Female pairings. And in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), players uncovered a hidden option known as “Hot Coffee,” in which you could actually control the protagonist’s actions during (fully-clothed) sex.

Sexual content in simulation games is equally concerning, particularly in games like The Sims, in which you directly control the appearance and actions of characters. In The Sims 3 (2009), clothing options range from full coverage to revealing (female characters may sleep in only their undergarments, for example). Personality traits include “Flirty” and “Good Kisser.” Regardless of their gender or romantic relationships with others, two adult Sims who like each other enough can choose to “Woohoo” – the bedcovers rustle beneath laughter and the sounds of a harp. The Sims 3 is rated T (Teen) by the ERSB.

As video game developers continue to realize that gamers continue to play video games as adults, the number of adult-themed games will only increase. The game Catherine has a release date of July 26, 2011, and currently occupies two spots on Amazon’s best-seller list for video games. Its premise? The protagonist impregnates his girlfriend, has a one-night stand with another woman, and, as Amazon* describes, “Vincent’s waking fears, doubts, pressures, and growing guilt about commitment and fidelity now gleefully follow him into his dreams.”

Something Positive

Given the prevalence of questionable content within video games (even the otherwise kid-friendly Portal 2 contains swearing), why even bother with video games? Why not forbid the entire lot?

Good themes

Many video games with storylines will have good themes. RPGs, for example, almost always promote the values of teamwork, loyalty, dedication to a cause, and good vs. evil. (The final enemy in Final Fantasy X is named Sin.) Strategy war games will often address the cost and consequences of warfare. Even FPS games, which tend to have gratuitous violence, will incorporate themes of good vs. evil and revolution against evil regimes for the cause of justice. Both Bioshock games show the ultimate result of political extremism. The first is set in a failed extreme libertarian society reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s writings, and the second is set against the backdrop of communism.

Problem-solving skills

Puzzle and strategy games in particular require a great deal of thought and planning. In Portal 2, you are handed a set of tools (including your portal gun) and set in a bizarre environment; you are required to use physics (like momentum) to your advantage in order to complete increasingly complex tasks. In Valkyria Chronicles, you fight your way across WWII-style battlefields. A poorly planned move could result in the loss of a member of your troop. And in The Sims 3, you’re required to balance a limited income and limited time with your Sim household’s need to eat, pay bills, and stay healthy, with their individual desires to have fun, have nice possessions, and maintain relationships with friends (much like real life).

Ethics

An increasing number of games will force you to confront ethical dilemmas that impact later events in the game. Both Bioshock games are excellent examples of this. Throughout both games, you are required to either rescue or “harvest” a number of little girls. Rescuing them saves their lives at the cost of a smaller immediate reward and later prizes in gratitude. Harvesting them gives you greater immediate rewards, but results in their death and an unhappy game ending. The second Bioshock game additionally allows you to save or kill a handful of additional characters; if you show mercy to at least one in particular, she will assist you later in the game.

Some of the more open-ended RPGs, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, will also take your choices as a player into account. As in real life, choosing the more morally upright path in these games will frequently lead to more immediate difficulties, but will usually result in a happier ending at the conclusion of the game.

What You Can Do

Now that you’ve got a general idea of some of the pros and cons of video games, what can you do to set standards within your own home? How can you protect yourself and your family from the potential pitfalls?

Judge each game individually

While the ESRB ratings are a good starting point, you may decide that a game they rate E is not actually appropriate for your children—or conversely, if your teen is mature enough, you may decide that she is allowed to play a game rated M. Start by checking PluggedIn to see if they offer a review of the game in question, as their reviews will dig deep into much of the negative content.

From there, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the violence? Is it to protect your character or others, or is it entirely gratuitous?
  • Are there consequences for gratuitous violence? (Even in Grand Theft Auto, you will eventually be chased by cops.)
  • How realistic is the violence?
  • Does the game rely on mechanics that run contrary to personal convictions (e.g. magic)?
  • How noticeably revealing are female characters’ outfits?
  • How prevalent are sexual themes? Are they avoidable?
  • Is there simulated sex? Are there consequences for sexual relations?

Pick your appropriate game console

If you haven’t yet purchased a game console but are strongly considering it, look at the game titles available for each platform. If you have young children, most likely you will want to stick with a Nintendo Wii, which offers more family friendly games (like the Mario series), party games (like Wii Sports), and games that actually promote physical activity (like Wii Fit). Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s XBOX 360 offer more T (Teen) and M (Mature) games that are often popular and action-packed. Don’t forget to evaluate handheld gaming systems, like the Nintendo DS line or the PlayStation Portable.

Set parental controls

Set rules for your kids, and explain them. This includes limits for what games are played both in and out of the home, and setting limits for when and how long your kids can play video games. Limiting their time spent in games may be as simple as setting a timer next to the TV. Be willing to give them grace when necessary. RPGs in particular only have a limited number of save points, so try to warn them when their time limit is running out so they can save their progress, and if they need a few minutes to get to a good stopping point, be willing to give it to them.

All three game consoles allow you to set parental controls based on ESRB ratings, making it easy to enforce a “No Rated-M Games” rule. Windows Vista and 7 do as well, but Windows XP does not.

Learn which games your kids’ friends like to play. If one friend is a fan of the Halo series but you don’t want your children playing it, encourage your kids to invite that friend over for tamer games.

Set limits for yourself

If you don’t have kids or if you will be the primary gamer, don’t forget to determine your own adult boundaries for games. Once again using the Bioshock series, you may decide that its storyline outweighs the violent elements. On the other hand, “Garbage in, gargbage out”—if you notice that the profanity-laced game makes you more prone to swearing, you may decide it’s inappropriate after all. And you may decide that some games are inappropriate simply because they waste your time. In the Covenant Eyes offices alone, one gamer discarded The Sims 3 due to its sexual content, and another sold his copy of Civilization V because it stole time that he knew he should spend with his family.

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on video games. Read Part 2. Read Part 3.