In the discussions about gaming addiction above, I only focused on the gaming aspects themselves that create a tremendous draw for some individuals. Independent of the gaming aspects, game play may include a range of corrosive material, particularly sexual content, violence, and crude language. The easiest protection from inappropriate material is to be aware of the ESRB ratings that games carry (we’ll talk about that later).
Sexual content in games
While the vast majority of online games don’t feature sexual content, there’s enough inappropriate content in games that you need to be aware of the risks. Broadly speaking, there are two sources of inappropriate content: Game-generated, and user-generated. Game-generated content is normally articulated clearly in the ESRB ratings. If you’re aware of the ratings of the games your children are playing and then do a little research online, you should quickly become aware of any problems. Most teens assume their parents are completely naïve about the games they play, and they’re mostly right.
User-generated content is, in some ways, a more significant issue because such content is not covered by the ESRB. Some games allow users to upload their own content. Most of the time, user-generated content is innocuous and harmless, but the risk exists for users to upload nudity or other sexual content. The community standards of the online gaming community tend to exert a social influence on users and creates some consistency in the environment. As an example, games in the Unreal Tournament series support user-generated content, and nude characters are readily available for download. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto V supports user-generated content to augment its own complement of nudity and strong sexual content.
As a general rule, games with user-generated content should be treated with caution and parents should be aware of the environments in which their children are playing games online.
Violence in games
We are sometimes prone to dismiss violence in games and entertainment. “It’s just violence. No big deal. Nothing inappropriate.” But some child safety advocates are concerned by the negative effect of violence in games, especially when our children play these games for hours each day. While not condoning violence in passive media, such as movies and television, violence in games is potentially more spiritually damaging because it is interactive, inviting the user to take an active part in the carnage.
However, whereas television is only a one-way communication medium, video games are a two-way communication medium, and as such, children prefer video games because they offer greater control. While the long-term effects of playing video games containing violent content is debatable, advocates of tougher regulation have argued that these games may have a greater adverse effect on children than televisions because of this allowable, interactive involvement.11
Violent games also have an educational effect, but not the positive variety.
A potentially socially troubling theme that arose in four of the ten most popular games was the use of non-weapons as weapons. Items such as golf clubs, baseball bats and screwdrivers were used to immobilize both enemy targets and innocent citizens. For proponents of social learning theory this might be somewhat troubling for the simple fact that these items are much more common and readily available that either firearm or non-firearm weaponry. Indeed, by illustrating that simple household items, such as coolant spray, can be used as a weapon when sprayed in somebody’s eyes (i.e., Metal Gear Solid 2) and by depicting the potential consequences in realistic terms, a possible unintended consequence of these games is that they indirectly promote and/or illustrate how everyday items may be used as weapons.12
Some games are so violent that they have been banned in some countries. For example, Manhunt 2 is a role-playing game in which players assume the persona of an insane asylum escapee who sneaks up on people and kills them in gruesome ways. This game was banned in the UK for an “unrelenting focus on sadism and brutal slaying.”13 In the game Carmageddon, banned in countries including Germany, UK, and Brazil, players drive cars and run down innocent pedestrians.
Whether you live in a country that bans extreme violence in games or not, as a parent you need to be involved in the lives of your children and be aware of the games they are playing. The ESRB rating system is a helpful guide for parents.