Video games pose challenges, opportunities for Catholic families
By Thomas McDonald
Catholic News Service
Since Nintendo first captured the hearts, minds and thumbs of a generation of children in the 1980s, the video game industry has steadily increased in size, revenue, cultural influence and sophistication.
A form of entertainment that began in the 1970s with the crude dots and lines of “Pong” has evolved into a complex creative form whose impact now ranks with that of movies, TV and popular music.
The numbers speak for themselves: According to the Entertainment Software Association, 72 percent of American households have a video game machine. Consumers spent $25.1 billion on games in 2010, with those numbers projected to hit $48 billion for 2011 and $70 billion by 2012. By comparison, worldwide motion picture ticket sales for 2010 were approximately $31 billion.
In studies of children ages 12-17, 99 percent of boys — and 94 percent of girls — play video or computer games, with no variables for race or ethnicity. And it’s not just the kids who are playing: The average gamer is 37 years old, with 29 percent of them over age 50. Though gaming numbers had skewed heavily male for most of the industry’s existence, by 2010, 42 percent of its audience was female.
Although impressive in themselves, these raw numbers don’t speak to the issues underlying such a rapid and widespread penetration by a new medium into the American home. Just as print, radio, movies, TV and the Internet have transformed society, so, too, will games.
Many people associate the term “games” with harmless pastimes or childish diversions, yet modern interactive entertainment can be every bit as mature, and even sophisticated, as its cinematic counterpart. The challenge lies in sorting out the diverse types of games and machines that characterize the industry’s output, so parents and consumers can make informed choices.
The most family-friendly option is the Nintendo Wii. The intuitive approach of its unique motion-control system — which allows people to get off their couches and make real movements — is matched by inoffensive content. Nintendo is famous for using a stable of characters such as Mario and Pokemon in clever, exciting offerings like “Mario Galaxy” and “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” — action-puzzle games that appeal to players of every age.
The Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3, by contrast, have positioned themselves as machines for teens and adults. Their lineups are dominated by violent games and advanced sports titles, although both are trying to reach Nintendo’s family audience as well.The violent content of games has been increasing for years, driven by improved graphics and the perceived need to be more outrageous than the competition. Once a teen-friendly World War II action game, the “Call of Duty” series radically ratcheted up the level of explicit gore on display with last year’s “Modern Warfare 2.”
This iteration even included a sequence in which the gamer participates in a bloody massacre of unarmed civilians.Alas, this kind of ultraviolence sells: “Modern Warfare 2” was the most successful media launch — across all genres — in history, earning $310 million in 24 hours, with final sales in excess of $1 billion.Yet gratuitous mayhem is certainly not the whole story.
Many games are either free of graphic violence, or place it in a moral context.“Bioshock,” for example, tells the complex story of a libertarian dystopia, exploring issues of bioethics, morality, responsibility, politics and the limits of personal freedom; its sometimes violent action thus unfolds within a morally consistent world.
Parent involvement is key
The decision to let a game machine enter the household is one to be carefully considered by parents with young children.
“We allowed the Xbox in our home when my oldest son saved up enough money to purchase it himself,” says Catholic author and blogger Danielle Bean. “We saw it as a way to reward his responsibility, and he has continued to be responsible with it. . . . . When managed reasonably, the games can be a fun way for kids to connect and socialize.”
In fact, Cheryl Olson, co-author of “Grand Theft Childhood,” the seminal Harvard University study on video games and violence, found that children who don’t play games have lost out on a vital element of socialization.
“There’s a potential for games to promote important school and life skills,” she explains, “such as solving problems and anticipating consequences. I remember watching my son play games such as ‘Legend of Zelda’ when he was a young teen. He had to search, plan and try different approaches to advance. You don’t get those kinds of benefits from watching cartoons or sitcoms on TV.”
But games aren’t just kid stuff anymore. Take Father Shane Tharp, a pastor and high school teacher in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “I game because I grew up gaming,” he explains, “and I continue to game because I find it soothing.
“There is something satisfying about accomplishing a quest, outsmarting a puzzle, or beating a level. I credit video games with teaching me lateral thinking skills and how to work out solutions to complex problems.”Father Tharp doesn’t see any unique issues or problems for Catholics in approaching the medium: “A game’s value must be measured on its content and context. Just as a Catholic should steer clear of a film which includes sexual material or violence for the sake of being shocking or without consequences, the same would be said of a video game.”
Thomas McDonald,a catechist for the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., has been writing about games for more than 20 years.
Parents have options for setting limits on game content and play time
Ratings systems, parental controls and ground rules can help ensure a good gaming experience for all family members
By Nick Grevas
Catholic News Service
American parents are facing a problem that was never an issue for those who raised them: video games.
These games are highly stimulating, have been considered addictive and have even inspired government action.
California tried to protect children from the violent content in video games with a 2005 law making it illegal for retailers to sell such items to minors. The Supreme Court June 27 ruled the law was unconstitutional, but it was not unfounded.
According to a 2010 survey by the Entertainment Software Association, 18 percent of all gamers are between the ages of 12 and 17, yet three of the five top-selling games on the market received an “M for Mature” rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
That’s roughly the equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America’s R rating for a film, and indicates “content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”
So how can parents find out more specifically what’s in these games before buying them for their children? In addition to its ratings system, the ESRB provides a detailed description of all potentially inappropriate elements included in each game. Parents can access these comprehensive assessments on the organization’s website: www.esrb.org.
Staying in control
By way of a further safeguard, video game manufacturers are now designing their systems to come with parental controls that block content according to the ESRB rating. The Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii both come with parental control options that can prevent particular kinds of games from being played, via the use of a PIN-number code.
For the Playstation 3 console — which lets users connect to the Web to buy games and compete with other players — the controls for the Internet browser and content settings can be found under “security settings.” Here, parents can make adjustments to block content according to the rating on video games, Blu-ray discs and even DVDs. Parents can also set up a PIN-number system for prohibiting online purchases by entering the “account management” settings.
The Wii operates on a similar platform, using a universal PIN code to access particular content. To set this code and choose what to lock, parents can go to the Wii menu at the bottom left, select “console,” then “console settings,” and the option for parental controls can be found on the second page of options. Once there, a parent can set the PIN and will be able to block the Internet channel, the messaging board channel, game content and other Wii functions.
“When?” and “For how long?” are two other questions parents must address, since children may show a tendency to gravitate to the video screen at inappropriate times — opting, for instance, to play baseball inside on the television rather than outside in the fresh air. Thus, the Electronic Software Association’s survey found that 80 percent of parents place limits on the amount of time their children are allowed to devote to video games.
Wendy Wood — a mother of five in Goshen, N.Y., who says that video games have had an adverse effect on her children — is among them. She says the games cause chaos, fighting and “unnecessary drama” over whose turn it is to play, especially between her two boys, Ryan, 14, and Jared, 10.
During the last school year, Wood only permitted the use of video games after all chores were done and homework finished. The result, however, turned out to be rushed chores and shoddy homework, she said. This year, Wood plans to implement a strict “weekends only” rule.
Other popular strategies among parents include requiring an hour of reading for an hour of games, and a simple limit of one hour per day for gaming.
Catholic author and blogger Danielle Bean has a policy similar to Wood’s, saying that “during the school year, the boys play only on weekends for a set period of time.”
The Xbox 360 has won “high score” in the setting-limits category by including daily and even weekly time limits that can be set up by first accessing “My Xbox,” then “console safety” and selecting “turn on console safety.” This will allow parents to establish system settings by once again entering a four-digit password.
Along the same lines, Microsoft includes a “Family Timer.” The company’s version gives frequent warnings that the system is shutting down, up to five minutes before it shuts down. In response to any of these notifications, a parent can enter the pass code and add more time to the daily or weekly allotment.
By using various controls and consulting information provided by the ESRB, parents should be able to protect their children’s well-being against objectionable content while still allowing them to enjoy a healthy dose of age-appropriate gaming.
Nick Grevas, a former intern for Catholic News Service, reviews video games for CNS. He is a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.