Positive Features of Video Games

Laurie Taylor. Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence. Editor: Nancy E Dowd, Dorothy G Singer, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Sage Publication. 2008.

The ongoing debate over violence in the media has focused recently on the danger that violent and mature-themed video games pose to children. There are valid concerns that children should not have access through video games to material like graphic depictions of sex and violence that are denied to them in other visual media such as film and television. However, the problems surrounding rating, regulating, and even banning violent video games are not easily solved. This chapter seeks to analyze the themes and concepts that underlie these games, and argues that, for many children, certain video games can be both positive and necessary.

The debate over video games and violence is based largely on the question of whether there is a negative impact on the children who play them. Many studies analyzing the effects of watching and engaging in violent acts while playing video games have yielded inconclusive or contradictory results (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; “A Calm View of Video Violence,” 2003; Sherry, 2001). Empirical evidence is not the only issue in this debate. As noted in one meta-analysis of studies on violence and gaming,

Conspicuously absent from the video game research are other designs used in the study of television violence such as longitudinal designs and field experiments. These types of research designs are more complex and expensive to undertake, so their absence may merely reflect the fact that video game research has only recently begun. However, these designs often provide the greatest ecological validity and allow researchers to make stronger predictions of social significance. (Sherry, 2001, p. 426)

Even those studies that conclusively show a negative impact (Anderson et al., 2003; Anderson & Bushman, 2001) fail to address the manner in which the violent acts in video games are contextually presented within the video games themselves and for the children that play these games. In some games, violence occurs within the game stories of survival and friendship and the violence is in self-defense (in Appendix, see Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, and The Legend of Zelda). Other games use violence as a means for conflict with guns easily exchanged for water hoses or vacuums (in Appendix, see Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion). Violence is also defined differently in different studies:

There is the most basic problem of how the term violence is defined by the various social scientists investigating it. Depending on how the term is explicated, a video game like Ms. Dàñ Man that does not depict any human or human-like figures and that does not entail the use of point-and-shoot artificial guns may be defined as violent. (Calvert, 2002, p. 25)

Further, even those researchers who have found a positive correlation between video games and arousal, or the propensity for violence, nevertheless suggest video games could be used beneficially: “[W]e wonder whether exciting video games can be created to teach and reinforce nonviolent solutions to social conflicts” (Anderson & Bushman, 2001, p. 359).

This chapter will canvass the benefits of video games, including the learning of cultural and community rules, problem and puzzle solving, strategic and critical thinking skills, alternative spatial exploration when other spaces prove unsafe, and other benefits more directly accessible through video games. Ultimately, this chapter argues that certain video games can present both positives and negatives for children, and offers suggestions about how best to balance these so that access by the children who can benefit from violent video games remains unimpeded.

Video Game Positives: Themes and Concepts

Video games most often focus on one centralized narrative. This can be a quest narrative with the lone hero or band of heroes accomplishing multiple quests for fame, to save kingdoms, or to save themselves. This is perhaps the most common video game theme, with the next most common being games of skill (sports and racing games), or elaborate puzzle games (like blocks, matching, Tetris, and riddle-solving games). Using these basic themes, individual video games offer various permutations in terms of game style, explicit game narrative, and the mechanics of game play. Within these, games offer similar concepts as those found in fairy tales and other stories for children (Murray, 1998).

Elementary-age school children are often required to read books like Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows or Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller for the purpose of learning about death. Other common assignments attempt to teach children about other cultures. Video games similar to the Final Fantasy series do both. In Final Fantasy VIII, the game presents a group of orphans working together, struggling to grow into adulthood, and to make the world a better place after an apocalypse destroyed much of the world, removed their parents, and stole their memories. The game was made in Japan and the themes and concepts of the game—the idea of spirits within each part of the Earth and the apocalypse— draw on the Shinto religion and the nuclear bombings of World War II (in Appendix, see Final Fantasy VIII). These and other cultural aspects are threaded within a story that presents a group of children working together to help themselves and others around them. The game narrative deals with the loss of the children’s parents and their ability to cope and survive while working with other children.

Similarly, other games like the violent Resident Evil series present narratives in which brothers and sisters work together to protect themselves from monsters and to survive in unbearable situations. This common element offers comfort by showing that the child playing is not alone and that she can succeed despite her conditions. These tales of survival in the face of adversity are often couched within violent games, like the violent bloody zombie-fighting in Resident Evil, mentioned above, and the tournament fights in Street Fighter. They also provide inspiration and comfort as narratives in other media have done for so many years (in Appendix, see Resident Evil and Street Fighter). Other games offer the option of story- or non-story-based play, like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, where players can play by roaming around, and potentially falling and showing blood from falling (with the appearance of blood changing the age rating), or players can compete in simulated tournaments to become professional skaters. In each of these games, the narrative acts as a factor in the representation of violence in the game.

In addition to providing stories that both educate and comfort, certain video games also present children with heroes. While many children have access to heroes in the form of everyday people (parents, teachers, scout leaders, and coaches), other children do not. Heroes can prove extremely influential and important for children, which is part of the reason for the ongoing popularity of such comic books as Spider-Man and X-Men. Video games can present heroes that are age appropriate. Some heroes in video games come straight out of comic books, like those in Spider-Man (2004) and X-Men (2002), while others exist within more complicated worlds like those in which Jade, from Beyond Good and Evil (2002), exists. Jones (2001) suggests that children need both the heroes and the make-believe violence found in video games to be better able to cope and grow in their own, real lives. While violence in these games may be particularly problematic for young players, for older or more mature children and teenagers, the importance and influence of heroes may temper the effects of violence. Working with video games as cathartic or coping mechanisms, therapists have also found them to be useful in treating children’s anxieties (Bertolini & Nissim, 2002). Whether or not the violence itself is useful, the heroes are, and those heroes need to be able to grow with children in order to retain their usefulness.

Video games are generally designed to present some sort of conflict through which players apply their skills, whether those are problem-solving skills or deft eye-hand coordination, to accomplish certain goals. Video games most often rely on simple scenarios of violence to implement these goals. Violence in these games exists as part of the context in which the game narrative occurs and can easily be replaced by nonviolent contexts in order to decrease overt violence in the games. In fact, games like Super Mario Sunshine (2002), the most recent in the Super Mario Brothers’ line of games, have already replaced violence as the context for game play. In previous Super Mario games, two brothers would fight evil mushrooms and turtles to save innocent people from the villain Bowser. In Super Mario Sunshine, Mario fights graffiti with a water hose to clean a tropical island. In this and the earlier Mario games, the violence against mushrooms acts as only a means for conflict and can easily be supplanted with nonviolent concepts like cleaning graffiti.

In games that seek to be seen as explicitly nonviolent, the symbolic nature of the conflict is easily shown through the exchange of weapons for vacuums, stop watches, grappling hooks, or other items. In The Legend of Zelda games, the character of Link fights monsters with a sword; however, in Pikmin (2001), Captain Olimar avoids bugs to reassemble his spaceship with the help of the Pikmin plant creatures. Both games have heroes and monsters, and both have a means by which to fight, but the means by which the conflict is portrayed is altered. In the game Luigi’s Mansion, it does not matter if Luigi hits an evil Boo Brother monster-ghost, or if he has to make contact by sucking the Boo Brother into the vacuum. Either way, Luigi confronts and removes the Boo Brother as a threat (even when Luigi hits the Boo Brother, there is no indication whatsoever that the Boo Brother is dead). Because video games have so frequently used violence as a lazy shorthand for game design, video games can often be changed from violent to nonviolent with the simple exchange of basic style and images.

For other games that are expressly violent, like the mature-rated Resident Evil series in which the player kills gruesome monsters, the violence is in self-defense and the player only kills zombies to prevent the zombies from killing the player. The whole point of the game is for the player to escape from the evil zombies. Other games like Halo (2001) and Metal Gear Solid (1998) are violent because the player must fight and kill evil characters in order to save the world. Bolter and Grusin (1999) have argued that this type of violence is prosocial because it attempts to protect the innocent and maintain society at large: “Ideologically, the player is asked to defend or reestablish the status quo, so that even though the violence of games appears to be antisocial, the ultimate message is not” (p. 93). Just as the negatives of video games cannot be weighed without an examination of their positives, the violence in video games cannot be treated independently from the stories in which that violence takes place.

Like Bolter and Grusin’s argument that video game narratives use violence to reaffirm social norms, Dee (2003) argues that

A game like Max Payne or Enter the Matrix or Grand Theft Auto may depend heavily upon simulated violence, but the object of the game is to make the story tell itself. Piling up or losing points (or dollars or blood) is relevant to the gaming experience only in that it allows you to keep the story going, to find out, if you want, what happens at the end…. Plot is the reward, (pp. 52–53)

Dee’s remarks demonstrate how violence is used as a shorthand by which video games are designed; in addition, Dee’s remarks show the importance of the story to the video game players. Most video game players play for the stories, just as children often read books and watch movies and television for their stories.

Characteristics of Children’s Video Game Play

In order to provide meaningful guidance to lawmakers and others who regulate video games, studies of violence and video games need to address the entirety of video game play for children. As many researchers have shown, play in general for elementary school age children is a dynamic activity in which rules change and evolve rapidly (Beck & Wade, 2004; Caillois, 2001; Gee, 2003; Hughes, 1983). Because of this rapid change of rules during play, any children’s game cannot easily be classed as violent or nonviolent. As applied to video games, one can see examples of this principle. Players often play normally violent games in nonviolent ways, for instance by playing tag, or by making movies within the games (this is known as “machinima”—machine animation), rather than playing within the explicitly violent narratives also provided in the games (Consalvo, 2003; Johnson, 2002). This sort of play occurs frequently because children most often play video games with other children, even if the games are made for single players (Valkenburg, 2004). Players may also play normally nonviolent games, like racing games, in violent ways by purposely trying to crash their cars into other cars instead of trying to win the races. However, many games prevent players from doing this. In racing games, such as Crazy Taxi (2001), players are prevented from hitting bystanders when driving cars.

Caillois (2001) devoted an entire book to exploring the changing methods of play within games. Hughes also studied how children play games, noting that the published rules of any game are often idealized and “that the ‘real— rules of the game differ markedly from those commonly reported by players (and by researchers)” (1983, p. 189). By playing outside of the official rules, children can and do play violent games in nonviolent ways (Sutton-Smith, 1997). Gee (2003) also notes that well-designed video games encourage just this type of atypical play, stating, “Good games—and the games get better in this respect all the time—are crafted in ways that encourage and facilitate active and critical learning and thinking” (p. 46). By encouraging critical thinking, the best-designed video games also encourage players to attempt to change the game rules and the game systems for additional types of play. By imposing a unidimensional standard of “violent or not violent” to characterize games, researchers overlook the fact that children often do not play games by the rules. Further, the very definition of violence proves difficult when some games position players to fight with guns and others have characters fighting by taking photographs or squirting water hoses (in Appendix, see Super Mario Sunshine). Given the benefits of games in terms of encouraging generalized play and critical thinking, one option for regulation could be a sliding rating scale based on both the positives and negatives in the games. A sliding scale could weigh the game positives along with the game negatives to ensure that games are not simply classed as violent and therefore negative when positives may exist alongside the violence in the game.

Many games inherently include the ability to change the game play. Games like Doom (1993) and Quake (1996), which are notoriously violent, allow children to build their own play arenas, which can be and often are used to play virtual versions of hide-and-seek and tag (Johnson, 2002). While these types of play are not the first prescribed by the games, they are possible avenues of play that players can explore, even within the most violent video games available (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, pp. 464–465). Players often collaboratively create social game rules when playing these games:

In computer games, the rules as enforced by the game software are black-and-white: a manoeuvre is either possible or it is not; a shot either hits a defined target area or it misses…. Because the rules enforced by the game software itself are so clearly defined, the player is ostensibly freed from making any moral choices in the game— anything that is possible is permissible. One phenomenon observed in multiplayer gaming is the development of social rules and restraints, however, in which certain actions are considered to be unsporting or forms of cheating even though they are well within the possibilities of the game. (Morris, 2002, p. 94)

Other nonviolent or less violent games present similar options for varied play, and all of these are positive play aspects that video games provide. While offering nonviolent methods of play does not negate the violence in the games, it does show that the dynamic field of children’s play cannot be fully captured by a regulation based simply on violence or nonviolence of games as a sort of closed media.

Changing Rules

Just as children playing four square play by their own rules, they can play all games by modifying the existing rules for the game: “Games aren’t much ‘fun— when rules, rather than relationships, dominate the activity, when there is no attention to ‘flow,— ‘fairness,— ‘respect,— and ‘nice—” (Hughes, 1983, p. 197). For video games, this means that children both play the game in ways that differ from the expressed game rules, and play the game in social settings that likewise have rules. In these cases, video games provide a wealth of benefits by teaching social and community rules and standards for fairness, politeness, and decency. Video games also create shared social situations that engender helping attitudes and friendly play (Beck & Wade, 2004). Children often play video games together, and one of the common unwritten laws of video game play is that the playing child will pass the game controller on to the next child when the playing child loses during the game. While taking turns playing games, both violent and nonviolent, does not teach a child to be nonviolent, it does teach other social norms, like fairness and cooperation. This can occur during a fighting game like Street Fighter (1997), where two children play by fighting against each other in the game, and then when one is knocked out, another child plays against the winner. This is also the case in single-player games like the role-playing game The Legend of Zelda. This game—like so many video games—has only one player, so game play must be shared between many children. While the fighting may well have some negative impact on the behavior of the players, the act of sharing and navigating the spoken and unspoken norms of children’s play that occurs may have other positive, socializing effects.

In cases where one child is significantly more skilled than the other children playing, the players normally impose different game rules (PBS, 2003; Burn & Carr, 2003). In addition to taking turns, the extremely skilled player might be given a maximum number of games or a time limit to make sure that all of the players receive equal play time. Other player-imposed rules are regularly used to ensure fair play that are not intrinsically present in the games (Morris, 2002). These rules make game play a social activity where the game serves as the focus of play. In addition to these social rules, most team-based games—including the incredibly violent Doom series—allow players to build new rooms for new challenges. Clearly, a game cannot be fair if one player already knows the puzzles and game world layout, so the game allows players to modify the game levels and worlds. In doing so, the games allow the players to build and play in collaborative spaces. These games even have chat features for player communication, providing a collaborative, communicative, and nonviolent side to these violent games (Morris, 2002). Thus, while the game itself allows violent, unfriendly play, the game is not always played in this manner. Competitive video games, from sports-inspired football or NBA games, to fighting games like Mortal Kombat II (1996), present friendly competition. Some of the games viewed as most intrinsically violent, like Quake and Doom, are even referred to as sports games by their players because they play them as they do sports games— with the goal to play fairly and to win, but to have a pleasant time doing so.

Hughes (1983) noted that children applied the same sort of “nice” rules, called Rooie Rules, for street games that children now use for playing video games:

How are Rooie Rules “nice”? First, even though they are not explicitly mentioned and most of the players could not list all of them, Rooie Rules are understood to prohibit all kinds of what the kids call “rough stuff.” … Second, Rooie Rules are “nice” because they prohibit “rough stuff” in a “nice” way … Fairness, it seems, is an important component of “nice.” (p. 192)

Fairness is a point that children seek in all aspects of video game play, including requiring the video game itself to be fair (Herdhck, 2002; Rothstein, 2002). This also means that children have different rules for different gaming situations. Video game arcades, for instance, are normally played by “arcade style” rules. Because arcade games require money for play, arcade style rules allow for play that would be considered unfair in a home video game situation—for instance, repeatedly using only one unblockable attack in a fighting game (Herdlick, 2002; Myers, 2004;). Thus, while the games themselves have varying degrees of violence, this violence is enclosed within a space of child-determined play.

In addition to teaching social rules and other unwritten rules of play, video games also teach internal rules that dictate how players can win the games themselves. Video games teach strategy, such as how to conserve resources for long winters and how to create and build resources before trying to expand. Some of these strategies are implemented within war scenarios in games like Warcraft II (1996) and Lords of the Realm II (1996). Other games like SIMCITY (2000), The SIMS (2000), and The Oregon Trail (2004) use the simulations themselves as the basis for the games. Certain games also lend themselves more easily to social, rather than predetermined, rules. In exploring the history of card games, Parlett (1990) notes that card games are rarely played by their official rules; instead, they are most often played by “house” rules, or rules agreed upon by the players. Parlett also notes that card games teach patience because of their structures and the manner of their play. These structures and play are then replicated in video games of card games and in video games that include card games as smaller, nonviolent subgames as with the card subgames in Knights of the Old Republic (2003).

Not only do children create their own rules for fairness and game play, but they also play in a manner different from the way that adults perceive their play. Schwartzman (1983) and Sherry (2001) have noted that researchers generally study adult-structured play, which is play that is extremely structured and follows preset rules, but largely neglect child-structured play, which is play that is open for change and is not dictated by preset rules. Studying games as adult-centered neglects that video game play is often collaborative, with multiple players helping each other through the game by sharing game secrets and “supermoves,” and providing discussion and ideas about better ways to play and to win (Beck & Wade, 2004; Singer, 1994). Within this collaborative environment, video games teach children that different people have different skills that can all be equally useful in solving problems. Studies most often assess players in laboratory environments so that the study can collect exact data for a number of players in the same situation. While this research provides extremely valuable insights, research is also needed on video game play in a “normal” setting, which for the majority of players is playing together in groups within a family or home environment (Valkenburg, 2004). Studies of game play in these “normal” settings should assess the effects of violence and the reduction of violence when video games are played cooperatively:

What is needed in media research is, first, a contextual view of the experiences of representative members of the audience, and, second, a critical approach that does not break the continuities of earlier research. (Alloway, 1993, p. 68)

Child-structured play incorporates all of the unwritten rules that children create for play and games. Studying children’s play in an artificial environment disrupts the social rules for play such that children may rely on different social rules (Linzmayer, 1983), or they may be unsure of which social-gaming rules to use.

A complement to these unwritten rules are other codes of conduct for game play that have become “semi-official” in online multiplayer games. Ever quest bars players from cheating in the game even when performing acts that are permissible by the game rules like “ninja looting” and “stealing kills” (Sony, 2004). Players often hold the video game to the same standards of fairness that they use for play with other children, so when video games seem to cheat, children view the game as cheating (Myers, 2004). Reeves and Nass (1996) have shown that people of all ages treat computers as other people, and consequently, cheating by the computer or video game is perceived as equal to cheating by another real player. As Huizinga (1950) has noted, cheaters and spoil-sports can both be detrimental to a game or to play in general because cheating breaks the magic circle of the fictional realm of play. Because video games are machines and repeat their actions, their “cheating behaviors” are repeated, making it appear all the more unfair.

Video games can seem to “cheat” because of technological limitations like “slowdown” and “clipping” (Game Developer, 2004). Slow-down occurs when there are too many elements moving at one time and the video game machine cannot process all of them properly. When slow-down occurs, one or more game elements literally slow down. Sometimes, this means that the game enemies move more slowly; other times it means that the player moves more slowly. During slowdown, the game itself can miscalculate time and movement. Thus a player can perform a move or a jump successfully, and still fail because of the game rather than an error on the player’s part.

Clipping, in which video games “clip” visual elements, can cause the same sort of unfair gaming situations. Clipping causes video game images to be lost or disappear temporarily. By losing images, players can lose or be injured because the game failed to display an enemy or other obstacle. Because the games “cheat” in this manner, players must learn to control their frustration with video games, even in violent games where players must be aggressive in terms of their movement inside the game, but be quiet and calm outside the game in the act of playing (Luedtke et al, 2003).

Like other types of play and learning, many positives are available in video games; however, players can always choose not to use or accept the positives. For instance, in playing a game like Crazy Taxi, which is currently rated “T” for teenager players, the player cannot harm pedestrians while driving the taxi. The goal of the game is for the player to drive passengers from one place to another as quickly as possible without damaging the car, and without scaring the passenger. If the passenger is scared, he or she will leave the car and the player will not be paid. In this game, the player must learn to navigate the road systems effectively and safely in order to win. The player can simply drive around and scare passengers and attempt to hit pedestrians (which is explicitly impossible because of the game design). Playing in this manner would cause the player to lose, but it is still a possible method of play. Similarly, in the more violent Resident Evil (1996) game series, players must leave equipment—including guns, lighters, typewriter ribbon, and other items— for another character to use because the two characters share items in order to stay alive in the game. The player must facilitate this sharing in order to win the game, but the player can always avoid this sharing and lose the game. While players can play in ways that subvert the positives offered by video games, the themes and concepts present in the games may still reinforce positive play.

Direct positives of video games include children learning technological standards from video game play because video games are designed with those standards in mind. Further, as Reeves and Nass (1996) have shown, video games teach children normal behavior in response to technology, which includes treating the video games as “rude” when they break unwritten rules, or treating the video games as unhelpful when they present poor advice.

Many video games allow players to “mod” or modify the games, enabling players to learn computer programming from video games. By modifying existing games, players can connect to gaming communities, explore additional methods of play for a single game, and possibly learn job skills. Kushner’s (2003) examination of the Doom game programmers shows how video games allowed underprivileged youths to succeed by programming games. Pelletier (2004) also argues that many game developers today learn game design through their love of games:

As we know from the biographies of its leading luminaries, the games industry emerged from the bedrooms of 12 year olds programming games on rustic computers less powerful than contemporary digital alarm clocks, (para. 1)

Games often include internal editors that help players learn to alter and manipulate the games. While it is uncommon for most players to completely design video games, most children do learn some basics about technology while also learning to be more comfortable with technology (Sutton-Smith, 1986, p. 65). As the Doom designers illustrate, video games can present an avenue for success that would otherwise be closed to some children.

Video games as possible teachers of technology are especially important for girls and children from lower socioeconomic groups who have fewer opportunities to play and work with technology. Graner Ray (2004) stresses the need to teach girls technology and argues that video games offer one way to do so. Currently, the greater experience that boys have with technology offers later educational and career advantages. Video game play offers girls and boys the chance to experience and learn about technology in a useful and productive manner, while also unlearning fears of technology, a pivotal point for later education. Video games teach technology and a degree of comfort with technology to many children, including girls, who have limited access to computers in their schools or homes (Beck & Wade, 2004).

Video Games Provide a Safe Space for Play

Video games offer a complement to the shrinking play spaces available to children. The changing landscape and spaces of childhood often demand new types of play for children, play that both enriches their lives and protects them from unsafe areas. Many researchers have noted that video games have the ability to present virtual spaces that can supplement real spaces. Poole (2000) states that

Children have always made up their own “exploration games,” playing, for instance, in a deserted house and imbuing it with magical qualities. Now the technological prosthesis afforded by a videogame such as Tomb Raider or Zelda 64 allows such activity to be far more complex and cognitively challenging, so that the gamer really can, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “calmly and adventurously go traveling.” (p. 164)

Similarly, researchers (Jenkins, 1998; Rivkin, 1995) have indicated that the changing landscape of childhood has moved children inside apartments instead of offering them backyards, forests, and other spaces to explore. One prevalent and potentially dangerous situation is due to the changing landscapes of neighborhood environments. While unsupervised play is dangerous, many previous generations of children felt safe playing without adult supervision in neighborhood parks and neighborhood streets with older children or with a few neighboring adults watching. With the changing urban and suburban landscapes, the majority of parents and children are no longer comfortable with this sort of unsupervised outdoor play (Jenkins, 1998; Rivkin, 1995). As children play and live in more dominantly indoor environments (Rivkin, 1995), their options for play and activity change. With the streets seen as less safe, children spend increasing amounts of time inside their homes, often alone or only with other children. As a result, video games afford, virtually, the benefits of exploration that children were offered directly in previous years.

Video games are a medium predicated on the creation and exploration of virtual spaces. They can provide free play spaces and places of wonder for children. Most games rely on conflict as the primary focal point for game play, so that the spatial exploration is punctuated with fights. Many games are designed with linear violent plots that are easily constructed (Luban & Meziane, 2001). Many games also include free-play options that extend the game’s enjoyable play time and its value in terms of cost. These free-play segments are generally constructed for multiple players, or for additional play time (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). Video games remain expensive toys for individual children. Because most games are played in the shared space of a living room connected to a television set, the free-play portions of the games are generally played and replayed frequently, especially by children who use the free-play areas as virtual play spaces (Jenkins, 1998).

Researchers (Gee, 2003; Hughes, 1983; Squire, 2002) have shown the positives associated with games and play. Analysis of earlier outdoor games is relevant to video games because, as many children are forced inside their homes for safety, video games offer the same sort of play as found in earlier street games. For indoor play, video games are the most recent entry in the history of toys that allow and encourage social play. Toys, like other forms of play, can increase or decrease sociability:

Children who have siblings or peers in the neighborhood will, of course, be more likely to convert toy play into some form of social play…. Toys decrease the sociability of play. We hasten to add, however, that new toys also, in time, make a contribution to new forms of social play. (Sutton-Smith, 1986, p. 38)

Sutton-Smith (1986) notes that toys are often used to keep children occupied when parents cannot otherwise entertain or watch them. Sutton-Smith also states that, “Today, although children will still nearly always prefer playing with other children than on their own, for the greater part of their time, they are confined to playing alone” (p. 26). Video games provide a toy that children can easily share with other children in order to create a safe space for social play. For singular play, video games also allow children a space of autonomy:

Games are typically played by a relatively powerless segment of society—younger teenagers. Nonetheless, these players find meaning in the games that lets them resist, for a rather short time, forms of social control, allowing them to form their own cultural identity. (Dominick, 2002, pp. 52–53)

When combined with game narratives and themes that include children struggling to survive and succeed, video games offer children fictionalized versions of their own experiences. In doing so, games allow children to have a sense of authority and autonomy that can build self-esteem. Certain video games offer children hours of cooperative play with siblings and friends, opportunities that are difficult to find in other indoor games, or at least for an equivalent time duration. “Video games—like many other games—are inherently social” (Gee, 2003, p. 7) because they are played within the direct social realm of play with multiple players and because they exist within a culture of play even when being played by a single player. For some children, video games may be a net positive because they provide safer opportunities for play and encourage norms of sharing and cooperation. Legislative responses need to take into account both those children for whom video games are a positive overall and those for whom they create a negative balance.

Regulation: Benefits and Disadvantages

In discussions of video game violence, video games are most often depicted as laced with violence that is seamlessly transmitted to children playing the game. However, this linear vision breaks down when the entire context of video game play—a social and active experience—is considered. Video games often have violent content, but that content is only one part of the overall play.

Describing video games as violent simplifies the problems and benefits of video games. The positives of video games and the need for those positives are omitted. Further, the division into either violent or nonviolent video games assumes that an exterior standard of violence can be applied to video games. In much the same way that children’s stories often contain violence—the threat of murder from Snow White’s Queen and the death of Bambi’s mother, to name just two examples— video games most often present violence contextualized within the game narratives, as well as within the structure of play, as when Claire Redfield fights and kills zombies in Resident Evil to protect herself and her brother Chris.

Despite all the positives that video games present, video games disturbingly offer many extremely violent images. There are also an increasing number of sexually explicit games. The benefits that video games offer should be considered before any policies that regulate video game play and usage are enacted:

The reality, despite media attention on games like Doom, may also be that the vast majority of video games are nonviolent, indicating that federal, state and local regulations restricting video games may represent, at best, legislative overkill and, at worst, politicians pandering to public opinion. (Calvert, 2002, p. 23)

For any sort of video game regulation, video games do currently offer a rating system that can serve as a guide, but this is a guide that needs further industry input and clarification. The current video game rating system is much like the movie industry rating system, but the video game system is only loosely enforced at this time. Video games are currently rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which categorizes games based on age appropriateness.

  • EARLY CHILDHOOD (EC): Titles rated EC have content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.
  • EVERYONE (E): Titles rated E have content that may be suitable for persons ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief, or mild language.
  • TEEN (T): Titles rated T have content that may be suitable for persons ages 13 and older. May contain violent content, mild or strong language, or suggestive themes.
  • MATURE (M): Titles rated M have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain mature sexual themes, more intense violence, or strong language.
  • ADULTS ONLY (AO): Titles rated AO have content suitable only for adults. Titles in this category may include graphic depictions of sex or violence. Adult Only products are not intended for persons under the age of 18.
  • RATING PENDING (RP): Titles listed as RP have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting final rating.

If the ESRB system is used as a reference for legislating violent games, the categories effectively divide children, defined as those under 18, into four groups: those 3 and older, 6 and older, 13 and older, and those who are 17. These are somewhat useful categories because they parallel the rating system for films. However, legislation based on these categories is insufficient because the rating system lacks complexity. In fact, the current rating system is based on evaluators watching videos and then evaluating the games based on those videos instead of having the evaluators actually play the games (Official U.S. PlayStation, 2004). Even within the rating system, the game ratings themselves are inadequate because many games have been rated for older ages based on depictions of blood and the use of profanity. This may seem logical, but a skateboarding game like Tony Hawk (999) is rated “T” for Teen because of blood, comic mischief, mild lyrics, and suggestive themes. The blood is not from players fighting or beating up enemies; instead, the blood is shown when the player’s character falls from failing to properly perform a skateboarding trick and is injured. The Tony Hawk games, which have repeatedly won game of the year and player’s choice awards, offer countless hours and weeks of indoor play within a fun, interesting, and intelligent frame. The games also offer the heroic figure of the champion skater and loving father, Tony Hawk. Players can also choose to play as different characters, including female characters and characters from many different races.

Given the inherent problems in the game rating system, and the benefits offered by video games, legislative controls should not be enacted until additional data can be gathered as to the exact benefits and detriments of violent video games based on the actual experience and situation of game play. Once these studies are completed, legislative controls should only be enacted after taking into account the benefits of video game play, and only after creating a rating system that can both weigh the positives and negatives of video games in their entirety and as they are actually played.


Children and adults play video games because they are enjoyable and rewarding (Gee, 2003). For many children, the same rewards offered by video game play are also offered in school, neighborhood play, family relationships, extracurricular activities, and other media. When a child’s situation is more limited, video games may provide benefits that are not provided elsewhere. As one researcher notes,

The potential uses of video games extends far beyond the playing of games. They could be excellent teaching devices. In playing a game, you have to learn an amazing variety of skills and knowledge … You read books and study the game thoroughly, doing active problem solving and working with other people. (Gee, 2003, p. 44)

Video games can be productive teaching tools; moreover, they can provide educational and social value to children who do not otherwise have access to similar resources. This value cannot be dismissed in the debates over video games and violence. In fact, one of the more positive avenues for change and improvement exists within the game industry. As more game designers realize that their games are not suitable for all players, an increasing number are trying new possibilities for game design that either exclude violence or include violence only for educational purposes. Some of these games include violence and death in order to teach history, and others include violence to teach about disease—for instance, a player acts as a white blood cell and fights against diseases like cancer. This has therapeutic value for sick children who can feel as though they can do something to fight their ailments (Ball, 2004; Johnson, 2004). In more mainstream design, game companies like Nintendo are re-releasing classic friendly and nonviolent games while also creating innovative, nonviolent new games (see Appendix, Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion).

Other avenues in game design include the Serious Games Initiative, the Games for Health Initiative, and the rising numbers of organized female game developers in companies like Her Interactive—all of which aim to create more inclusive and innovative games that further focus on collaboration; self-esteem; and other nonviolent, positive goals (Ray, 2004; Squire, 2002). By actually working with the industry, discussions of violence and video games could shift to include some of the more problematic issues in video games for children, like gender issues and the lack of racial diversity. Many games present women as sexualized objects instead of realistic depictions of women. Working with the industry could also help parents, teachers, and others to explore the positives that video games present. As Dewey (1963) remarked on the nature of education and learning,

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes … may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history … For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future, (p. 48)

Collateral learning in video games includes critical thinking, exploratory play, and many other positives that researchers are currently building on to create even more positive effects. Many researchers like Sawyer and Squire of the Serious Games Initiative are already exploring how video games can be better designed for use in improved education, physical fitness, self-esteem, and other areas. Squire (2002) in particular has studied how video games in their current form can be used to teach critical thinking, strategy, and history.