Is your little angel a computer killer?

Children under eight often imitate violent behaviour, such as martial arts moves
Psychologists are beginning to provide worrying data about children's addiction to violent games. Janet Robson reports

"He said the colours attracted him at first, then he had a strong compulsion to beat the game. He didn't want anything to come between him and his games. He was nervous and fidgety. He even started smoking for a while until he managed to beat the addiction."

This comment was not made at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting but at a recent conference on "Electronic Children", by 12-year-old Natalie Blackburne. She was talking about a young friend's addiction to video games.

Popular fears about computer or video game addiction among the young are based mainly on anecdotal evidence, but studies by psychologists such as Mark Griffiths of the University of Plymouth are starting to provide hard data. A recent study by Dr Griffiths and his colleague Nigel Hunt of a group of 387 12- to 16-year-olds found that almost a third played computer games every day. Seven per cent were playing for at least 30 hours a week. These, he says, could be described as addicts. "Whether the games are inherently `good' or `bad' is not the pertinent question here," says Dr Griffiths. "The question we should be asking is what the effect of any activity that takes up 30 hours of leisure time a week has on the educational and social development of children and adolescents."

Behavioural consequences of video game addiction are hard to measure. In Dr Griffiths' study, 1.5 per cent of children confessed to stealing money to buy new games cartridges, 2.7 per cent said they played truant from school and 7.2 per cent said they got bad marks at school - but truancy and bad marks may not be solely due to video game playing. Perhaps the most telling statistic, though, was that one in five of the children said they believed they had become more aggressive after playing video games. "There was a high correlation between those reporting increased aggression and those said to be addicted," Dr Griffiths says.

There is much controversy over the impact of violent video games on children. The educationalist Elizabeth Stutz believes it is severe. She has interviewed 500 children, mainly aged between eight and 12. When asked about their favourite games, she says, "none could remember any story line at all. All they could say was `you gotta kick 'em, you gotta punch 'em, you gotta kill 'em'." Ms Stutz is concerned that combat computer games are aimed entirely at killing, but death is not related to pain or suffering. Nor is it finite, as players have several lives. Of course, this is just as true of violent movies, television programmes and videos, but the difference with video games is that they actively engage children in violent acts. Ms Stutz is worried by the children's "total involvement" with the killer and the extent to which they identified with him. "They appeared to lose all sense of reality," she says.

Other studies show that children under the age of eight often do imitate violent behaviour, such as martial arts moves, but older children do not. Dr Griffiths acknowledges a potential flaw with studies so far is that they have all been based on "snapshot" research; that is, they have observed the behaviour of children immediately after playing a video game. So far, no one has any real idea of the long-term effects of video games, such as whether playing violent games as children encourages criminality as adults.

There is, however, no doubt that boys are far more entranced by combat games than girls. "Games are boring. It's all fighting and shooting," declares Debbie Lovell, a classmate of Natalie's. "I'm sure that's why my brother likes them." Boys play more frequently and for longer and seem to get greater kicks from video games. Possibly this is because boys often are better than girls at the visual and spatial skills the games require for success. But girls seem also to reject the male-dominated world that video games portray. On the whole, these games contain almost exclusively male images. Males are the heroes while females are merely victims, prizes or accessories.

Some argue that video games are motivational, increase concentration and aid motor skills. Perhaps so, but educationalists remain primarily concerned about the violence. A study of Nintendo games in 1991 showed that only seven out of 47 leading games did not involve violence. Combat games are the big sellers and young boys' favourites.

The game manufacturers play up the positive aspects. A recent press release from the European Leisure Software Publishers Association highlights a study by Professor Stephen Heppell, head of Anglia University's teaming technology research centre. Professor Heppell argues that "the way in which children approach problems presented [by games] is frequently very close to the way that they should solve problems in their science classes in school".

He also argues that children do socialise as a result of game playing, as they like to talk about games with others. "We have been highly impressed by the richness and quality of language of children describing their games playing." Professor Heppell encourages parents to play video games with their children, so that they can discuss strategies with them. He says children can also gain self-esteem from being able to beat their parents.