24 May 1999

Video Game Violence Minimally Affects Kids

Some people have all the fun! A regular day for John Sherry, a Purdue University assistant professor of communication, will often involve zapping as many aliens as he can before they zap him. But this 'work' only for fun. It's part of the work involved in designing a research study to test the theory that kids are attracted to video games not so much by the violence, but because the games present puzzles or problems to solve.

That's obviously the attraction for Sherry, an expert on media and children. As he manoeuvres through the maze-like structure of the "Marathon" game, he seems to regard the shooting of aliens as a nuisance that interferes with his goal of finding a way out.

"Video games teach logic, hypothesis testing and problem solving," he says. "Granted, as a teenager I can recall some fascination with violent images, but that may not be the major attraction of these games for most kids."

He developed his theory after he a reviewed and studied all the research conducted on violent video games as a doctoral student in 1997. The studies dated back to the mid-1980s and included such games as "Pacman."

"There hasn't been much research on video games, but the overall effect of these games on aggressiveness in children doesn't appear great," Sherry says. "However, the effect does seem larger with the newer, more violent games."

Of the 27 studies he found, the outcomes were mixed. In some instances there was no effect on aggressiveness, while other studies showed moderate effects. "There was a trend for the more violent games to have bigger effects, but none of the effects would be called dramatic," he says.

Negative effects or not, Sherry says he won't let his young daughters play violent video games. "It's not because of the violence, but because research shows a definite problem with fear reactions from seeing violent images," he says. "Graphic violence can frighten children and lead to nightmares."

He also says parents should not find it surprising or alarming when children imitate the aggressive acts they see in games. Sherry says correcting bad behavior will bring it to an end. "The media cannot override good parenting," he says.

He adds that parents also must realize that television and video games are different media, and research findings about television do not carry over to the games. Some of the differences:

- Video games are active; TV is passive.

- Video games require focused attention; TV does not.

- Video games represent fantasy; TV more closely imitates real life.

Sherry says that just as there are good and bad books and television shows, there are also plenty of good video games for children. "For example, the popular game 'Myst' teaches problem-solving skills without the violence," he says.