July 31, 2001 -- At first glance, you might not have a problem with an 8-year-old playing video games like Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, or even the Smurfs. But after taking a closer look, researchers are discovering these games may not necessarily be the peaceable pastimes you may think they are.
The first study to look at the amount of violence in video games rated 'E' for suitability for "everyone" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, (ESRB), finds that many of them may surprise parents with the amount of violence and death they depict.
"It's really hard for parents to know from the information they are given what a game is going to be like," says study author Kimberly Thompson, ScD. "The 'E' rating is not necessarily an indication that the game is free of content that parents might be worried about."
Thompson is assistant professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard University School of Public Health.
In the study, which appears in the August 1 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Thompson and doctoral student Kevin Haninger studied a sample of 55 'E'-rated video games manufactured between 1985 and 2000. Thirty-five of those games involved intentional violence for an average of 30.7% of game time, according to the study.
According to the ESRB, an E-rated game contains "minimal violence." But Thompson found that "minimal" is likely to be relative term. For instance, 91.2% of the playing time for Nintendo's Nuclear Strike 64, involved an uninterrupted display of violence.
The game, which simulates a helicopter firing on civilians on the ground, included depictions of 179 deaths. The original Legend of Zelda, released in 1987 and followed over the years by popular sequels, depicts uninterrupted violence for 68.4% of the playing time, with 869 deaths.
Interestingly, an identical version of Nuclear Strike, manufactured by PlayStation, is rated "T" for teen -- indicating it would be unsuitable for younger players. The discrepancy in ratings for similarly violent games would seem to suggest that the rating system is less than informative -- and may be confusing or misleading for parents, Thompson says.
Though the relationship between witnessing depictions of violence and violent behavior by children is not entirely clear, Thompson says "there is a lot of concern in the medical community." The subject gained notoriety when it was revealed that shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre had been avid fans of the violent video games Doom and Quake.
Elissa Benedek, MD, a child psychiatrist who has taken an interest in violence in the media and its effect on children, says the study should be a warning to parents. "If your child is going to be playing video games, you ought to preview them and not simply accept the manufacturer's labeling," she tells WebMD.
She is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.
Thompson advises moms and dads to take it a step further. "Parents should sit down and play the game with their kids," she says. "Take the opportunity to talk to your kids about it."