Judicial Notebook

When teenager Devin Moore was taken to jail on suspicion of car theft, he seized an officer's gun, fatally shot three officers and stole a patrol car to make his getaway. Moore, who frequently played the game "Grand Theft Auto," later stated, "Life is like a video game. You have to die sometime." This incident in Fayette, Ala., fueled concerns over the effects of violent games. Concerns also exist over games containing sexual content, drug use, prostitution and bullying behavior.

Violence's impact

Negative effects of games could have a widespread impact, as 70 percent of children own games, with boys averaging 13 hours of game play a week and girls averaging five, according to a 2002 study by D.A. Gentile & D.A.Walsh in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (Vol. 23, No. 2, pages 157-178) and a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation report, "Kids and Media at the New Millennium." Thus, it is no surprise that psychologists have explored the negative effects of playing video games. Recently, APA reviewed relevant literature and adopted a resolution calling for the reduction of all violence in video games and interactive media marketed to children and youth. Among the association's concerns is that violence in games teaches children that violence can successfully resolve conflicts. Additionally, APA stated a concern that video games may be more harmful than other media because of their interactive nature (www.psychologymatters.org/videogames.html). Media including video games are also associated with poor school performance, gambling, substance abuse and low physical activity (see, e.g., a 1995 study by S.E. Fisher in the Journal of Gambling Studies [Vol. 11, No. 3, pages 239-247] a 2004 Journal of Adolescence study [Vol. 27, No. 1, pages 5-22] by D.A. Gentile and colleagues; a 1996 Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine study [Vol. 150, No. 4, pages 356-362] by S.L. Gortmaker and colleagues; and R.T. Wood's 2004 Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse study [Vol. 14, No. 1, pages 77-100]). Because teens have lower impulse control than adults, they may be more susceptible to negative effects. For example, after playing hours of shooting games, a teen such as Devin Moore may impulsively shoot other people in a real-life situation. Though results of some studies have been controversial (e.g., critics argue that negative effects are short-lived) and other studies have found positive effects of games (e.g., increasing hand-eye coordination), the popular notion is that games have largely negative effects on children.

Although video games are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), there is no legal regulation of games or game sales. Thus, each store decides whether to sell games rated as "Mature" to minors. Some legislatures, believing that the industry's self-regulation is not enough, have acted to prevent their sales to minors. In 2005, California and Illinois adopted laws preventing stores from selling or renting sexually explicit or extreme ly violent games to minors. However, both laws have met resistance from the judiciary. For instance, the U.S. federal court in California recently determined that there was not a causal connection between violent games and violent behaviors, and that any restriction on games would violate the game-makers' First Amendment freedom of speech rights. It consequently struck down the law.

Psychologists' role

So what, then, can be done to protect children from possible negative effects of games? Psychologists can play an integral part in protecting children. First, they can continue to research the effects of games, especially long-term effects. Second, they can study the content of games to investigate the common notion that games are becoming more extreme. Third, psychologists can study minors' cognitive development and decision-making to determine if games have more impact on minors than adults. As parents can help limit negative effects by monitoring game play, psychologists can continue to study how parental involvement can moderate the negative effects of game playing. They can educate parents on the importance of monitoring game play and understanding the game rating system. In addition, psychologists can play an important role in promoting regulation of games. Research can be disseminated to legislators, retailers and the ESRB to discourage marketing and sales to children. Finally, psychologists can promote the development and use of educational games that teach positive problem-solving skills. Through these actions, psychologists can help reduce the negative impact of video games.

It is likely that the judicial system will be calling on psychologists more in the future to answer questions about effects of games. Psychologists will be able to inform legislatures and courts that are considering laws that would regulate games or sales. In addition, psychologists will be called to testify in criminal trials. For instance, Devin Moore's defense attorney claimed that he should be shown leniency because his exposure to "Grand Theft Auto" warped his mind and led him to commit murder. Psychologists will also be consulted in civil trials. In 2005, victims of Devin Moore's shooting rampage filed a lawsuit against the makers of "Grand Theft Auto," claiming that the company created a "murder simulator" that trained Devin to commit murder. Through continued study and dissemination of research, psychologists can help protect children and inform the legal system as to the effects of video games.

Judicial Notebook is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).