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Why parents can’t rely on video game ratings

IOWA STATE (US) —Not all E-rated video games are created equal. New research indicates content matters more than ratings when it comes to effects on kids.

The findings come from three studies, one of which is the first experimental study on children (ages 9-14) comparing the short-term behavioral effects of playing prosocial, neutral, and violent video games.

Researchers at Iowa State University found that youth who play prosocial video games—ones in which characters are kind to others—can increase helpful and decrease hurtful behaviors. Games with violent content—even E-rated games in which the aggression is cartoonish in nature—tend to have the opposite effect.


In the study, 191 children (104 males, 87 females) played either a prosocial (Chibi Robo), neutral (Pure Pinball or Super Monkey Ball Deluxe), or violent (Crash Twinsanity and Ty2) children’s (cartoon characters) video game. Their helpful or hurtful behaviors were then assessed simultaneously through a new “tangram” measure—one that allows the participant to either help or hurt a partner’s ability to solve a puzzle project. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Aggressive Behavior.

“One of the interesting findings among these 9- to 14-year-olds is that we show both effects (prosocial and violent) in the same study, relative to a neutral game,” says Craig Anderson, professor of psychology and a leading researcher on the behavioral effects of video games on children.

“In this paper, we’ve focused more on the prosocial aspect, in part because that’s newer. But this research shows that you can use the same kind of video game platform (as violent games), and if you have prosocial behaviors modeled in the game, you can increase the prosocial behavior—just as many prior studies have shown that violent games increase antisocial behavior.”

Anderson, Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology, and Ph.D. graduate Muniba Saleem produced similar results in another study of 330 college students, which will also be published in a future issue of Aggressive Behavior.

Briefly playing nonviolent prosocial games reduced students’ feelings of hostility and increased their positive effect, whereas playing violent games tended to have the opposite effects.

The new research further reinforces how video games can be effective teachers of both good and bad behavior.

“Video games are wonderful teachers and motivators, but content matters,” Anderson says.

“In the children’s study these were are all very cartoonish games—they were all rated appropriate for everyone—and yet we still show the violent harm aspect, as well as the prosocial, good aspect of some E-rated games,” he says.

“That just goes to show you that you can’t, as a parent, just rely on the rating because the rating system doesn’t really capture the potential harmfulness or helpfulness of a game.”

Anderson and Gentile collaborated with psychology graduate students Sara Prot and Katelyn McDonald on a third paper to be published in a future issue of the journal Pediatric Clinics of North America that shows video games can affect players in multiple ways simultaneously.

Tips for parents and doctors

They offer the following advice for pediatricians, parents, and other caregivers on choosing and using video games:

  • Ask about games and other media use at well-child checkups. Pediatricians and general practitioners are in the unique role of helping parents to understand that they need to take their children’s media use seriously.
  • Do not rely solely on ratings. Even games rated E for Everyone often contain depictions of violence. Instead, try playing the game yourself, ask someone to demonstrate it for you, or look for descriptions or video clips of the game on the Internet.
  • Choose well. Select nonviolent games that have been shown to have positive effects, such as educational games, prosocial games, and exergames.
  • Set limits on both the amount and content of the games. Create clear rules about the amount of time and the kind of content that is allowed.
  • Keep game devices in public space. When gaming devices are in private space (child’s bedroom), it is very difficult to control either content or time.
  • Stay involved. Explain to your children why playing violent games for an excessive amount of time may be harmful to them.
  • Spread the word. Help educate others in your community (parents, youth, public officials).

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