Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
11 Oct 2013
Video game Grand Auto Theft Auto V received an R18+ rating by the Australian Classification Board when it went on sale two weeks ago.
But the classification is little more than a political panacea with children as young as 10 already hooked on the game which along with the series' usual bloody carnage and gratuitous violence and explicit sex also features cannibalism, murder and torture.
"I am asked to speak at many schools and children in Year 6 and 7 are boasting about playing this game and then giggling thery ask me not to tell on them," says well-known author, media commentator and advocate for women and girls, Melinda Tankard Reist.
She points out that despite the R+18 rating for the latest GTA video game, there is no way of monitoring this or preventing children from buying it online and swapping the game among their friends.
"Exposing kids to images of killing, maiming, dismembering and sexual assault over and over again has real consequences," she says and cites the case of an 18 year old in Thailand who stabbed a taxi driver to death trying to find out " if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game."
In 2003, two brothers aged 16 and 14 killed a man and wounded a woman shooting at cars in Tennessee and explained to police they were acting out the Grand Theft Auto 3 Video game.
Equally shocking was the killing of Australian baseballer, Chris Lane who was out jogging in Oklahoma in August this year and was shot by three teenagers who were bored and decided to "kill someone."
"You cannot expose kids to these sorts of things (violent video games) and expect them to be unaffected," Melinda says. "If kids are given a diet of violence none of us should be surprised when they act with violence."
What we are doing, she says, is teaching boys and young that violence and aggression is the way to solve problems to get the outcomes you want.
Video games whether part of the Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, Saints Row or any of the other series on sale are pushing the boundaries way past the limits with each new edition in a bid to appeal to players increasingly desensitised to violence and wanting more and more explicit depictions of carnage, murder, rapes and dismemberment.
This is what Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and one of the world's leading neuroscientists refers to as the "Yuk/Wow" factor. More than six years ago, Baroness Greenfield was one of the first to alert the world to the way children's brains were being changed by continued and regular exposure to violent video games.
Since then, she reports irrefutable evidence has emerged that exposure to these games results in structural changes to the brain including a smaller prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that deals with higher order thinking and impulse control.
In Sydney last week to address the Australian Conference on Children and the Media, Baroness Greenfield says research has found that adolescents are particularly vulnerable between the ages of 11 and 14 when many new brain connections are being made, and when the changes are permanent.
Developers of video games along with the international companies that market and distribute what has become a multi-billion dollar global business, continue to insist that the impact of violent video games is no different than watching a Quentin Tarantino movie or a popular TV series such as Game of Thrones that featured decapitations and torture.
The commercial interests involved in selling video games also point to classifications such as the newly introduced R18+ rating as if this removes any responsibility. The game developers are also pushing the boundaries further with even more brutality and graphic violence, sadism and torture in every new release. Much of this is focussed on the female characters in a game where women are almost always portrayed as prostitutes, strippers, junkies, sex addicts or psychotic.
The impact of violent video games goes far beyond that of a film or a TV series, Melinda says and points out that video games are played almost continuously for weeks on end. Unlike a film or TV, a video game is interactive.
"In these games players are not just watching a murder or torture or a rape, they are participating in it," she says.
In January this year when Government's newly-introduced R18+ for video games took effect, leading Australian child adolescent psychologist, Collett Smart warned the ratings would do nothing to protect children, and would also allow far more explicit and violent video games to be sold in Australia.
Under the old regime, the highest classification for video games was MA15+ which meant many overseas adults-only games were either shoe horned into this category or banned completely. But with a higher category many that would have been banned a year ago are now on sale, she says.
The R18+ classification is not working, she believes because most parents have no idea what it means. Many of those to whom she has spoken think it is a rating applied to difficulty, not age suitability.
Collett however blames parents not the ratings system for the fact that children she meets as young as nine are playing games like Grand Theft Auto V.
"In many cases it is parents who buy their children these games. Where video games are concerned, parents have completely abrogated their responsibility and have no idea about the games they buy their kids. And no interest in finding out," she says.
Collett who is currently researching a doctorate in aggression and the link to online addiction in video games, says she encounters parents who take children as young as seven to the master game store and buy them whatever they want and then at night, go to bed unaware their child is up all night playing one of these games.
"Parents should be aware of what their children are watching, what they are accessing on their computers and what video game they are playing. If they watched these games themselves, they would be appalled and would keep their child out of harm's way."
Collett refutes parents' arguments that as it's only a game.
"Children don't have the skills to know what's real and what isn't," she say ,and adding that play and games is the way children learn social skills, and about what's appropriate or inappropriate behaviour.
"With adults, games are also used to teach, such as sharpening the mind, improving focus or memory. But what do video games such as Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto teach other than violence and aggression?" she asks. Disturbingly for players of these games there are no negative consequences for actions from murder to decapitations to rape or violent sex. Instead such horrific behaviour is rewarded.
A recent Australian study of 925 adolescents found high video game use was associated with poor global health, depression and anxiety.
Equally disturbing Melinda Tankard Reist says are the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that show sexual assaults and related offences committed by school-aged children has almost quadrupled over four years, escalating from 450 to 1709.