Testimony on Behalf of the American Psychological Association Before the United States Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights

What’s in a Game? State Regulation of Violent Video Games and the First Amendment

March 29, 2006

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for initiating this important hearing on violence in video games.  I am Dr. Elizabeth Carll, the chair of the Interactive Media Committee of the Media Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association (APA). The effects of media violence on children has been a career long interest with the adoption of the APA Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media being one of the initiatives when I served as the president of the Media Division of APA.  I am also a psychologist in private practice in Long Island, New York, and have worked with children, teens, and families for more than 25 years. The APA is pleased to participate in today’s hearing and thanks Sen. Brownback for his important work on issues surrounding media and children.

The Interactive Media Committee was formed to facilitate the implementation of the recommendations of the Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media, adopted by APA in August 2005, which I will be discussing.  APA’s Media Psychology Division spearheaded the adoption of the APA Resolution with the recognition that there is often a disconnect between research, legislation and implementation of useful recommendations at the community level.

It may be of interest for the Committee to be aware that, as a result of the APA Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media, a formal dialogue with the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has begun to discuss ways in which the current ratings system may be improved.

It is also important to emphasize that electronic media plays an important role in the emotional development, social behavior and intellectual functioning of children and youth.  There are many video games that are very helpful for children to facilitate medical treatment, increase learning, and promote pro-social behavior.  However, there are also video games that include aggression, violence and sexualized violence that may have a negative impact on children.  It is this group of video games that I will be discussing today.

Many of the issues that I will be discussing today were of concern when I first testified at the 1999 New York State legislature’s hearings on the effects of violence in interactive media on children and discussed the unique characteristics of video games.  However, what has changed since that time has been the rapid growth in the body of research that continues to point to the detrimental effects of violence in video games and interactive media on children, as well as the increasing public concern regarding this issue.

What Are the Unique Characteristics of Video Games and Interactive Media vs. TV and Film?

More than four decades of research have revealed that TV violence has a strong influence on the aggressive behavior of children and youth. Exposure to violent media increases feelings of hostility, thoughts about aggression, suspicions about the motives of others and demonstrates violence as a method to deal with conflict.

However, video games and interactive media have certain qualities that are distinct from passive media, (i.e., TV and film). For instance, video games:

  • Require active participation enabling rehearsal and practice of violent acts, which enhances learning;

  • Include frequent repetition of acts of violence as part of winning the game, which enhances learning;

  • Reward game players for simulated acts of violence, which enhances learning. Often the winner of the game is the one who kills and destroys the most; and,

  • Enables the identification of the participant with a violent character while playing video games, which enhances learning.

Therefore, this practice, repetition, identification with a violent character and being rewarded for numerous acts of violence may intensify learning of violence.  With the development of more sophisticated interactive media, the implications for violent content are of further concern.  This is due to the intensification of more realistic experiences, which may be even more conducive to increasing aggressive behavior as compared to passively watching violence on TV and in films.

What Are the Effects of Exposure of Children to Violence in Video Games?

A comprehensive analysis of violence in interactive video game research suggests exposure increases aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and decreases helpful behavior.

Studies further suggest that sexualized violence in the media has been linked to increases in violence towards women, the acceptance of rape myth and anti-women attitudes.

Research also suggests that the most popular video games contain aggressive and violent content. Girls and women, boys and men, and minorities are depicted in exaggerated stereotypical ways. Sexual aggression against women, including assault, rape and murder, is depicted as humorous and is glamorized and rewarded.

What Are Some of the Concerns Regarding the Current Rating System for Video Games?

Efforts to improve the rating system for video games and interactive media would be a first step in providing additional helpful information as to the content of video games.  Currently, the labels are very general and more content specificity is needed for parents to make more informed decisions about the video games their children play.  For example, are there only a few depictions of violence or is it a main theme?  What types of violence are depicted - sports violence, war violence, sexual violence (such as rape and murder) or random thrill kill violence?  Is violence linked with negative social consequences or rewarded?  The scientific community should be involved in the development of a more accurate rating system to better inform parents and consumers.

Recommendations from the APA Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media

  • Advocate for funding to support research on the effects of violence in video games and interactive media on children, adolescents, and young adults.  APA supports the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA) to amend the Public Health Service Act to authorize funding to establish a program on children and the media within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the role and impact of electronic media in the development of children.

  • Teach media literacy to children so they will have the ability to critically evaluate interactive media. This needs to involve educating teachers, parents and caregivers.

  • Encourage the entertainment industry to link violent behaviors with negative social consequences. Showing violence without realistic consequences teaches children that violence is an effective means of resolving conflict.  Whereas, seeing pain and suffering as a consequence can inhibit aggressive behavior.

  • Develop and disseminate a content-based rating system that more accurately reflects the content of video games and interactive media and encourages the distribution and use of the rating system by the industry, parents, caregivers and educational organizations.

The complete text of the APA resolution on *Violence in video games and interactive media (PDF, 89KB) and the references are available on the website and is included as an attachment to my statement.

I would like to thank the Committee for their interest in this important issue and Senator Brownback for his continued leadership in this area.

*This 2005 policy statement is currently under review. The APA Board of Directors is in the process of appointing a task force to review the literature published in the area since the current policy statement was adopted. The task force will report its findings and recommendations on potential changes to the APA policy statement when its work is completed.