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Video violence is murder on young minds 
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By Daphne White

I recently spent half an hour watching a teenage boy play the No. 1-selling video game in the world. As I looked on, he cheerfully killed six police officers by shooting two of them in the stomach with a shotgun and breaking the necks of four others, stabbed two people with a stake and participated in several drive-by shootings. The game's statistics page showed that in less than four hours, he had fired 9,662 shots and scored 574 "kills." All done to an exciting cinematic score and enhanced sound effects for the machine guns, martial arts kicks and expolsions.

"I know you are out there. You possess great skills. Follow the white rabbit," a disembodied voice on the game's soundtrack encouraged the teen. " 'Follow the white rabbit' - that's a line from the first movie!" the boy exclaimed happily, and prepared for his next murderous mission.

And what is the name of this thrilling game? Enter the Matrix - a "companion" game to the recent blockbuster move "The Matrix Reloaded." This game sold a record 1 million copies in North America and Europe in the first week following its release.

Now follow the white rabbit. Look at the rating proudly displayed on the front of the game. You're thinking M for "mature," right? As in, appropriate for players 17 or older? After all, the movie itself is rated R. Wrong. The game is rated T for "teen," as in anyone 13 or older. The teenager I watched is 15.

How, I want to know, is this possible? This game shows more violence per minute than the film. According to the copy on the video game box, the movie and video game together constitute "the most integrated entertainment experience to date." The hype continues: "There is only one way to enter the Matrix. Larry and Andy Wachowski, creators of the Matrix trilogy, invite you to enter an alternate reality."

The actual "alternate reality" being sold here is a reality in which an ultra-violent, adult-rated movie like "Matrix Reloaded" can be marketed to a younger audience through a companion video game - and no harm is done. Don't succumb to that reality.

"We're not talking fairy-tale violence here or mild cartoon violence. The intensity, gruesomeness and morbid nature of these games make them comparable to a form of obscenity.

"It would be an odd conception of the First Amendment . . . that would allow a state to prevent a boy from purchasing a magazine containing topless women in provocative poses . . . but give the same boy a constitutional right to train to become a sniper at the local arcade without his parent's permission," wrote U.S. District Judge David Hamilton in upholding an Indianapolis video game ordinance that would have allowed the city to fine retailers who sell or rent explicit video games to minors. The video game industry got the ruling overturned on appeal, but Washington state just passed a first-in-the-nation bill to limit sales or rentals of video games depicting violence against police to minors, and a similar bill is pending in Congress.

As a parent, what I want to know is this: Who comes up with these ratings systems? For the answer to this question, pay no attention to the two men behind the screen: Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, representing the movie industry, and Doug Lowenstein of the Interactive Digital Software Association, representing the video game industry. They tell you their ratings boards are "independent," but they created the boards, they hire the boards' directors and their industries pay the raters' salaries.

Neither industry has been willing to make public the criteria used to arrive at the ratings.

Why should any of this matter? These are just make-believe movies and video games, right? And children know the difference between fantasy and reality, don't they?

Well, new brain research indicates that teenagers' brains - not just children's brains - are still developing and that they may store violent images as real memories. The consensus of the public health community, based on more than 30 years of research, is that "viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children." This conclusion was presented to Congress in July 2000 in a statement signed by six public health groups.

The merchants of violence market their products directly to children, mostly bypassing parents. Have you seen ads for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Outlaw Golf in any magazine that you normally read?

The cult of "The Matrix" pretends that there is deep spiritual meaning to the story. Yet the driving theme of the trilogy involves the Mother of All Battles (to save the Earth, of course), and "Matrix Reloaded" just treads water with vacuous dialogue and highly choreographed martial arts scenes. I shudder to think what kind of understanding of life kids will take into adulthood if we allow Tinseltown to market the ultraviolent "Matrix" to them as a spiritual epic.

Americans have decided not to market cigarettes, alcohol or pornography to minors. It's time we took the same public health position regarding children and media violence. Ultra-violent video games and movies should be marketed to adults only. Parents need clear labels on these "entertainment" products so that they know exactly what their content is. Labels could include information such as "This game includes decapitations, eviscerations, shootings, bombings and other illegal acts."

Unlike the grim vision of reality offered to teens in "The Matrix" - where pronouncements like "there is no choice" abound - I believe we do have a choice. We can see these "murder simulators" for what they are, and we can urge our legislators to require truth in labeling for these products.

Daphne White is the founder and executive director of the Lion & Lamb Project, a national parents organization based in Bethesda, Maryland, that seeks to stop the marketing of violent entertainment to children. Their website is www.lionlamb.org. This essay first appeared in the Washington Post. (Reprinted with permission.)

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