Copyright 2001

[ December 16th 2001 ]

They will be among the most sought-after presents this Christmas, but Britain's bestselling video games have become so violent and sexually graphic that they are unsuitable for children, according to new research. A children's rights group says games such as Tomb Raider , Final Fantasy and Crazy Taxi should be certified with stricter adult ratings. Its study reveals most feature scantily clad women or violent foreigners, which reinforce stereotypes.

Published by Children Now, the year-long study, called 'Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games', examined the 70 bestselling games in Britain and the US - available on Game Boy Advance, Dreamcast, Nintendo 64 and Sony's PlayStation2. The report discovered that 79 per cent of games targeted at children aged six and up contained some violence. In all, 48 per cent of video games contained serious acts of violence. The research reveals that in none of the games were players punished for killing.

"Our report finds that children as young as six are at risk from a desensitisation to violence," said Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, based in Oakland, California. "With the greater sophistication of the newer consoles there is a great realness to the games themselves. The violence is much more brutal and com bined with the better quality of effects, the games have a richness we've never seen before. I think parents would be surprised by the levels of violence."

Salisbury's organisation has raised concerns with games manufacturers. "The games that we looked at seemed fairly consistent in terms of their violent content. And we found a short supply of positive images - either male or female. You have to wonder: how much of this kind of violence should kids be seeing?"

Video games and their effects on users have always been controversial. A recent study found that when video game use among eight- and nine-year-olds was reduced to under seven hours a week for 20 weeks, their verbal aggression decreased by half and their physical aggression decreased by 40 per cent. And amid recent concerns over the stan dards set by the entertainment industry, September's scheduled release of Grand Theft Auto 3 , widely considered one of the most violent games ever, was delayed in the aftermath of the terror attacks on New York.

In Britain, where video games are subject to a ratings system, psychologists warn of increased levels of graphic violence and the effects on younger gamers. "There is a greater degree of involvement because of the greater capacity of the newer consoles," said Dr Sandy Wolfson of the University of Northumbria. Wolfson admitted that research on behavioural patterns of children was inconclusive. "But there is available evidence that suggests that the newer breeds of increasingly sophisticated games encourage solitary behaviour among children and even tendencies towards rebellion."

Studio head and programmer Don Whiteford, of Liverpool-based Rage Software, said game manufacturers provided a diverse range of products. "You get all kinds of simulation games these days, like Sim City where people can design their own cities and even run them. Those are simply old-fashioned dolls house games for girls that have been taken to the next level."

But violence in games is not the only concern for children's rights groups. Children Now's research showed females accounted for only 17 per cent of all characters and were twice as likely to wear revealing clothing. Wolfson said: "You need only look at Lara Croft. While it can be argued that she was a model of empowerment for many girls, it was undoubtedly men who fell for her obvious charms."

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