EASTHAM, Mass. (AP) — In an effort to keep children younger than himself away from violent video games, Nauset Regional High School freshman Matt West has started a club to design and market nonviolent games.
West, 15, of Orleans, acknowledges he plays some of the games on Common Sense Media’s most violent video game list, all of which are rated M — “Mature” for ages 17 and older.
But, he said, 15 is a lot older than 9, the age at which he has seen young siblings of his friends begin playing “Grand Theft Auto,” which is set in a city of prostitutes and drug dealers and features profanity, sex and lots of opportunities to shoot, run over and blow up your enemy.
West is the only student in an Outer Cape group targeting violence called Be the Change, made up of police officers, Nauset school staff and representatives of nonprofit agencies such as Child and Family Services of the Lower Cape. The Be the Change committee formed soon after the December 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Be the Change is sponsoring parent education forums to bring the murky reality of violent video games to light.
West became involved when, as a youth representative on Together We Can, he attended a Be the Change meeting and was struck by what he heard.
That is, that extreme media violence consumption is linked to reduced function in the part of the brain that regulates decision-making and weighing consequences, according to brain research done by Indiana University.
Also that video games are extremely popular and profitable: The revenue from video games runs roughly $18 billion annually, twice the revenue generated by the movie industry, according to the documentary “Joystick Warriors, Video Games, Violence & the Culture of Militarism” produced by the nonprofit Media Education Foundation.
The average American child is inundated by media, watching some type of screen an average of 6.5 hours a day, according to Lowell Monke, a founder of the nonprofit organization Alliance for Childhood.
And American children are 17 times more likely to die from guns than children in the next 25 highest-income countries combined, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.
As a therapist who treats children, Sue Landers, co-leader of the Be the Change Committee, has no doubt violent video games can be addictive and destructive.
She recently made a home visit to an emotionally disturbed boy, age 12, who was addicted to the video game series “Call of Duty,” which Common Sense Media lists as one of the 10 most violent video games on the market today.
The boy’s grandmother, who is raising him, said the boy “would rather pee on himself” than stop the game, Landers said.
Eastham police Sgt. Gus Schnitzer, another Be the Change member, has stories as well.
He went to an emergency call recently that was so dramatic he thought he would need to shoot a young woman who appeared to be about to use a weapon on him. Instead this woman ended up going to the hospital, Schnitzer said.
During the entire episode, her younger brother, of elementary school age, sat in front of the television with headphones on, playing a video game, he said.
The “hands-on learning” of pressing the button or pulling a trigger is an extremely powerful method of teaching, Landers said.
Such exposure to constant murders without consequences desensitizes children to violence and reduces empathy, Landers said.
Gun manufacturers are often used as consultants during video game production to make sure the weapons in the game are realistic, Landers said. The gun manufacturers also have links to their products on the game websites, according to “Joystick Warriors.”
“When kids know what I carry in my cruiser, that’s bad,” Schnitzer said. “But they do. They know its name, how to load it and how to use it.”
All that said, West says he likes video games. He plays “Saints Row IV” because of the beautiful cars, the planes and buildings. And he enjoys playing with his friends online.
Yet he is concerned — and so are some of his game-loving friends — to think of younger children watching scenes of sex or the killing of children, for example.
So he thinks it may be possible to create games with realistic, well-rendered scenes of cities, cars and homes that will fascinate gamers but don’t include all the violence.
Not computer-savvy himself, West said he hopes to get help from teenage programming wizards at Nauset High, Staples and elsewhere. The first meeting of the club was scheduled to be held after school on Feb. 4, he said.
When he tells other teenagers about his idea, “they are mad,” West said. “Until I explain, you may like the games, but think about your younger brother or sister playing them.”