For adults it may mean regular visits to the golf course or talking leisurely lunches at an outdoor café.
For children it means roughly 2½ months of free time. This will undoubtedly include family vacations and camps. For many kids it will also include hours of killing time in front of the TV playing video games.
Playing video games has become an accepted part of mainstream American culture. The early clunky arcade games of the 1970s have progressed to multiple levels on multiple systems with incredible degrees of realistic play.
It has also created generations of gamers. According to an Ipsos MediaCT survey released last year, the average game player is now 35, with 40 percent of the gamers being women.
Clearly heading to the mall to play “Donkey Kong” is a relic of the past. The changing marketplace has also dramatically changed game content to appeal to an adult audience. It doesn’t mean, however, the only adults are playing those games, a fact game producers are acutely aware of.
A survey released last month in the journal Psychological Science stated roughly one in 10 children who regularly played video games showed addictive tendencies. This led to avoidance of chores and homework, and in some extreme cases, stealing money to purchase games.
Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile, who took part in the study, said it was still difficult to tell what the long-term effects of the addiction was and if it frequently lasted beyond the excitement of getting a new game.
The possible negative effects of unbridled gaming were also addressed in a 2004 study Gentile participated in, where correlations were drawn between excessive gaming and poor grades and antisocial behaviors.
The question then becomes: In a household where the parent or parents both work, how do you keep your kid from not spending the entire summer spraying rival soldiers’ bloody guts all over the screen?
One answer is making sure the games in your house meet your approval, and that’s where Plugged In comes in.
Plugged In is a review Web site operated by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. It offers reviews of popular media including TV shows, movies and video games. The goal of the site is not to rail against pop culture, said Plugged In Director Bob Waliszewski.
“We try not to be preachy,” Waliszewski said of the site’s reviews, which do sometimes quote Scripture. “Our aim is simply to spell out the information. We believe our audience is spiritually mature enough to come to their own conclusions.
“It’s up to families to make their own decisions to say that a game is OK or that no way is that welcome in our home.”
Games today bear little resemblance to the comparably tame “Space Invaders” or “Frogger” parents may have played themselves as kids. Plus, with normal adult obligations, sitting down to play games for hours on end is rarely a priority.
“It can be a huge responsibility for parents to evaluate these games with 10, 11, 12 levels that they can’t always work their way through but their kids can,” Waliszewski said. “The rating doesn’t always mean yes or no for parents depending on what’s in the game. We’ll play all the new games and let readers decide if they if it’s something OK for parents to buy if their kid wants it for their birthday.”
The rating system Waliszewski refers to is similar to movies as a general guideline. Ratings are E (Everyone) E10 (Everyone 10 and up), T (Teen) and M (Mature, intended for adults only).
Metaphorically, the rating system for kids can be a modern version of the forbidden fruit so well-known from Genesis 2:15-17.
“The game ratings help a smaller and smaller percentage of parents,” Waliszewski said. “The M-rated games are seen as the forbidden fruit and a badge of honor to have. Kids may not want the E or T games because they think it’s too babyish. ‘Mom, I’m 11, 12, 13 years old, I should be able to play these games.'”
And much like movie rating systems, not all games with the same rating are created equal.
“There’s a lot of difference in an M-rated game like ‘Halo’ where you’re shooting aliens than a game where you reach in a body cavity and pulls out guts and spray them all over the screen with foul language,” Waliszewski said. “There’s a big difference between movies like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry’ when they’re both rated PG-13.”
The level of violence in popular M-rated games can fuel addictive behaviors, which in turn can ultimately lead to problems in the real world.
“Doing anything for nine hours a day non-stop without a break is harmful no matter what it is,” Waliszewski said. “When you add the level of blood and gore some of the games have, it’s clear it can have a psychological impact.”
That being said, Waliszewski had some suggestions as for possible thumbs-up and thumbs-down for newer games on the market. These are summaries of some recent Plugged In reviews:
“Empire: Total War” (T): This game, while a war game for the PC, prompts users to think through political and social ramifications before launching into battles. It uses historical empires and provides a thinking process behind strategies. Battle views are bird’s-eye views and bloodless.
“Wii Music” (E): For the popular Nintendo Wii system, this music game is easier and less repetitive than the wildly popular Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. It uses animals to build up melodies for songs that players can use standard controllers for, with a wide array of song choices.
“Tom Clancy’s Hawx” (T): The popular author of political thrillers has a long history of delving into the gaming field. This game, set in the future with a Special Forces-type of Navy fighter squadron, gets high marks for its strategy and easy game-play compared to some flight simulation games.
“LittleBigPlanet” (E): Only for the PlayStation 3, this game lets players be Sackboy, a doll-like character which can take on different identities and appearances in different creative cultural landscapes.
“Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars” (M): The Grand Theft Auto series is well-known for its high level of violence against police, use of the drug trade and the use of prostitution and other harsh treatment against women. This newest installment is for the Nintendo DS, a hand-held gaming device popular primarily with elementary and middle school-aged kids. In running “errands” for crime bosses the gamer is directed to rip the heart of a person in graphic fashion, be exposed to detailed information and glorification of drugs, and the liberal use of cuss words.
“MadWorld” (M): This Wii game is set in black and white graphic novel style similar to recent R-rated violence-fests Sin City and The Spirit. The game puts you in the person of Jack, a well-ripped character in a city quarantined by a viral terrorist attack. The game gives you points for the amount and creativity you use with your buzzsaw to slice and dice your way through other city residents.
“Resident Evil 5” (M): In the last decade Resident Evil has become an entertainment franchise spawning games and motion pictures with futuristic annihilation and plenty of blood and gore. In this installment, new weapons are added to the arsenal as you tear your way through phalanxes of African zombies: “Whether you’re making your way around rotting human corpses lying in pools of ichor, or shying away from splayed-open, fly-covered animal sacrifices, there’s no shortage of gore and goo.”
“Fallout 3” (M): Fallout is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have survived for generations following global nuclear war. Instead of taking the opportunity to give players compassionate choices, the rewards come from pulverizing women and leveling cities with atomic weaponry. It includes upper levels where cannibalism is part of the game.
Plugged In: http://www.pluggedinonline.com/
Video game age survey: http://www.dmwmedia.com/news/2008/07/17/survey:-average-u.s.-gamer-age-35%3B-40%25-are-women
Video game study: http://www.psychology.iastate.edu/~dgentile/Gentile_Lynch_Linder_Walsh_2004.pdf