During the Cold War, American children played with spy toys like those on the television show Man from U.N.C.L.E., and talked to each other on walkie-talkies. Today, they play video games that allow them to blast away at terrorists.
More Americans have been embracing home and hearth since the Sept. 11 attacks, and retailers are reporting that videotapes, televisions and video games are flying out of stores. But parents are wondering whether the violent combat and destruction that are the staples of today's video games are a little too close to reality for their children.
Some of the video games allow children to stalk and kill bad guys on the screen, and even fly a plane into an image of the World Trade Center. A new game that can be downloaded off the Internet allows users to take virtual whacks at a cartoon figure of Osama bin Laden.
Echoing those concerns, some video game manufacturers appear to be backing away from scenes of violence that used to seem like pure fantasy, one toy industry expert said.
"I think that the major changes you're going to see in games are going to be cosmetic in terms of removing images of the [World Trade Center] towers, but they're also going to be storyline in terms of focusing on rescue or heroism," said toy analyst Chris Byrne.
Microsoft is changing its popular Flight Simulator game, removing depictions of the twin towers. Activision's yet-to-be released Spiderman 2: Enter Electro is being redesigned for the same reason. French company Ubi Soft Entertainment postponed its planned October release of Tom Clancy's Rogue Spear: Black Thorn to modify the game's content, which originally let players combat terrorism.
A Sense of Control?
In the meantime, some parents say their kids are logging too many hours in front of the video screen.
"I think children, particularly boys, are playing video games right now — particularly violent and aggressive video games — because they feel out of control. It does give them a temporary sense of some type of control," said Karen Binder-Brynes, a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Like many parents, Binder-Brynes questions whether playing violent games helps kids vent their fear and anger or just makes them feel worse. Some children say that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have sapped the fun out of their games.
"If you play the game, then you know it's a game, but having the same thing happening in the real world makes it so much worse," said 13-year-old Erico.
Kadeem, 12, agreed. "Now that there are things like the Sept. 11 attacks actually going on, basically in my own back yard, it's just it hits too close to home for me to actually play the game," he said.
But 11-year-old Steven said games could sometimes serve a useful purpose: "For some people, it's better to play video games, because if you get angry, you could play video games and kill some people and like blow off the steam."
Binder-Byrnes said excessive game-playing can create anxiety in children. "When boys are playing these video games or any aggressive games, they are in another state of hyperarousal in terms of their adrenaline. A little of that is not harmful, but when it becomes too much, it puts them in a state of higher anxiety, as adrenaline will do."
Rough Play Fuels the Fire
Good Morning America's parenting contributor Ann Pleshette Murphy said that the video games are not healthy in the context of Sept. 11, and should not serve as catharsis for emotions of fear or anger.
"The notion that you can get aggressive feelings out of your system by playing terrorist is bogus," Murphy said. "Playing something highly aggressive when you're stressed doesn't get it out of your system, but instead fuels the fire."
On the other hand, if children are building a house of blocks, then having rescue workers go in and rescue those inside, it can be a healthy way to express what they are feeling or thinking about.
For children who do play video games, it is more important to monitor the content than it is to set time limits, Murphy said.
"You might not want them watching the images on TV, so you send them off to their room to play, but that can actually be bad," she said. "You need to look at the quality of the play and the type of game being played, rather than the time line — although, in general, less is better."
There are warning signs that children may have gone too far in playing violent video games, Murphy said. The signs include: behavior about game play that seems addictive or compulsive; reduced contact with family or friends; and changes in behavior, eating and sleeping, and school habits.