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The Dubious Perils of Pac-Man

One writer bristled at the idea that video games might be corrupting her daughters.

In 1982, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop warned an audience of public-health workers about the three top culprits for family violence: economic hardship, TV, and video games. “All you have to do,” Koop said, “is see a youngster playing a video game and watch his behavior as exhibited by body language or outright attacks on components of the game or the television screen to understand just how deep is the connection.”

Koop’s words prompted a rebuttal—titled “Will Pac-Man Consume Our Nation’s Youth?”—in the June 1983 issue of TR. ­Carolyn Meinel, a computing enthusiast and author of a book on hacking, said Koop might have had a point about TV and poverty, but he was dead wrong on video games.

Koop’s warnings on the hazards of explicit TV violence are documented by extensive research done during the 1960s and 1970s … However, there is scant evidence to support Koop’s assertions on the hazards of video games. Unlike TV, such games are typically highly symbolic with no actual portrayal of blood and guts. Like chess, the figures zapping one another on the video screen are stylistic images that bear little resemblance to human forms.

This story is part of our November/December 2011 Issue
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Of course, all those human forms that didn’t exist in Pac-Man or Defender now exist in graphic, bloody detail in games like Gears of War and Mortal Kombat. But experts still debate whether that imagery is a harmless (if slightly depraved) emotional outlet or something that leads to aggression in the real world. (The same goes for the effects of TV violence, despite Meinel’s assertion that the issue was settled.)

Meinel’s feeling was that video games were here to stay whether we liked them or not—so we might as well use them as a tool for good.

I first introduced my kids to computer games back in 1974 … The kids learned to add fractions by mixing chemicals to grow monsters on an orange phosphor screen … I beam smugly when the neighborhood toddlers come over and my three-year-old Ginny runs to the computer and loads a game of Breakout for them to play. Valerie, nearly five now, uses the screen editor to work on spelling.

Meinel saw the outrage against video games on a continuum of outrage against any youth sensation and contended that the real target was the kids themselves.

In an attempt to reverse this trend, state legislators in New York introduced a bill last year to ban the banning of video games—to the applause of chronic adolescents such as me … Why doesn’t the surgeon general warn us that the kid who forks a queen with a rook today will be holding the principal and the playground monitor hostage with a zip gun tomorrow?

Meinel, now a freelance journalist living in New Mexico, says her daughters, who are in their 30s and 40s, show no detrimental effects from the activities of their youth. “None of them has a police record,” she says.

She’s aware that games have gotten much more graphic and violent in the nearly three decades since she wrote the article, but she laments the fact that people are still quibbling over their effects (in June of this year, for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent games to children). While there have been a fair number of studies on the topic, none have been definitive enough to settle the debate among policy makers and social scientists. “What if it turned out that graphically violent computer games provided a safe release so that I don’t have to worry—as a 65-year-old woman walking around in the middle of nowhere on a hike or something—about some crazed guy jumping out of a bush with a chain saw?” she says. “What if that were the outcome, that these games prevent violence? It’s worth finding out.”

 Timothy Maher is Technology Review’s assistant managing editor.

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