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Are violent video games really a problem?

Panelists and audience members at Siggraph discuss whether uproar is based in fact or a soapbox for politicians.

BOSTON--Mature video games are not a problem for today's youth, but that doesn't stop them from being an attractive topic for politicians, according to panelists and audience members at Siggraph 2006 on Wednesday.

"Mature-rated video games only account for 15 percent of games sold. Over half of the movies sold by Hollywood are R-rated. The FTC, which does annual reviews of retailers, said that 50 percent self-policed when it came to minors trying to buy M-rated games, compared to only 7 percent of retailers who restrained minors from buying R-rated DVDs. Both youth violence and crime are at a 40-year low in the U.S," Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, and a panelist, said in his opening remarks.

"These numbers quantitatively prove that (the idea of violence caused by video games) is hype-based and not based on any actual statistical progression toward violence. It's not supported by real-world data. It's more a soapbox for politicians," Rocca said.

Most of the panelists and audience members agreed with Rocca's assessment that video games today are simply what rock and roll and Elvis' gyrating hips were to 1950s conservatives.

Based on audience questions at the panel, bigger issues may be problems with privacy protection, addiction and diversity.

Many expressed a fear of player metrics that could track not just preferences, but also emotional and physical responses to situations within a game. While there are many laws on the distribution of video games to protect minors, there is little, if any, legislation dealing with collecting information on minors for advertising purposes.

"Advertisers have the ability to track, to see what you like, what you react to, and have access to children, possibly following them from adolescence to adulthood and all along the way," said Greg Silverman, an attorney who represents game developers.

Since many people start playing video games as children, advertisers could potentially track someone for almost his or her entire life with regard to their likes, dislikes and reactions to situations. They could use that info to market with product placement or other methods accordingly.

One concerned parent wanted to know what Rocca thought of

"If a little girl spent hours reading Nancy Drew books, no one would send her to a book addiction clinic, because people perceive books as nutritional," said Rocca. Any isolated behavior is unhealthy, and parents should be looking into any addiction that could be a symptom of a bigger problem. But rather than focusing on video games, he said, people should be focusing on the person with the addictive behavior.

Still other audience members spoke of the lack of diversity in gaming. Games like "Dance Dance Revolution," which is peaceful and gets kids up off the couch, don't get the press or publicity of more violent games.

"Every day we make artistic and creative choices. Many times we are pushed in a certain direction from a certain source. I realize at the end of the day that this is a business, but we do have a responsibility as developers and an industry to be mature in our outlook. We do that by becoming more diverse in who we employ to create these games," said panelist Tamsen Mitchell of Shaba Games.