By Don Sider
December 16, 2002 12:00 PM

Long gone are the days when the hottest video game centered on a cute yellow splotch that gobbled up pellets. On today’s virtual mean streets, Pac-Man would be a dead man—or a porn star. Twenty-first-century teenagers like their videos laced with violence and sex, and gamemakers are scrambling to give it to them in time for the lucrative holiday season.

It’s no wonder: A recent survey found that 92 percent of U.S. kids—ages 2 to 17—play video games, and their parents bought 225 million of them last year to the tune of $6.4 billion. “Video games are huge—they’re now bigger than theater grosses,” says Eugene Provenzo Jr., professor of education at the University of Miami and an expert on the impact of video games on children. “There are lots of very good ones, but a lot that are extremely violent.”

Case in point: Grand Theft Auto 3, the No. 1 video game in the U.S.—with 4.2 million copies sold since October 2001, at $50 a pop. The video follows a thug who steals cars, packs heat and uses it on prostitutes, pimps and anyone else who gets in his bloody path. Giving it a run for its money—and generating even more controversy—is BMX XXX, the first video game to include live-action nudity. Centering on the extreme sport of BMX biking, the game features seamy scenes with topless female bikers and strippers. Though some chains, including retail giant Wal-Mart and KB Toys, refuse to carry BMX XXX, its maker, Acclaim Entertainment Inc., hopes it’s this year’s hot stocking-stuffer, hawking sales with the not-quite-traditional yuletide catchphrase “Keep It Dirty.”

Provenzo, 53, who lives in Coral Gables, Fla., with his wife, Asterie, 54, a writer, discusses the influence of video games with correspondent Don Sider.

Are video games bad for our kids?

Video games are here to stay; they’re increasingly as much a part of children’s lives as TV. But like television, they should use these games in moderation—no more than two hours a day. Otherwise, they’re not doing other important things like reading, exercising, interacting with other kids. They need to be out in the yard, not in front of a computer screen alone.

Why are video games such an important influence on children?

Video games represent immersive environments where children learn what to believe and often what values to hold. Video games are this generation’s way of having stories told, stories about who we are as a people—women, men, children. At their best, these games are powerful teaching tools.

What are kids learning from the so-called “good games”?

Good games can do lots of things: fulfill a need for adventure and fantasy, help kids role-play and problem-solve. We’ve got to remember that games, while serious, are about play as well. I’m enormously impressed by Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, a beautifully illustrated game for kids and adults about an ingenious raccoon. Sly Cooper is a thief, but in the best folklore tradition. He’s a trickster who tries to get a secret file away from a fox. He goes to Paris and other places and has all sorts of adventures and solves puzzles. It’s clever, fun and gets kids to think creatively. On the down side, several recent studies have linked violent video games to aggressive behavior and delinquency. In a video game like Grand Theft Auto, for instance, what’s the life lesson? That it’s perfectly okay to steal cars, shoot people, treat women badly, rob and then kill them?

Are all games that feature violence necessarily bad?

Absolutely not. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, for example, is a sort of Godfather, Mafia-type revenge story with beautiful graphics, problem-solving and an interesting story line—and it’s violent. The game is suitable for adults and mature, older teens, but not for children who can’t put it into context.

What do you mean by context?

My problem with a lot of the violence is that it’s not realistic, but romanticized. It doesn’t have consequences. You shoot someone, you walk away, you laugh, you win. To younger children that can be a dangerous implicit message.

Why is violence a staple of video games?

Because creating a really good game is complex: It’s got to have clever characters, an adventure, a quest, a plot; it’s like writing a novel. If you look at most violent games, it’s pretty much the same story over and over again—with little or no story line. But they’re easy to produce and manufacture—and they grab our attention at a gut level.

Who, if anyone, rates video games?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which was started in 1994. But it was put together by the video game industry, and I think it’s sympathetic to that industry.

Then what are parents to do?

There are some stores, including Blockbuster and Toys ‘R’ Us, that post detailed descriptions of video games so parents know the content. But the most important advice I’d give to parents is that they should never rent or buy an M-rated video for their children if they’re under 17—even if the kids tell them, “I want this video; everybody has it.”

Is there a positive approach for parents?

The solution is very simple: Know what game your children are playing. In fact, play it with them and have them show you why this is a cool game. If you have problems with the game, discuss what you like and don’t like with your kids. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s worth it.