The Concerns About Video Games

The video game sector is the fastest growing entertainment industry and second only to music in profitability. Global sales of video game software hit almost $17 billion U.S. in 2011. [1]

Video game playing is nearly universal among children and teens: more than 80 per cent of Canadians ages 6 to 17 say they play games regularly. [2] As the audience for games grows, however, children make up a smaller part of that audience, and more and more of the most popular games are rated “M” (intended for adults 17 years or older). While the game industry has been generally successful at preventing young people from buying M-rated games (a 2011 study found that only 13 per cent of those who tried to buy one were able to [3]), many kids play them nevertheless: two-thirds of boys ages 12-14, as well as a quarter of girls, said they had played an M-rated game “a lot in the last six months.” [4]

Despite the huge impact of video games on youth culture, there is not a lot of research available in this area, and few of the existing studies stand up to critical examination. This lack of scrutiny means that we know very little about the effects that video games may have on children’s development and socialization. While video games have many positive aspects, there are a number of issues that are associated with this highly interactive form of entertainment.

Excessive Playing

International studies have shown that between seven and 11 per cent of gamers show some symptoms associated with addiction. [5] Some teens are heavy users of online role-playing games (RPGs) such as World of Warcraft and multiplayer games such as Call of Duty in which they interact with other players in real time. These teens will often neglect schoolwork and other aspects of their daily lives when they become immersed in these games. While it remains unclear whether this can be termed an “addiction,” the American Medical Association has identified “video game overuse” as a ‘behaviour’ and may include it in a future edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

World of Warcraft, one of the most popular online games, is played by more than ten million devotees around the world; in general, online gamers spend more than 20 hours a week playing. [6] In addition, casual games such as Farmville and Angry Birds – designed to be played in several short sessions per day, often on Facebook or an iPad – have become a very lucrative part of the industry – and may be just as habit-forming as other kinds of games. [7]

The potential negative effects on physical health are another concern relating to excessive video game playing. If a child spends long periods of time playing video games, it may come at the expense of more active pastimes.

Adults who are concerned about the amount of time a teen is spending on video games should keep in mind that it is normal for young people to throw themselves enthusiastically into hobbies. To determine whether game-playing is becoming excessive, consider the effect gaming is having on a teen’s life: is he or she socializing less with friends? Are his or her grades declining? Is his or her sleep or general health being affected?

If a child or teen finds it difficult to control game playing, adults can help them by setting limits on how much time they can play - and by encouraging them to be involved in other activities.


Young children have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy, which makes them more vulnerable to the effects of media violence. They may become more aggressive and fearful if they are exposed to high levels of violence in video games.

Children have easy access to violent computer and video games. While they rarely buy these games themselves – a 2011 study by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that 13 per cent of under-18 “secret shoppers” were able to buy M-rated games [8] – they do play them: a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 65 per cent of children in Grades seven to twelve (including three-quarters of the boys) had played Grand Theft Auto, an M-rated game [9] and another study found that two-thirds of boys aged 12-14 played these games frequently. [10]

The entertainment industry aggressively markets violent media to young children. In September 2000, the FTC released a report that exposed how the media industries actively target young children with violent entertainment meant for adults. [11] According to the FTC, almost every video-game company they investigated regularly marketed violent M-rated games to children. For instance, the E-rated game LittleBigPlanet includes content intended to promote another Sony game, Metal Gear Solid 4, which is rated M. According to the book Grand Theft Childhood by Doctors Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner, children who play primarily M-rated games (whether the rating is due to violent or sexual content) are more likely to be involved in fights or bullying.

Parents should pay attention if their child or teen consumes an excessive amount of violent media – movies, music, television and video games—and displays aggressive or depressive behaviour. If there are concerns, it is important to make sure the child’s mental health needs are being addressed through appropriate school, medical or social service counselling.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rates video games in Canada according to criteria such as violence and mature content. Every video game sold in Canada must carry an ESRB rating which indicates content that may be problematic.

Gender Stereotyping

As with all forms of popular media, video games have the potential to influence how children perceive themselves and others. Most video games are designed by males, for males. The result is that some video games, including some of the most popular M-rated games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, include content that is misogynist and that may condone violence towards women, allowing and even rewarding actions such as sex with prostitutes, rape and murder. As Doctor Karen Dill puts it, “When women are consistently shown as sex objects rather than agents, consistently depicted in demeaning and degrading ways, and consistently shown as submissive, the result is to condone and support violence against women, coercion of women, and anti-woman attitudes.” [12]

Video games can also confirm gender stereotypes. A 2007 study showed that male characters were significantly more likely to be portrayed as aggressive (83 per cent of males versus 62 per cent of female characters) while female characters were much more likely to be portrayed in a sexualized way (60 per cent of females versus just 1 per cent of male characters.) [13]

There are also signs of improvement. There have been non-sexualized female characters in video games since Samus Aran shrugged out of her battle suit at the end of the first Metroid, and recent years have seen similarly realistic characters headlining high-profile titles such as Portal, Half-Life 2 and Mirror’s Edge. For information on promoting non-sexist games, see the Special Issues for Girls section.

Racial Stereotyping

While people of many cultures play video games, diversity is not usually reflected in the games themselves. White male characters dominate in the majority of popular games, while non-white characters often play the traditional supporting roles of sidekick or villain or else are confined to a narrow range of genres.

A 2011 study found that only 3 per cent of all video game characters were Hispanic, fewer than 11 per cent were African-American and none were Aboriginal or biracial. [14] Other studies have found that African-American characters are confined to a narrow range of game genres such as sports titles and games tied to celebrities such as 50 Cent [15] and more likely to be represented as villains and were often given particularly frightening characteristics. [16]
The interactivity of video games makes them a powerful medium for the negative messages that stereotypes can convey. The Talking to Kids About Racial Stereotypes tip sheet [hyperlink] provides ways to discuss negative racial portrayals with children. Conversations about racial stereotyping in video games, should include talking about what a stereotype is, why game developers use them, how racial stereotypes influence the way we perceive people from different ethnic backgrounds, and what steps can be taken to challenge negative portrayals.

One of the most effective ways to take a stand on this issue is to ‘speak with your wallet’ and refuse to purchase or rent games that contain racial and gender stereotyping.


[1] Takahashi, Dean. “Video Game Sales Drop 21 per cent in December and fall 8 per cent in 2011.” Venturebeat, January 12 2012.
[2] 2011 Essential Facts About the Canadian Computer and Video Game Industry. Entertainment Software Association of Canada, 2011.
[3] “Study suggests retailers successfully restricting sales of M-rated games.” Globe and Mail blog, April 21 2011. Retrieved from
[4] Olson, Cheryl K. and Lawrence A. Kutner. Factors Correlated with Violent Video Game Use by Adolescent Boys and Girls. Journal of Adolescent Health 4(1), July 2007.
[5] Iowa State University. “Risks, consequences of video game addiction identified in new study.” ScienceDaily, 19 Jan. 2011. Web. 2 May 2012
[6] Williams, D., Yee, N. and Caplan, S. Who plays, how much, and why? Debunking the stereotypical gamer profile. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (2008), 993-1018.
[7] Chorost, Michael. “How I kicked my addiction to the iPhone game Angry Birds.” Psychology Today, January 4 2011.
[8] “Study suggests retailers successfully restricting sales of M-rated games.” Globe and Mail blog, April 21 2011. Retrieved from
[9] Rideout, Victoria et al. Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005.
[10] Olson, Cheryl K. and Lawrence A. Kutner. Factors Correlated with Violent Video Game Use by Adolescent Boys and Girls. Journal of Adolescent Health 4(1), July 2007.
[11] Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording and Electronic Game Industries. Federal Trade Commission, September 2000.
[12] Dill, Karen. “Do Anti-Social Video Games Foster Sexism and Violence Against Women? Research on Sexist and Pro-Rape Attitudes Among Gamers.” Violence Against Women in Families and Relationships, Greenwood Press 2007, Evan Stark and Eve S. Buzawa eds.
[13] Dill, Karen and Kathryn Thill. Dill & Thill Video game characters and the socialization of gender roles: Young people’s perceptions mirror sexist media depictions, Sex Roles, 2007
[14] DeLoria, Elizabeth. “Video Games Snub Non-White Characters.” Gameranx, November 18 2011.
[15] Williams, Dmitri et al. The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games. New Media & Society, August 2009.
[16] Burgess, Melinda et al. Playing With Prejudice: the Prevalence and Consequences of Racial Stereotypes in Video Games. Media Psychology, Routledge 2009.