Grand Theft Auto V is the latest edition of a popular video game that allows players to assume the role of criminals as they steal cars and run over innocent passengers in violent free-for-all killing sprees. The action game, which explores the anti-hero POV, hit stores on September 17 and reached more than $1 billion in sales after only three days on the shelves, having already earned the monumental record of fastest selling entertainment product in history.
Although the game is rated M, its appeal oversteps boundaries for its target audience. According to one video game retail veteran hundreds of copies of GTA V were sold to parents of children "who could barely even see over my counter.”
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Whether we want them to or not, our children have at some point been exposed to the game through discussions with peers or actually playing it with friends. Because of violent games like Grand Theft Auto, our children’s role play has shifted from playing the superhero to mimicking criminal behavior.
Dr. Kate Roberts, a licensed family psychologist, says that children who play violent games may use them as an outlet for their frustrations rather than coping in more productive ways, such as speaking with someone and asking for help. Yet, she believes claims that this type of play will turn our children into criminals is a bit far-reaching.
"It’s not as bad as being part of real live gang, but it’s not healthy either."
“This game does not have any kind of a positive influence on kids—it has a ton of violent, disturbing and criminal acts, plus the end goal of the user is to do something criminal,” Roberts says. “However, it is rated Mature, so if children playing it are mature enough to know the difference between game and reality, then perhaps its negative impact is overblown.” It should be noted the M rating recommends players be 17 and over.
Roberts compares the influence of the criminal acts in this video game to any other themed game. “A kid playing online NFL football will not make him an NFL football player in reality,” Roberts says. “Playing a thief and murderer will not make him a thief and murderer in reality.”
The question surrounding whether or not Grand Theft Auto V is OK for children is the predecessor for a much broader question: Are kids mature enough in general to know the difference between video games and reality? Is the M rating the right age restriction according to child development?
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According to Roberts, typical kids know the difference between reality and fantasy at age 13 or older. But many kids are developmentally immature. So even though cognitively they may know the difference, emotionally they use these games as an outlet for their frustrations. “It’s like being part of a simulated gang. It’s not as bad as being part of real live gang, but it’s not healthy either." Roberts explains that games like Grand Theft Auto V offer kids a reference for their frustrations, so they don’t feel as isolated or ashamed of their negativity.
“The game normalizes it for them, somehow validating for them that it’s OK to feel like you want to kill innocent people,” Roberts asserts. So perhaps keep that in mind the next time you walk up to the counter in your favorite video game store, kid in tow.
Do you let your kids play GTA?