Almost two years ago now, my husband's sister and her children stayed with us for a couple of months. While they were with us, we made a point of renting fun movies and video games from our local movie rental for the kids.
One week we rented a car racing game for my nephew. It seemed innocent enough. It was rated "E" and stored in the children's section of the video game area. My nephew loved it. But that week, we noticed that his behavior seriously went downhill. He became more aggressive and argumentative, both with his sisters and with the adults. He became destructive. And his outdoor play centered on crashing the remote control car we bought him. We found ourselves wondering what happened to the sweet, responsible, curious boy we all knew.
Then we remembered that the change occurred around the same time that he started playing this game. We started paying attention during his game play time. It soon became apparent that the game encouraged the player to crash rather than try to win the race. The graphics for crashing were high-tech (like something out of an action movie), slow motion, and generally really cool. When you won the race? Not so impressive. There was a banner and some low quality fireworks graphics. Crashing was far more fun.
We returned the game at the end of the week rather than giving it the full two we had paid for. We replaced the game with something from the Mario franchise (I don't remember which one at this point). My nephew's behavior returned to normal within a couple of days.
This incident was a fascinating example of how digital media use can effect behavior. And the example was in real time. But the real lesson for us had more to do with our purchasing behavior. We learned that just because a game is approved for a certain group doesn't mean it's an appropriate game. There are just some things that rating systems can't account for.
The fact that the racing game was a rental was a godsend. For us, the real lesson was to rent before we buy. We won't buy a game until we know that it's a good one for us. I highly recommend making your local video rental store your friend when it comes to video games.