The MacNeil/Lehrer Report - Pac-Man Perils

BYLINE: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; RONNIE LAMM, PTA President; Rabbi STEVEN FINK, Educator; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; GLEN BRASWELL, Amusement Game Manufacturers Association; PAUL TRACHTMAN, Smithsonian Magazine; JOE QUINLAN, Producer; NANCY NICHOLS, Reporter; NIAMH TANSEY, Researcher


ROBERT MacNEIL [voice-over]: The video game craze: is it warping young minds or educating them for the future?


MacNEIL: Good evening. This, of course, is a holiday week for millions of American schoolchildren, and a lot of them are doubtless spending time on the nation's fastest growing pastime, video games. Like many other crazes, electronic games have created a lively controversy about their impact on young minds and lives. Critics of arcade games say students are squandering their allowance and lunch money, playing hooky from school and consorting with drug pushers. One critic has called shopping-mall video arcades the pool halls of the '80s. Last night in Miami, police shot and wounded a black youth in a video arcade setting off riots and violence that continued today. Beyond the arcades, however, critics say games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders breed antisocial behavior and violence. The games industry rebuts all this with experts who claim the games are teaching a much-needed computer literacy. Tonight, the impact of video games, and should they be regulated? Jim?

JIM LEHRER: Robin, it's hard to think of anything that grew as quickly and as gigantically as the video game industry. In less than 10 years it's gone from zero to a multi-billion-dollar business and obsession. This year alone some $5 billion in quarters were dropped in the one million video game machines throughout the country in video arcades, shopping centers, bars, drugstores and other public places, including the chartered buses of a bus company in Midwest. And there's the home version -- small consoles which make it possible to play the games on TV screens. This year alone, eight million of these were sold, as well as another 55 million of the individual game cartridges. Add in home computers, which can also be converted to video games, and the figure goes to a grand total of 15 million. Fifteen million American homes equipped one way or another for video game playing. All of this staggering growth does more than stagger some people; it worries them, and has caused them to push for local government regulation of their public use. Willingboro, New Jersey, for instance, slapped a tax on the machines, and forbids anyone younger than 21 to play them. In Nashua, New Hampshire, the age limit is 16; in Mesquite, Texas, it's 17. Similar anti- video game moves are underway all over the country. Robin?

MacNEIL: One town which recently passed laws to clamp down on video games is Brookhaven, Long Island, in New York. A leader in that move is the president of a local PTA in Middle Country, Long Island -- Ronnie Lamm, mother of two children aged nine and 13. Ms. Lamm, what is your community doing to restrict the games?

RONNIE LAMM: We're very successful within our community. We have recently, as of a week ago, passed final legislation to limit and control what we considered as being a massive proliferation of games within our commnunity.

MacNEIL: What are the limits that you will be imposing?

Ms. LAMM: We have limitations as to the footage from schools and playgrounds, the limitations of hours of play. We are basically, in many cases, numbering and counting and taxing the individual machines, so we actually see what is happening within our community.

MacNEIL: What were the problems that made you do this? Why was this necessary?

Ms. LAMM: Initially I personally did not see it as a major problem. I guess I didn't frequent enough stores within our community. The community as a whole, including the board of education, our superintendent of schools, our assistant superintendent of schools found that there was this massive proliferation of games. They found that children were cutting school and they had a nice, warm, cozy shelter to stay in. There was not a place where our children were not going to be bombarded by games. In every local store, in movie theaters, bowling alleys, laundromats there were games. This was causing great concern amongst parents.

MacNEIL: But laundromats and places like that are not dens of iniquity. Why would the parents be worried about their children playing the games in places like that?

Ms. LAMM: Our concern nestled originally with the total lack of supervision. If you have a 16-year-old behind a counter giving out change in a laundromat and supervising what's going on with machines -- the actual washing and drying machines -- can they supervise 10 children hanging around three video games? This was a concern. The arcades -- who were the owners? Who were the managers? And, within our community, there was a tremendous push on for the downtrodden, unemployed person to open up -- make a quick buck, open up an arcade -- quarters upon quarters dropping into their pockets tax free, no limitations, no investment necessary, no skills needed to work with young people.

MacNEIL: Is it the arcades or is it the games themselves that you personally object to?

Ms. LAMM: Initially it began with a campaign to limit and control the number of games within our community. The more we have read, the more people we have spoken to, the more feelers that have gone out, and not just within our community, but throughout the United States and across the world -- we've heard from people in Japan, in Canada, in Australia, in England. So it's not a local issue, as we initially thought it was. We're finding that there is a great deal of reason to be concerned. We talk about violence on television, and no longer does a parent in good conscience put her child in front of Saturday morning television and condone the violence there. We're plugging our children into more violent games. We've taken away their guns and holsters and cowboys and Indians, and we're now giving them a cartridge with the same kind of violent themes. What is this doing to our young people?

MacNEIL: Do you prevent your own children from playing these games?

Ms. LAMM: I'm a fortunate person in that I am not employed unfortunately -- and I am able to supervise my children. I am able to carpool and drive my children to gymnastics and saxophone lessons and computer literacy courses and many other positive things for my children to be involved in. So I don't have to stop my children. They are very busy, involved with internal stimulation as well as external stimulation other than video games.

MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?

LEHRER: It will come as no surprise that the people who make video machines do not favor local government regulation of their industry, and here to speak for them is Glen Braswell, executive director of the Washington-based Amusement Game Manufacturers Association. Are video games harmful to children, Mr. Braswell?

GLEN BRASWELL: Jim, we don't think so, and what you're seeing with video games in America is really a social revolution in entertainment in this country. You suddenly have provided to the American public a low-cost form of entertainment at a time when a low-cost anything is a welcome relief in our economy. But it's a new kind of entertainment. It's a participatory form of entertainment in which the player does not have to possess any athletic abilities per se, nor provide himself with any special equipment to play the games, nor provide himself with any dress code. So there's no additional expenditures required. It's a simple form of participatory entertainment.

LEHRER: All you got to do is have quarters, right?

Mr. BRASWELL: All you got to do is have quarters. And if you look at the expense that you would put into a machine, say, over an hour period of time, it's much lower-cost entertainment than any of the alternate forms available to the player at the moment. Now, there is always some resistance to any sort of social change, and that's what we're looking at here is a social change.

LEHRER: But, Mr. Braswell, it's been suggested, for instance, Ms. Lamm just said it, that there is a connection between the playing of video games and kids playing hooky from school.

Mr. BRASWELL: Well, I don't think we could make that causal relationship now. Kids have been playing hooky from school as long as there is recorded history, and I think it'd be folly to suggest that the introduction of video games has created a truancy problem that's heretofore been unknown. No doubt that some kids are skipping school, but I don't think you can put the total blame on the presence of video games.

LEHRER: What about the suggestion that the video arcades have become kind of low-life places where kids come in contact with drugs and that sort of thing?

Mr. BRASWELL: Well, again, I think that's an emotional kind of charge not based upon the facts at all, because if you look at the locations in general, most of them are well-lit, well-supervised, well-run operations. As in any industry, you are going to find one or two individual locations that do not meet up to the industry standards nor the community standards, and we have said --

LEHRER: Well, what should be done about those?

Mr. BRASWELL: We have said to communities, as we would say to the members of the industry, if there is a situation such as that, we in the industry will participate with you in eliminating them because we want them out of the industry as bad as you want them out of your community. Now, you have said at the top of the program that we're opposed to all regulations of the games. The fact is, we're not. We're opposed to unreasonable regulations. There are regulations which we find very reasonable. For instance, if you have a problem in a given community, where there is an unusual truancy problem and it is identified as being attracted because of the presence of games, we have not been opposed -- and we helped get such a law passed in San Francisco, for instance -- that you would put a curfew during school hours preventing school-age children from playing video games. Now, where is the line between reasonable regulations and unreasonable? If you tried to close the video games during school hours --

LEHRER: What about age limits?

Mr. BRASWELL: Well, age limits is the same sort of emotional problem. There's no distinction between a player of one age versus a player of another.

LEHRER: What about what they've done in Ms. Lamm's community, where they've restricted the distance that a video game can be from a school, from a church and from those kinds of things?

Mr. BRASWELL: Again, that's a zoning question, and that's a local decision by the given jurisdiction involved, and as the industry, we are not opposed to a local community zoning their use of the land. For instance, we don't think there's any need for a game center or a game room to be in a residential area. If the local city would like to restrict the use of those games to a commercial zone, we certainly don't oppose that.

LEHRER: Basically, then, the concept of local regulation doesn't give you any problems?


LEHRER: It's just the problem comes when what you call emotional, what Ms. Lamm and others would call needed. That's where the problem comes.

Mr. BRASWELL: Well, the Constitution of the United States requires a reasonable relationship between the object being sought and the statute being written, and that's all we're asking for is that reasonable relationship that the Constitution imposes upon any sort of regulation that's passed by a governmental entity.

LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?

MacNEIL: Pac-Man as the modern Pied Piper is how a cartoon in The Philadelphia Inquirer portrayed video games last fall. An accompanying article critical of the games was written by Rabbi Steven Fink, who, among other things, teaches religion to 100 teenagers in his suburban Philadelphia synagogue. Rabbi Fink, what's wrong with the games, in your view?

Rabbi STEVEN FINK: Well, I'm primarily concerned about the values that the games teach. I'm not totally against computers, nor am I against video games as such. I'm against the violence in the games. I think that the primary value that the games teach is kill or be killed. And that is what concerns me.

MacNEIL: Even though it is an abstract thing, and children have been playing games in which they kill or would be killed down through the ages?

Rabbi FINK: These games are very different from cowboys or Indians or even children playing soldiers. In those games they emphasize imaginary kind of skills. There's nothing imaginary about the zapping of space ships or little monsters on the screen. And I think that the ultimate effect of these games is that they will add to the dehumanization and objectification of human beings.

MacNEIL: Could you spell that out a little bit?

Rabbi FINK: When children spend hours in Front of a screen playing some of these games that are inherently violent, they will tend to look at people as they look at these little blips on the screen that must be zapped -- that must be killed before they are killed. And it is my concern that 10, 20 years down the line we're going to set a group of children who then become adults who don't view people as human beings, but rather view them as other blips to be destroyed -- as things.

MacNEIL: Do you have any evidence for this, or it is just your own hunch and your own judgment?

Rabbi FINK: There is -- I've seen this. I've seen it work with children; I've seen it work with adults. And it is, I think, an informed judgment.

MacNEIL: You described yourself in that article as a reformed video addict yourself. What was your own experience?

Rabbi FINK: I received a video game -- home video game as a gift and played it quite a bit. So much so that I found I was becoming hypnotized by the games. They're very seductive, you can play them for hours and they're numbing to the mind, which is another concern that I share with many other people. And eventually, when I woke up in the morning just wanting to play the games, when I dreamt about shooting down space ships, I realized that I had better do something about this, and I went could turkey and simply stopped playing.

MacNEIL: Did it dehumanize you or turn you more violent?

Rabbi FINK: I found that it certainly made me more aggressive. It made me more angry. And I believe it started me on the path towards thinking of people as "its" rather than human beings.

MacNEIL: What do you say to those who say there is actually a lot of value in these games, that they teach a kind of computer literacy that young people are going to need over the next generation, that they improve hand-eye coordination, they make children more alert, more able to deal with complicated situations?

Rabbi FINK: I'd say that there is something to that. They certainly do improve hand-eye coordination. And as far as computer literacy is concerned. I'd rather see children learn the computer languages and get involved with programming -- to do something creative with the computer rather than react violently with some of these games.

MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?

LEHRER: Rabbi Fink's verdict on the harm video games can inflict on children is not unanimous. Among those who disagree is Paul Trachtman, science editor of Smithsonian magazine and science adviser to the Capitol Children's Museum here in Washington. He has studied video games and computers for the last two years. Do you see video games as a negative influence on children?

PAUL TRACHTMAN: Basically I don't see them as negative. I think that there are kids for whom the experience of playing video games is not a positive experience. That doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the game. It can have a lot to do with the kid. I think that isn't only true of kids. There are people who probably don't get the best results out of playing video games in terms of their growth, their self-expression. The Rabbi sounds like someone who probably --

LEHRER: He's one of them, right?


LEHRER: He shouldn't have played them in the first place, you're suggesting, right?

Mr. TRACHTMAN: But I don't think that you can pin it on the games. You have to look at the context of the --

LEHRER: In other words, Rabbi Fink would have been dehumanized otherwise by something else if it hadn't been a video game, is that what you're saying?

Mr. TRACHTMAN: No, I think that he needs to find the experiences which humanize him, and other people need to find the experiences which humanize Many kids, I think, find that some of the best human mental potential and emotional potential are brought out by the experience of playing these games, then.

LEHRER: In what way?

Mr. TRACHTMAN: Well, we don't have a very good model of what it is to learn, and we don't have a very good model in psychology, in artificial intelligence work and so on, of what intelligence is. And one of the things that the advance research in these areas seems to be showing up more and more is that we have a picture that is implemented in the schools of learning and rational, thoughtful processes which is a very restricted one. It isn't actually a good picture of the way the human brain, the human mind operates. That we have sort of --

LEHRER: But the video game is more in synch?

Mr. TRACHTMAN: Well, we segregated out a kind of linear algebraic, alphabetical approach to analysis of data, literature, whatever, as the height of rationality, and this has sort of left out what some psychologists call gestalt, others call intuition, creativity -- the other aspects of mental operations which, I would propose, and I think there's some growing evidence, is manifest in the games. It's different kind of information processing, really.

LEHRER: But the Rabbi says that the basic message of the video game is kill or be killed.

Mr. TRACHTMAN: Well, let me say that on the screen, if you look at the surface or the imagery and the story line of some of these games, that may be so. You could interpret it that way. Other kids would look at it and simply say it's zapping a bilp or a monster. But something else is going on in these games which I think is, by and large, missed, and very few people have really seen. I'd like to propose that -- I'd like to cite a definition of what this is all about from a game programmer who I interviewed who seemed to me to have some wisdom in this. He said that a video game is a machine that rewards you for non-linear information processing, that what's happening --

LEHRER: Thanks a lot. I'm not sure that --

Mr. TRACHTMAN: Well, let me explain.

LEHRER: All right.

Mr. TRACHTMAN: He says what happens is that you get presented with many strings of linear action -- sequences of events that are going on -- but they're all different. Your challenge is to try to keep track of all of those different lines of information, but not one at a time. You have to do it all together, as a field. This is not something we're usually used to doing. And as a result, the game --

LEHRER: Essentially what you're saying, many things are happening at once, and normally in the education process only one thing is happening.

Mr. TRACHTMAN: That's right. So this game is a test of your facility for understanding the logic design that the programmer wrote into the game. There's a design to all that activity. It isn't just random. And if you succeed and you catch the design, and then you can master the game, your reward is that you get the same information run past you again except it's all coming faster or there's little bit more information thrown in.

LEHRER: Each time.

Mr. TRACHTMAN: So this is a different style of information processing which is going to be much more commonplace in the world that we're moving into --

LEHRER: And much more -- and very beneficial, in your opinion.

Mr. TRACHTMAN: Well, I think that if we're going to manage complex automated factories or nuclear facilities with great arrays of dials and information to be taken in at once, or we're going to be participants in things like knowledge industries and genetic engineering -- and a couple of weeks ago I was in San Francisco looking at the University of California/Berkeley Medical Center at something that looked just like a video game. It was a three-dimensional blow-up of a DNA molecule into which, using a joy stick and some dials, you could float or move a protein molecule and see how these things fit together. And it was a combination of a video game and a space shuttle maneuver. But this work is teaching us something about drug synthesis and malfunctions of the genetic system.

LEHRER: I see.

Mr. TRACHTMAN: These kids are learning that on the screens.

LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?

MacNEIL: What do you say about all that, Ms. Lamm? He makes it sound very impressive as an educational tool.

Ms. LAMM: I have tremendous concern when we talk about occupations and we talk about very specific kinds of skills needed for very specific occupations. An Air Force pilot has to be able to zap a creature on a screen. There are many other skills where -- being a factory worker you have to react to a certain stimulation without much thinking involved. I'm maybe more humanistic in my approach to people, and the world today is crying that we are not communicating with each other. Parents aren't communicating with kids; kids aren't communicating with teachers; husbands and wives aren't communicating. And we are giving our children a source of entertainment or a way to fill leisure time where there is no communicative skills being reinforced or developed. They are responding to machinery, not to people.

MacNEIL: Let me ask Rabbi Fink about the point that Mr. Trachtman has just made, that we have in our educational system stressed old-fashioned, literate, linear thinking, and that this is opening up some form of using skills of a different kind of information processing which can be very useful to the next generation.

Rabbi FINK: Let me tell Mr. Trachtman that --

MacNEIL: He's up there.

Rabbi FINK: Let me tell Mr. Trachtman that I would certainly by in favor of a home program of building DNA molecules. When I see it I'11 gladly try it out. But right now that's now what kids are playing. That's not what's on the screen and, again, it's violence and it's kill or be killed, which leads to objectification. And that's something that you haven't dealt with.

MacNEIL: What is your argument on this, Mr. Braswell? We talked to you before about arcades and those situations. What does the industry say about the beneficial or not effects of these games?

Mr. BRASWELL: Well, Robin, with all due respect to the Rabbi's informed opinion, psychological research by some British researchers have found to the contrary regarding the violence question. In terms of video games, they have a cartoonish, fictional, fantasy feature to them which the children simply do not relate to as real life. So there's been no transferred effect of violence in video games and violence in human action by the individual players, unlike, for instance, their viewing of real-life situations in a TV drama or TV series or, particularly as expressed by some people that are concerned about this issue, their viewing of the news during the dinner hour has been some of the greatest source of violence for them. So I think it's going to be hard to establish a causal relationship between video games and violence.

MacNEIL: What about the point that they're addictive? What is your you heard what the Rabbi said, that he felt is was in his case addictive, Mr. Trachtman. Are these games addictive, according to your studies?

Mr. TRACHTMAN: No, I don't think that. I once thought that they might be addictive as I was traveling around the country and interviewing scientists and psychologists and so on. The nearest thing to addiction, I think -- there is certainly a phenomenon in which people get hooked or they spend a lot of time on it. They use the language of addiction, so something is going on, but I don't think it's anything like a chemical addiction that you would get with heroin or those sorts of things. The best description I've come up with so far came from an MIT sociologist named Sherry Turkle who calls the experience that of cognitive highs -- that there is a chance here to exercise a part of the mind that doesn't get much exercise in most situations, certainly for kids in schools, and that this is a very exhilarating kind of experience. And the development and cultivation of these skills is such a rewarding kind of experience that kids come back and do it.

MacNEIL: That produces the high?


MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?

LEHRER: Rabbi Fink, would you favor strict government regulation of these, local government regulations?

Rabbi FINK: No, I wouldn't.

LEHRER: You think it ought to be corrected by whom then?

Rabbi FINK: I think home and community-zoning ordinances should take care of problem. I am in favor of strict parental supervision of this.

LEHRER: But, I mean, local ordinance -- that's what I was asking. I'm sorry. I may not have made that clear. Local zoning and curfews and age limits and that sort of thing is fine with you, right?

Rabbi FINK: That's fine with me, but I'm primarily concerned about parental supervision.

LEHRER: What is your view on local government regulation. Mr. Trachtman?

Mr. TRACHTMAN: Well, I'd like to see the government support the putting of these games into schools and the transformation of the subject matter of these games into much more educational material. But I would -- I would say that there's less harm being done by leaving the games out there for the kids to experience than to control them, although I do support things like curfews on the games during school hours for school-aged kids, or certain reasonable restrictions. But the less, the better.

LEHRER: Mrs. Lamm, let me ask you. How does this video game phenomenon compare, in your opinion, to the pinball machine and the pool table -- those of the past, the similar kinds of things of the past?

Ms. LAMM: This issue has been paralleled with "Trouble in River City" and the famous lines from The Music Man. A pool hall was a social institution with limitations. Miners were not permitted into pool halls, and there was one pool hall in one town. The important thing that I think many laymen are confusing - terribly confused with is we are calling this a computer age, and hurry up and get into the computer age. And I, of all people am a very strong supporter of computer literacy for all children. It is the time. We're in it today, and it's definitely going to be part of our world tomorrow. But I compare it to putting a child in front of a television and teaching them how to turn the television on and shut it off, how to change a channel, how to possibly adjust the color. Are we making children a part of the world of television? Are we teaching them to program, direct, produce, be TV repairmen?

LEHRER: I have to -- good question, but we don't have time to get an answer. Robin?

MacNEIL: Yes, we have to leave it there. Mr. Trachtman and Mr. Braswell thank you for joining us. Rabbi Fink, Mrs. Lamm, thank you. Good night, Jim.

LEHRER: Good night, Robin.

MacNEIL: That's all for tonight. We will be back tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil. Good night.

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