When a 14-year-old Kobe boy shocked the nation three years ago by killing an elementary school boy and placing his severed head in front of a school gate, Masatoshi Taguchi said he was afraid similar crimes would follow.

Taguchi, a biologist-turned-education critic, believes the social environment, including the home and school, is key to explaining the recent heinous crimes for which youths stand accused, including the Golden Week fatal bus hijacking and the slaying of an elderly woman in Aichi Prefecture, both allegedly at the hands of 17-year-old boys.

“Today’s youngsters are surrounded by games, magazines, videos and computers — things that they can play by themselves,” Taguchi said.

“They play with the machine, but they don’t play with real people. Their relationships with their friends and family are becoming less and less intimate,” said Taguchi, who specializes in truancy issues.

Games have been around for teens since the time they were born. The Family Computer home-use video game was introduced by Nintendo Co. in 1983, the year today’s 17-year-olds were born.

According to Taguchi’s research of game preference, under which 600 youths at three amusement arcades in the Tokyo metropolis were surveyed, the most popular games have fighting themes, played by 57.1 percent, followed by racing games by 26.1 percent and gambling games by 10.4 percent.

“Teenagers spend a lot of time playing games at arcades and at home. If you’re constantly attacking someone or shooting someone in the games, that would surely affect your mind-set,” he said.

Horror movies, porno videos and violent television programs also have the same effect, he added.

At an amusement arcade in Tokyo’s Shibuya district on a recent afternoon, about half the people there were teenage boys in school uniforms. “It’s usually like this after school hours,” arcade clerk Yoshiaki Hirano said. Teens generally come in groups of four or five from around 4 p.m. and stay for about two hours on average, he said. “Some even spend six or seven hours.”

A 16-year-old boy at the arcade said he plays games “to kill time,” but also to share information with his friends. “If you don’t play games, you can’t keep up with your friends at school,” he said. A 15-year-old boy said he likes games because he can be the one to take the lead. “It’s fun because I can control (the characters in games).”

Games popular with youngsters have fighting themes, Hirano said. “But that has nothing to do with juvenile delinquency. Everyone plays games now. It’s nothing special. It’s just a way to have fun,” he said.

However, a 23-year-old longtime arcade game player and one-time arcade national champion, disagrees.

“Some challengers get outraged after I beat them in a fighting game. One even came up to punch me,” said Yusuke Wakebe, a company employee who was the champion of a national Street Fighter II competition in 1995.

“These things happen a lot at arcades, so I check and see what the guy is like before starting the game, or run away if he goes wild,” said Wakebe, who still goes to arcades every day.

“Some kids just can’t tell the difference between the virtual world and the real world,” he said.

According to a 1999 Management and Coordination Agency study on the effects of TV and game violence on juvenile delinquency, the group with the highest exposure to violent TV scenes had the highest rate of actually being involved in violence, such as striking other people.

The study indicated that the more they played games, the more they were involved in violence. It surveyed 3,242 elementary school sixth-graders and second-year junior high school students in five prefectures.

Sega Enterprises Ltd., Japan’s leading game maker for arcades, said such a study is not backed by scientific data, and thus the company has no plans to reconsider the contents of its game titles.

“Every time a teenager commits a felony, the media play up only a side aspect of the games,” a Sega spokesman said. “We’re not saying that the games have no influence, but factors behind delinquency are a mix of many different things.”

Games are already a part of daily life for many youngsters and adults. But Taguchi said the important thing is providing children with more opportunities to do, see and touch real — not virtual — things, be it cooking, camping or crafting.

“Human life is never detached from nature,” he said. “Children need to be out there and have contacts with nature by themselves and learn from actual experiences.”