30 Reviews in 30 Days, Day 16 – Grand Theft Childhood

As gamers, we are aware of the scrutiny under which our hobby tends to fall. It seems that any time there is a shooting where the perpetrator is younger, violent video games are blamed. California tried to pass a law which would have made it illegal to sell games deemed too violent to minors, only to have the Supreme Court rule the law was unconstitutional. On the other side, gamers and game media immediately dismiss any claims that gaming can affect people’s behavior, swinging the pendulum completely the opposite direction.

So who is right? That question plagued Doctors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, especially as they noticed a growing compulsion of the media and politicians to make gaming the scapegoat for youth violence. When looking at the research and test cases which were being cited to back the claim that playing violent video games encourages youth violence, they found them severely lacking in their approach. As a result, they set out to do their own research, surveying over 1200 students in 7th and 8th grade, 500 of their parents and running focus groups with adolescent boys and their parents. They published the results of their research in Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games And What Parents Can Do.

I picked this book up several years ago after seeing Kutner and Olson interviewed on Xplay. They seemed to genuinely want to help parents and gamers alike see what the truth behind the violent gaming debate really is and what can be done to help deal with the real issues. After reading this book, I think I can safely say Grand Theft Childhood is a book any parent of a gamer or any gamer who wants to have an intelligent discussion on the effects of violent games needs to read.

Making the Wrong Assumptions… Again

Kutner and Olson started this Harvard study because they had a son who was starting to reach the age often listed as being problematic when it came to violent video games. As they started to look at the studies which had been done and were often touted as showing the link between violent games and violent behavior, they cold not help but be surprised by how poorly handled the experiments were. Many dealt with a very small sample size, too small to draw any kind of sweeping conclusions. Others were just flawed. One example was a study where some subjects played a casual game and others played a violent one for the same period of time. After this, they used an air horn aimed at another test subject. As those who played the violent game held the air horn button down longer than those who did not, the “conclusion” was drawn that violent games lead to more aggressive behavior. You do not need a degree in psychology to see the flaw in that logic, as anyone who has just played a violent, action filled game is going to be a little more “amped up” than someone who has not, and therefore the delay could easily be a matter of physiology and not psychology.

Grand Theft Auto has come under a lot of fire for its supposed affect on youth violence, hence the name Kutner and Olson chose for the book.

Kutner and Olson’s disappointment with the research that has been done led them to do some of their own, leading to a full blown academic study funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice and the Center for Mental Health and Media. They chose very specifically to do the research and follow where it led, not going into the study either trying to prove or disprove the fact playing violent games leads to violent behavior. In the first few chapters of Grand Theft Childhood, the two of them explain many of the common misconceptions about video game violence and its effect on youth violence, including blowing huge holes in many of the media and political commentaries stating perpetrators of some of the most hideous gun crimes were avid players of violent games. They also present the other side, however, showing how the ESRB, while well meaning, is not doing an adequate job of really relaying what is contained in a game, often taking things out of context. They also point out how video games are no different than any other form of media, from books to music to movies and television, when to comes to this kind of scrutiny. It is just the form of media under fire now because it is the newest.

So Kutner and Olson knew the problem: many of the studies which “proved” a link between playing violent games and actually committing acts of violence were flawed at best, and yet those on the other side of the debate seemed to not want to admit there could be any kind of effect from playing games. They set out not to do the “definitive” study on the subject but to start actually looking at a large group of people who fall under the age group of concern along with their parents to see if we are even asking the right questions.

Turns out we were not.

 Not the Results You Would Expect

What did Kutner and Olson find when their study was done? As they themselves put it in the book, their study does not provide the definitive answers. It does provide some insight, however, into some things the pundits are getting severely wrong:

  • Gaming has become very commonplace among teenagers, especially boys, though the numbers for girls are rising. In fact, parents of a teenage boy who does not game at all may want to make sure he is not having other issues

    T rated games like Call Of Duty 2 might have a more negative effect on youth than many M rated games as they do not fully show the results of the violence protrayed.

    socially, as it is so interwoven into the social fabric for them. It does not mean there is a problem, but it can be a sign of one.

  • Language has much more of an influence in gaming on teens than violence does. Boys cited in the focus groups mentioned they did not play certain games around their younger siblings because they did not want them to start imitating the “swears” as they put it. One said their parents raised them better than that, and he did not want the game to set a bad example.
  • While there appeared to be no direct link between playing violent games and being violent, there does seem to be an indirect one. Boys who play violent games were twice as likely to have issues at school at least once a year, ranging from getting into fights to trouble with teachers. Among girls, it was four times as likely.
  • Teens could be negatively influenced by games which did not show the actual results of performed violence. For example, a T rated game where someone who is killed just vanishes could actually lead to more issues with teens being violent than an M rated one where the teen sees the effects of the violence portrayed in the game.
  • Playing games can have very positive effects on teens, even violent games. These effects can include improved creativity among youth and the chance to work out anger and frustration in a way that does not hurt anyone else.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the results of this study. Kutner and Olson found many of our assumptions on the effect of gaming and specifically violent gaming have been erroneous at best and intentionally misconstrued at worst.

So what conclusions can be drawn from their research? While Kutner and Olson state much of what we “know” about the effect of violent games on youth is incorrect, their research is only the beginning. Much more is needed if we are going to understand this issue. The two of them spend the latter part of the book giving parents and those who interact with teens some practical ideas on what they can do if they are concerned about this and other game related issues, providing advice that would be invaluable to anyone who really wants to deal with the true issues. They also argue that we as a culture need to look past the violent game debate and look at the socio-economic and other issues which tend to be much more directly influential when it comes to violence among youth.

Bottom Line: READ THE BOOK

I cannot stress enough how important it is for gamers to read Grand Theft Childhood. As much as we may wish it was, the debate on violent games affecting violent behavior is not going away, and as gamers, we need to be educated about it so we are not guilty of spewing the same kind of blind rhetoric we accuse the other side of using. If you are a parent or interact with teens on a normal basis, it is even more important that you take the time to read this book so you can see what trends might be affecting those you know and have ideas on how to approach this issue.

Kutner and Olson do not claim to have all the answers. What they have tried to do with their research and through this book is make sure we are finally asking the right questions. I am currently in the middle of my second time through of it as I write this, and I do not doubt I will be reading it more and more as I continue in my role as college and youth leader for my church. Grand Theft Childhood gets a 10 out of 10.

For more info about the book and the study, check out GrandTheftChildhood.com.

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