Game-Book Review: Grand Theft Childhood

kutner-gtdo-drm.jpgThere have been plenty of books (check out GamerDad’s incredible list) relevant to gamers and the gaming industry. Let me add another to that list: “Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do” by researchers Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson of Harvard Medical School. Here is a book that (finally) takes a reasoned and rational look at video games and their potential impact on the attitudes and behaviors of our kids.

Like many gamers, I am sick and tired of constantly reading about how playing video games with any sort of violence or killing is equivalent to ‘training killers’. At the same I am also tired of reading claims that playing games is a completely neutral and ineffectual experience. I think both of those views are biased and made for political reasons, and don’t believe that either one reflects reality. Neither do Drs. Kutner and Olsen.

Just to back up for a second, I anticipate some controversy about my thoughts above. So let me be explicit and put things in context: I believe that every individual is shaped by their experiences throughout life. I remember vividly one summer vacation on Cape Cod in the late 70’s reading Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Plague, and how the actualization of Existential philosophy washed over me and how it impacted me. I also quite well remember the stirring of reawakened musical desires while watching the Who ‘rockumentary’ The Kids Are Alright in theaters around the same time. And I remember the joys of playing Pong in the early 70’s, my first peek into the joy of video games. And I also remember watching the Watergate hearings on TV, and seeing clips from Vietnam and having my parents feel the need to explain that what was happening was real, since seeing non-fiction war on television was a new thing at the time.

All of those things shaped me – books, TV, games, music, as well as events I actively participated in. My point is that while it is foolish in the face of data to contend that Doom causes kids to go on shooting sprees, it is similarly disingenuous to claim that games are immersive, cathartic, exciting, moving and so on … yet have no impact. I certainly know that video games have shaped and changed my life – and aside from a few hundred hours put into some games I wish I could get back, my experiences have been extremely positive and fun. The problem is that the anti-game crowd has shaped the debate such that admitting impact from something that portrays an act of violence is taken to mean that we are teaching violence as a positive thing.

So why does that matter? It helps shape the context of the book. Early on, Drs. Kutner and Olsen pretty neatly dismiss all of the ‘gamers = killers’ stuff we all logically know is nonsense and also look at the historical reactions to new media and why the reaction to video games makes some sense (or at least is predictable) in that context. Then they get into the more subtle and interesting subject matter – what are the relationships between gaming habits and kids’ behavior. They look at a number of studies conducted over the last several years, then go into detail with their own studies. The results are interesting in several ways, and I think that the reason that neither side of the debate has publicized anything beyond the initial ‘video games don’t create killers’ finding is that neither side comes out with everything they would like: no, video games don’t create and train killers; but neither can we ignore the relationship between gaming habits and troubled behaviors.

A bit more on what I call the “‘gamers = killers’ stuff”: when talking about video games with my (non-gamer with anti-gaming leanings) wife after yet another alarmist report on the news, she put it in perspective. She said “I know they won’t become killers by playing games, even those awful shooters. But they definitely have an impact. I can guarantee that after playing games that [our older son] will be more moody, irritable, and would up. If we let them play after dinner then it is a major production getting them ready for bed. They are dawdly after watching a movie, but with the violent video games they become much more belligerent.”

That sort of thing is at the core of the research the authors conducted. They noted specifically that the anti-gaming groups “worry too much about the wrong things and too little about more subtle issues and complex effects that are much more likely to affect our children.”

They also look at the irony and hypocrisy of decrying violence as uniformly detrimental to kids “The threads of violence are woven throughout the fabric of children’s play and literature from a very early age. We sing them to sleep with lullabies that describe boughs breaking, cradles falling and babies plummeting helplessly to earth. We entertain them with fairy tales in which a talking wolf devours a girl’s grandmother and an old woman tries to roast children alive in her oven. Even religious instruction is replete with stories about plagues, pestilence, jealousy, betrayal, torture and death.”

So what they wanted to do was to look at those issues – how do we identify and protect those kids most likely to be negatively impacted by games? How can we determine whether there is any negative impact correlated to underage kids playing violent (T & M rated) video games? They started looking at all of the studies and found little that was of much use: too many were biased, or flawed in their assumptions, or utilized violence-aggression models that are at best unproven. For example “researchers fail to differentiate between aggression and violence. Their logic assumes that the subjects in these experiments—usually college students who participate to earn some spending money or to get credit for a class—cannot tell the fantasy from reality and don’t know that “punishing” a person with a mild electric shock or a 9mm pistol with lead to different outcomes. Can someone who delivers a brief blast of noise really be said to have the same malicious intent as someone who shoots a convenience store clerk or stabs someone in a bar fight?”

Their own research constitutes the final quarter of the book: they relied on surveys and interviews, both of kids and parents taken singly and together. They looked at viewing and gaming habits in the context of family life: is there a TV or a video game console in the kids’ room? How are grades and/or disciplinary behavior? What percentage of gaming is M-rated compared to T and E/E-10? And so on.

I don’t want to reveal too much of what was said, because the way they detail their findings is definitely worth reading for folks interested in scientific research as well as parents. Here is the bottom line: there is a correlation between violent video game playing and academic and behavior problems at school. Yet before you think about yanking the controller completely, it is even worse is your kids play no games at all: “Boys who don’t regularly play video games were more likely than even the boys who played M-rated (adult) games to get into fights, steal from a store, or have problems at school.” That is because gaming is a cultural norm – and despite claims to individuality, we all know how kids who stand out as ‘odd’ for any reason are treated.

But make no mistake, as stated in the book: There is a correlation between middle school children who play violent, M-rated games and actual antisocial behavior. These kids aren’t carjacking old ladies, pistol whipping store clerks, or defeating alien invaders with any greater frequency than their peers, but they tend to “act up” more, get in trouble in school, fight, and disrupt class. Note that I say ‘correlation’, not causality: because it isn’t clear whether those kids who are already getting in trouble are drawn to violent games or the opposite. Nor is it clear whether the disruptive impact of gaming and TV systems in a kids room has led to the difficulties more than the content of the media they are consuming. Either way, the results support the seemingly contradictory conclusions of the authors: relax and get back to parenting and working with your kids. This makes sense because it is by being involved with your kids, sensitive to their needs and changes in their behavior, that you will be best able to help them.

This is a book that everyone concerned in any way with video games and parenting needs to read – you need to understand video games in the context of historical treatment of new media; you also need to understand how previous articles, books and research on the topic was conducted and how they drew their assumptions and findings; and finally you need to understand that beyond dismissing the ‘training killers’ hysteria there are some significant potential concerns related to violent video game consumption by tweens and teens. The good news, though, is that anyone who has really been tuning in to game-parenting sites such as GamerDad for the past five years is all set! Because by doing what GamerDad has advised – keeping an eye on your kids’ gaming habits, not putting TV and game systems in their rooms, and being involved parents – you have the best chance of your kids keeping all of this stuff in proper perspective and just having fun with video games!

(originally published at GamingWithChildren)

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!