Posts tagged ‘Violence’

Grand Theft Childhood Author Weighs in on GTA IV

Back in March, we did a three-part segment on violent video games. At the time, we did a Q & A with one of the authors of the ground-breaking study, Grand Theft Childhood. Harvard Professor Cheryl Olson contradicted many of the general tenets regarding violent video games, especially the idea that such games are the bane of civilized society.

Two months later, at the time that Grand Theft Auto IV is setting new records for sales, we offer a follow-up with the co-author of Grand Theft Childhood, fellow Harvard professor Lawrence Kutner. Dr. KutnerDr. Kutner has written extensively on parenting topics and is the author of five previous books about child psychology and parent-child communication.

We asked Dr. Kutner about the reception Grand Theft Childhood has received both with the general public and within the academic community. We also asked him about some of the criticisms of the study as well as those areas of research that deserve greater study in the future. Finally, we threw some questions his way about GTA IV, in particular his thoughts about MADD’s response to one aspect of the game and the many pundits railing against the game.

As with our first post with Dr. Olson, we are sure you will be intrigued by what the professor has to say.

Can you give us an overview of the general reaction you have received to the release of your study? My understanding is that you have been doing a number of radio talk shows and discussing your work with a whole host of media outlets. Could you review with our readers some of the folks with whom you have been discussing your work and what has been the general response of those media outlets?

There has been a tremendous amount of interest and support from both sides of the political spectrum, ranging from Barry Lynn, a liberal radio talk show host (Culture Shocks), to Adam Thierer of the conservative think tank The Progress and Freedom Foundation. For the most part, people appreciate the nature and approach of our research and our attempts to put our and others’ findings into perspective.

We’ve spent a lot of time on both commercial and public talk radio, including stations in Canada and Ireland as well as throughout the US. National Public Radio’s “On the Media” did a long piece on our findings. So did the CBC. Gil Gross of KGO Radio in San Francisco, the #1 news-talk station in the US, did an hour on the book. We will have that on our website soon. Even the nationally syndicated morning shock jock Mancow did an interview segment.

In print, we’ve been on page 1 of USA Today and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and on page 1 of a section of the Washington Post. Reuters just did a feature story on us along with a highly laudatory review. Publications outside the US such as The Globe and Mail and The Age and specialty publications like PC World have also given us coverage in print and/or electronic versions.
The most widely distributed television appearance was on the program “X-Play” on theG4 network, which focuses on video games. It was picked up by literally thousands of blogs for and by gamers. Cheryl was interviewed on CNN by Glenn Beck, who cut her off several times, apparently because her data contradicted his opinions.“There have been other times when our findings and analyses have been cherry-picked by people wanting to force-fit our data to support their own biases. For example, the evening GTA-IV was released, Cheryl was interviewed by two Boston-area television stations. One set up her sound bites by saying that “some researchers say that there’s nothing to worry about.” The other said, “Some researchers are very worried.” Neither statement is an accurate reflection of our research.

One thing we did not think to ask you earlier was about the reaction of the Harvard community or that of others in academia? What has been the reaction of those folks to your study and the subsequent release of the book?

People in academia—even those whose research we criticize—have generally been supportive. They may disagree, but they see the value in what we’ve done. Only rarely have they engaged in ad hominem attacks.

Would you categorize your book as an academic text or as some other classification? And how has it been doing thus far as compared to initial expectations?

This is clearly a popular book, not an academic text—although some professors have told us that they want to assign it in their classes. It’s aimed at the intelligent reader who wants to understand more about kids and video games.

It’s been striking how many people who are neither gamers nor parents have expressed interest in our work.

Grand Theft Childhood
We see where at least one person has taken strong exception to your findings, referring to the work as “industrial strength whitewash.” Could you comment a bit on that critique? Have there been any other such negative reviews of your study?

Any good book draws critics. That quote was from a review written for Library Journal by a 73-year-old private practice psychiatrist whose expertise is on the influence of Otto Rank on psychoanalysis. While he’s entitled to his opinion, of course, it’s unclear why he was selected to critique the book. By the way, a few days after this review was published, Larry was approached by the American Library Association about giving a keynote address at its upcoming national conference on the use of games in libraries. That gives you an idea of how influential that review was with librarians.

We’re sure that others will find fault with our book, and hope that their criticisms sharpen our thinking and add to the quality of future studies.

Based on the release and the questions you are receiving, are there some aspects of your study that perhaps you wished you had spent more time on or specific questions you wished you had researched but did not? Will any of this lead to follow up studies in the future?

There are several areas that we wish we had explored but could not due to financial and time constraints. We did not anticipate when we started that M-rated games would be as popular with girls as they actually were. This deserves more research. We would like to study a sample of teenagers who have gotten into trouble with the law because of violent behavior, to see how their patterns of video game play may differ. Also, it would be useful to do some different types of studies that involve watching how kids actually play the games (and perhaps to measure their physiological responses) in a typical (non-lab) environment.
Whether we, or someone else, do these studies will depend upon funding.

The recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV has been met with some scathing rebukes. One has come from MADD regarding a section of the game where a car is driven by an intoxicated driver. Would you be willing to provide your thoughts on this based on your prior research? Is this much ado about nothing or have the makers of GTA gone one step too far?

We haven’t played GTA IV yet, so our awareness of this scene comes solely from articles like that. It would be interesting to see if teenage players interpret the scene the same way that MADD apparently does. Our understanding is that the experience of being unable to control the virtual car in the game is aversive, and may actually deter drunk driving. It’s worth investigating.

We will probably end up buying an Xbox 360 or PS3 so we can play GTA IV ourselves and make more informed comments.

Susan Estrich, a syndicated columnist also rails strongly against GTA IV in a recent column. Having done your research, what thoughts go through your mind when you read such an editorial? Is this still the most common reaction people have to these games?

This is strikingly similar to the concerns over and editorials against comic books, radio, gangster films and—back in the late 19th century—the evil influence of paperback novels on teenage girls. None of those bore out. Each time, the pundits and politicians said that earlier concerns may have been silly, but that this time it’s different. So far it hasn’t been.

She says, “It’s not my son I’m really worried about…. It’s his generation, the generation that he is going to grow up in and live with, full of kids who take this stuff for granted and spend more time with it than with real life, that worries me.” We heard that—my kid’s fine, it’s the other kids who are at risk—time and again from parents in focus groups. Many of them had “heard stories” about kids who got into trouble or even died because of video games, but none of them actually knew anyone who did so. It seems to be another set of urban legends.

I Stock PhotoShe also engages in hyperbole in her attacks, stating that kids “spend more time with than with real life.” Think about that for a second. It’s a dramatic statement, but is it true? Our study found that only 13 percent of boys and 2 percent of girls spent 15 or more hours per week playing video games. Assuming 8 hours/night for sleep, a child would have to spend more than 56 hours per week playing video games to meet her criterion. We’ve only seen that among an extremely small group of gamers not in our study whose serious emotional problems were manifest in other ways—it’s certainly not the norm!

Similarly, we’ve heard statements describing the GTA series as including opportunities for gamers to rape women as part of the game. We’ve been unable to find any instances of this, although there are opportunities for characters to have sex with prostitutes. Yet such hyperbolic statements are rarely challenged in and by the media, perhaps because they’re so effective at grabbing attention.

Most of the parents we spoke with who had actually seen a GTA game recognized that it was satire. Their concerns were not this type of knee-jerk reaction, but were more nuanced, such as whether their children would understand the essence of that satire and the cultural allusions.

Editor: Many thanks to both Dr. Kutner and Dr. Olson for their time – for those wishing to hear more about this groundbreaking study, the many links after the first question will provide readers a wealth of additional information.

Author: Tom Hanson, OpenEducation Blog, 16th May 2008

Original article available here.

Publication authorised by


May 23, 2008 at 3:00 pm Leave a comment

The Byron Review; Video Gaming Recommendations for Children

As we noted in our prior post, Dr. Tanya Byron, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, recently released an important set of E-safety recommendations, “Safer Children in a Digital World,” for children in the UK. Today we turn to her summary recommendations regarding video gaming.
Byron Review
Here again, the most compelling aspect of her research as well as her recommendations is the fact that she refrains from oversimplifying the matter. When it comes to the issue of video games, Byron calls upon the video game industry and parents to work collaboratively to ensure that children are provided access to games that are age-appropriate.Risk-Reward Nature of Technology
As was her methodology with Internet safety, Byron seeks a collaborative approach to children and the video game industry. In addition, she seeks to have assistance from the gaming industry to help restrict the access of games that are inappropriate for children. At the same time, she also calls on parents to do their part in the process.

In speaking about empowering children and keeping them safe, Byron turns to the following analogy. Noting that “children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks,” Byron offers, “at a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.”

Byron notes that technology offers extraordinary opportunities for children and young people as well as adults. As for video games, the researcher indicates that such games offer “a range of exciting interactive experiences for children.” At the same time, Byron specifies that some video games are in fact designed for adults.

Byron recognizes that the debate on ‘media effects’ and violent content in video games is divided. She also confirms the obvious, that Internet and gaming technology is moving so rapidly that it is not possible for research to keep up with the developments.
What is noteworthy about Byron’s work is she does head directly to the gray areas, the risks of potentially harmful or inappropriate content, that could have negative impacts on children. As we noted in our post about Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson and their research for Grand Theft Childhood, Byron is not ready to take a cause and effect position regarding video game play and antisocial behaviors in children. Byron states, “Overall, I have found that a search for direct cause and effect in this area is often too simplistic.”

At the same time the researcher does not give a free pass on the topic, stating that it does “not mean that the risks do not exist.” Byron then moves correctly to another key element, that we must use our understanding of child development to “inform an approach that is based on the ‘probability of risk’ in different circumstances.”

What is so remarkable about Byron’s review is that she recognizes the sheer complexity of this issue. “We need to take into account children’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities, because the factors that can discriminate a ‘beneficial’ from a ‘harmful’ experience online and in video games will often be individual factors in the child. The very same content can be useful to a child at a certain point in their life and development and may be equally damaging to another child.”

In addition, Byron notes, “Very few people are genuinely addicted to video games but lots of time spent playing can result in missed opportunities for other forms of development and socialization.” In other words, concerns must develop when these gaming technologies negatively impact children at the expense of other activities and family interaction.

Byron does list some of the prevailing concerns regarding video game play. She notes, “There is some evidence of short term aggression from playing violent video games but no studies of whether this leads to long term effects.” She also states, “There is a correlation between playing violent games and aggressive behavior, but this is not evidence that one causes the other.”

Byron ReviewHer entire approach centers upon age appropriate gaming and reveals yet another critical element. “Games are more likely to affect perceptions and expectations of the real world amongst younger children because of their less developed ability to distinguish between fact and fiction (due to the immaturity of the frontal cortex).”

As for the interactive nature of games, Byron states the interactive nature may “also have a more profound effect than some other media, again especially amongst younger children (e.g. up to around 12 years old) who tend to use narratives to develop their values and ideas and who learn through ‘doing’.”

At the same time, Byron is not ready to castigate video games or refer to them as the source of all that is not well during adolescence. States Bryon, “These games offer new opportunities for social interaction between children and there are a number of potential benefits for children and young people from playing video games, including cognitive and educational gains and simply having fun. Interestingly the evidence to prove these benefits can be as contested as the evidence of negative effects.”

Ensuring Age Appropriate Gaming Opportunities
Byron calls for targeted efforts from the gaming industry to increase parental understanding of age-ratings and the available controls on gaming consoles. Byron recommends a new, hybrid classification system for games. She seeks to have the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and the Pan European Game Information, under the auspices of the UK Council for Child Internet safety, “work together to develop a joint approach to rating online games and driving up safety standards for children and young people.” She proposes that the new combined BBFC and PEGI logo be prominently placed on the front of all games (R18, 18,15,12,PG and U) with industry equivalent logos across all age ranges placed on the back of all boxes (ratings regarding violence, language, sexual activity, drugs activity, etc.).

Byron also seeks to have greater efforts to enforce age ratings at points of sale to ensure that children have access only to age appropriate materials. Byron suggests that games with ‘12′ ratings and up carry legal requirements that such games cannot be sold to someone under the required age. At the same time, Byron calls on both the video game and advertising industries to comply with age-appropriate message targeting that matches the video game age classifications.

I Stock PhotoIn addition, Byron wants to see “console manufacturers work together to raise standards in parental controls on consoles, delivering clear and easy to use prompts and better information for parents on where console controls meet agreed upon standards.”

Parents Must Also Parent
The researcher notes that even concerned parents sometimes still buy adult games for their children. The rationale? “Either for a ‘peaceful life’ or because it is ‘only a game’.”

Byron notes that parents must be aware of the fact that some games are suitable only for adults. She writes of how many children she came across that had been allowed to play age 18+ video games despite the fact that some children were forbidden from watching films with that rating.

She further notes that parents must be educated about the parental controls available on game consoles. If the gaming industry is expected to produce consoles that provide specific controls regarding time of play, game ratings, et al, then parents must learn to engage the technology and enforce the use of that technology.

Lastly, there is no substitute for parental responsibility especially with respect to decision-making. We noted earlier Byron’s prophetic words, the “need to take into account children’s individual strengths and vulnerabilities. The very same content can be useful to a child at a certain point in their life and development and may be equally damaging to another child.”

Recognizing the differences in children is difficult. But ultimately that recognition will have to be the responsibility of parents, not the gaming industry.

Author: Tom Hanson, OpenEducation Blog, 2nd April 2008

Article available here.

April 6, 2008 at 10:44 am Leave a comment

The Byron Review; E-Safety Internet Recommendations for Children

Across the pond, Dr. Tanya Byron, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, recently released an important set of E-safety recommendations for children. Her report, “Safer Children in a Digital World,” was commissioned by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007 in response to growing concerns about the dangers of the Internet.

Ms. Byron’s recommendations appear, dare we say it, “spot on.” She calls on all parties; the tech industry, government agencies (education, legal), and most importantly, parents and families, to work collaboratively on the issue of E-safety.

Byron ReviewPerhaps the most compelling aspect of her research as well as her recommendations is her sophisticated and global approach to the issue. Noting the inherent risk/reward nature of both the Internet and video gaming, Byron properly refrains from oversimplifying the matter.

Today we begin with a review of her research and the recommendations she makes regarding Internet safety. In a follow-up post, we will take a look at her research regarding video games.

Calls Parents To Task
In her report, Byron certainly is not afraid of upsetting parents, calling to attention the fact that many parents simply are not doing due diligence in regards to E-safety. “Many parents seem to believe that when their child is online it is similar to them watching television,” states Byron. “In fact it is more like opening the front door and letting your child go outside to play unsupervised.”

At the same time, the clinical psychologist recognizes the need for children to take risks, that it is an important aspect of their development as young people. One key aspect “of today’s risk-averse culture” notes Byron is that parents are “more inclined to keep children ‘indoors’ despite their developmental needs to socialize and take risks.”

But with a clear understanding of the typical behavior of youngsters the researcher states, “Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. As we increasingly keep our children at home because of fears for their safety outside” our children will tend to “play out their developmental drives to socialize” with the Internet and “take risks in the digital world.”

Byron ReviewAs with the recent Grand Theft Childhood study, Byron notes the complexities parents face with both the Internet and the current gaming culture. “Findings from the evidence show that the potential risks online are closely correlated with potential benefits.” Therefore, Byron strongly suggests a collaborative effort to minimize risks without removing the potential benefits of online access.

What Can Be Done to Increase E-Safety
According to Byron, “Everyone has a role to play in empowering children to stay safe while they enjoy these new technologies, just as it is everyone’s responsibility to keep children safe in the non-digital world. This new culture of responsibility spans parents, children and young people supported by Government, industry and the public.”

In regards to the Internet, Byron proposes a three prong approach to improve child safety when online. The three specific areas seek first to reduce the availability of improper materials, second, restrict access to such materials, and third, increase the resilience of children to harmful and inappropriate online material.

The first area could prove more controversial as it in essence creates possible regulations though Byron seeks to have these regulations come in the form of voluntary codes of practice for the industry. In this arena, Byron seeks a reduction in availability of harmful and inappropriate material “in the most popular part of the internet.” Byron recommends that search providers such as Google and Yahoo incorporate a ’safe search’ button that is prominently displayed on the search engine page. In addition, users should have the option of a “lock button” to ensure safe search options. Along with the button, Byron recommends that every search engine offer clear links “to child safety information and safe search settings on the front page of their website.”

In addition to seeking assistance from the search engine giants, Byron recommends that all home computers sold in the UK be equipped with standard parental control software specifically designed with clear prompts and explanations to help engage the parental control options. At the same time, Byron adds that all Internet Service Providers should prominently offer parental control options during the set up of any Internet connection.

From there, Byron turns to the appropriate education of parents and all adults who work with children. The notion is one of education as her recommended focus is on raising the “knowledge, skills and understanding around e-safety of children, parents and other responsible adults.” Essentially, Byron properly notes that parents also have a key role to play in managing a child’s proper Internet usage.

DFES.GOVIn her research, the consultant often found that higher Internet skill levels in children gave these youngsters greater confidence regarding Internet use. Yet, many of those same youngsters did not have either the maturity or have sufficient awareness to ensure they are actually safe online. Byron throws this issue into the lap of parents stating, “Parents either underestimate or do not realize how often children and young people come across potentially harmful and inappropriate material on the internet and are often unsure about what they would do about it.” For Byron, it is time parents became fully aware of the risks, learn what steps they should take to ensure greater E-safety, and then subsequently implement those steps.

Next Byron turns to schools and other child service providers to play a key role in helping children and their parents stay safe online. The consultant indicates that schools should deliver e-safety through the standard school curriculum. Byron indicates it is essential that children learn how to protect themselves (distributing private information, giving out contact details online, etc.). Here she seeks to build children’s resilience to any material to which they may be exposed. Youngsters need to have both the confidence and the skills to ensure their own online safety.

Bionic teachingIn regards to these extensive education programs, Byron refers to an “authoritative ‘one stop shop’ for child internet safety” based on extensive research regarding what different groups of users want.

In regards to E-safety on the Internet, Byron provides a compelling case for a collaborative approach to protecting children. The writer properly notes that “restricting children’s access to harmful and inappropriate material is not just a question of what industry can do to protect children.”

Such E-safety is the responsibility of parents, teachers, government officials and the technology industry collectively. Only when these groups seek to work in concert will we be able to truly protect our most vulnerable assets, our children.

Internet safety photo by Bionic teaching.

Author: Tom Hanson, OpenEducation Blog, 31st March 2008

[More from this author soon.]

Article available here.

April 4, 2008 at 11:09 am Leave a comment

Games, politics and media

Over at, Brian Baglow has some prime examples of media and political distortion around games, crime and violence. First, a member of parliament who continues to assert that Manhunt had a role to play in a murder, even though the police claim there was no link (and the game was owned by the victim, not the killer).

Author: Daniel Livingstone, Learning Games Blog, 3rd April 2008

Full artucle available here.

April 4, 2008 at 10:58 am Leave a comment

Experts State: Do Not Banish – Instead, Manage Violent Video Game Play

According to Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, the authors of Grand Theft Childhood, those people examining violent video game play may in fact be asking the wrong questions and making incorrect assumptions. As but one example, the authors note that “instead of looking for a simple, direct relationship between video game violence and violent behavior in all children, we should be asking how we might identify those children who are at greatest risk for being influenced by these games.”I Stock PhotoIn addition, Kutner and Olson stipulate that parents and educators should examine the entire gaming spectrum when thinking about video game play. As the authors note, “Some of the most popular games, even among teenage boys, are not violent.” That leads the Harvard professors to note, “We should ask whether children who spend a lot of time playing video games are failing to learn important interpersonal and social skills.”When it comes to video game play and those video games deemed violent, the authors recommend a balanced approach that follows the basics of good parenting. Instead of trying to banish the games and create a “forbidden fruit” concept, a step most parents find simply does not work, these researchers offer a more manageable set of expectations around game play.Appropriate Game Play
According to Kutner and Olson, parents should not think of the issue as a boxing match. “It’s aikido,” note the authors. In other words, successful parents don’t try to meet force with force by banning nor do they throw their hands up in the air and abdicate control. The key is “to work with and redirect your child’s skills and interests.”

The first suggestion is one that forms the basis for good parenting every step of the way. Stay involved. And according to the authors, one of the best ways to do so is to learn the games and the terminology, then spend some time playing the games with your child.

Halo 3The author suggests learning such terms as “first-person shooter” (Doom or Halo) versus “third-person shooter” games such as Grand Theft Auto or Tomb Raider? Find out what a MMORPG (A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game like World of Warcraft) is. Learn what is meant by a cheat code?

In learning these terms, Kutner and Olson suggest having your children teach you these game terms. As you begin discussing the terms you can move to the various game genres to see why your son or daughter like some types of games but not others? The basic key is to get the discussion going.

Finally, learn the game console and begin playing the game. Here again, having your son or daughter by your side teaching you is a great way to keep the conversation going and help you navigate the game. Parents may initially find the skills and dexterity very challenging but abandonment is not the answer. Here the Harvard professors cite Michael Jellinek, M.D., professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, who says that a parent’s awkwardness “can be used to your advantage when it comes to strengthening relationships with your children.”

In fact Jellinek has “prescribed” video games that parents and kids can play together in his work. According to Olson and Kutner, Michael JellinekJellinek has prescribed “golf, football or car racing games” as therapy. “It changes the dynamic of the parent constantly teaching the child, to the child teaching the parent.”

Two researchers who have conducted studies in the Netherlands have “found that parents who played video games themselves had a different perspective on the risks and benefits of those games on their children.” Drs. Peter Nikken and Jeroen Jansz note that parents knowledgeable of such games were not only more likely to play such games with their children, they “were more optimistic about the positive effects and less worried about the negative effects” of game play.

Keep a Proper Perspective
With greater involvement with your children regarding such game play, appropriate discussions can follow. Here, it is interesting to note how Kutner and Olson reframe the issue.

The authors note several negatives that are often sighted as correlates with anti-social or risk taking behavior and teens who play M-rated video games. The authors reveal that “violent video game play can be a marker of increased risk for certain behaviors.

For example, girls who played any M-rated game ‘a lot’ were three times as likely to say that they’d damaged property just for fun during the previous year, compared to girls who played E or T games. M-gamer boys were more than twice as likely as non-M-gamer boys to do so.”

Given that data, the researchers note that “the actual number of kids who do these things is pretty low.” For example, though one might not be concerned with the fact that “15 percent of the M-gamer girls said that they’d damaged property for fun” it must be noted that “85 percent of the M-gamer girls said that they had not.” According to Kutner and Olson, this was carried through their research, that “for almost all of the problem behaviors we measured, the majority—and often the vast majority—of M-gamer kids didn’t do those things.”

In addition, the authors rightfully note that a correlation is not the same as a causation. Simply stated, it is not possible to determine if playing M-rated games inspires some kids to act in a certain way or if those who act that way are more drawn to play M-rated games. Or perhaps, it may well be that something else entirely is going on.

Lastly, the authors note that playing such games demands active parenting. In other words, violent video game play is in fact a marker of increased risk for anti-social behavior. By paying close attention to the potential behavior issues that are often associated with the teen years, parents can help guide teens towards appropriate behaviors. Such management and involvement is critical. The authors note that it is a far healthier approach than attempting to ban all such game play.

Game SpotIn their research, Kutner and Olson note that Richard Falzone, M.D., indicates a growing number of children act as if they’re addicted to video games. Falzone tells the tale of a 15-year-old boy that would spend 10-12 hours a day playing the World of Warcraft. At times the teen did not make it to school because he would sleep through the day after playing video games all night. Eventually, as the game took over his life, the teen became hospitalized for depression and for cutting himself.

Such situations are extremely rare but give rise to the notion that video games could in fact be addicting. Kutner and Olson do note that “playing video games that involve a lot of action has been associated with increased levels of two neurotransmitters in the brain, dopamine and norepinephrine, that help brain cells send messages to each other. These neurotransmitters are involved in both learning and in addiction.”

Kutner and Olson go on to explain the symptoms associated with addiction. They list three: a compulsive, physiological craving for a substance, an increased tolerance (needing a higher dose to get the same effect) following early use, and well-defined and uncomfortable physiological symptoms during withdrawal.

But as for being an addiction, the authors state that these “supposedly addicted game players may be behaving normally—but not in the ways that the adults around them believe to be normal.” Kutner and Olson note that “many young children and pre-adolescents have difficulty making the transition from one activity to another, especially when the initial activity is pleasurable.” The researchers indicate that the desire to continue to play a game children enjoy is not an addiction, it’s normal.

They also note that when a “child plays basketball or plays the piano for four hours per day, we may describe him or her as a dedicated athlete or musician. A teenager who knows all the game statistics and trivia about a local professional football team, and who spends a lot of money buying jerseys and other memorabilia, is considered a true fan. It’s a socially acceptable hobby; in fact, it’s encouraged. But if that child takes the same approach to playing video games, spending hours each day at the computer and reveling in the details and strategies of play, we may worry about an addiction.”

According to Kutner and Olson, parents and clinicians tend to focus on easily measured behaviors like the amount of time a child spends playing video games. More useful indicators would be the answers to questions such as: “Is your child finishing his schoolwork? Is he establishing balanced and reciprocal friendships with peers?”

Once again, if game play occasionally involves the parent it will be far easier to control and balance this time factor.

Many Other Practical Recommendations
Kutner and Olson offer many more valuable tips in their book and on their web site. They discuss concerns about sexual implications of such games and note what types of media tend to really scare teens. There are separate sections regarding game play and children with learning disabilities as well as the implications for teen girls. There are even sections that discuss racial aspects relative to these games.

Parents and educators seeking a pronouncement that all violent video games are bad and must be avoided will not find reinforcement from Kutner and Olson. Instead, parents and educators will see a balanced approach to a complex topic, an approach that matches up with the various teachings of other experts as to what constitutes effective parenting.

Perhaps most notably, the work of Kutner and Olson explains why most well-adjusted teens and adults never display any anti-social behavior despite their enjoyment of video game play. It is an explanation that has caused this writer to reconsider his views on this complex topic.

Author: Tom Hanson,, 18th March 2008

Article available here.

March 28, 2008 at 11:05 pm Leave a comment

Author Reveals “The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games”

An interview with Dr. Cheryl Olson,
author of Grand Theft Childhood

In my previous post, I acknowledged a long-standing personal concern regarding the potential detrimental effects of playing violent video games, especially the impact such play might have on teens. That stated, in our prior piece we referenced the latest research from two Harvard professors, research that quite frankly contradicts some of the long-standing thoughts of this writer.
In this post we talk with Dr. Cheryl Olson, one of the researchers of a ground-breaking study and a co-author of the book, Grand Theft Childhood. Her research and subsequent text call in to question many of the beliefs held as universal truths regarding this issue.

Dr. Olson takes a head-on approach to challenging the core beliefs of educators like myself. Acknowledging the complexity of the issue, I was very impressed by the fact that Dr. Olson’s work does not attempt to either simplify the question or the answer.

We present our interview here and then follow it with some of the statements often held as universal truths regarding this issue but that are instead deemed as myths by Olson and her co-author, Dr. Lawrence Kutner.

Our Interview

On your web site, a summary sentence states, “What they found surprised, encouraged, and sometimes disturbed them.” During your research, what was the biggest surprise for you and why was this so surprising?

A number of our findings went against common wisdom. One surprise was how many preteen girls played M-rated video games. About a fifth of girls rarely or never played video games. But another fifth had played Grand Theft Auto “a lot in the past six months.” Based on some of their comments, we suspect that girls play these games differently and for different reasons than boys. Since we bought into the myth that girls don’t like violent games, we didn’t recruit them for focus groups in this set of studies. We hope to talk with GTA-playing girls in future studies.

What did you find most encouraging and why did this leave you encouraged?

One very encouraging finding was how sophisticated middle-school boys were in their understanding of violent games. They could enjoy playing bad guys without wanting to be them. As one boy told us, “When I play violent games like (Grand Theft Auto) Vice City, I know it’s a videogame. And I have fun playing it. But I know not to do stuff like that, because I know the consequences that will happen to me if I do that stuff.” We were especially struck by how protective these boys were of younger kids; in fact, their concerns about video game influence were almost identical to those expressed by parents. But their biggest concern was not violence; it was “swears.” Another boy said, “I don’t like my little brother or sisters to watch me play Vice City because they might swear at other people, ‘cause of how they do in Vice City. They always give people attitude and take swears at other people. That could make my family look bad, like my mom isn’t raising us regular.”

And what was the most disturbing finding and why was it so disturbing to you?

One disturbing finding was the correlation between playing M-rated games and bullying. Boys who had more M-rated titles on their most-played lists were more likely to report bullying other kids. But even so, most boys who play M-rated games are not bullies. And this was only a correlation; it’s impossible to show cause and effect from a one-time survey.

Game Ratings
Would any of these reactions be different if you spoke first as a parent instead of as a researcher?

As a parent, this did not lead me to restrict my own son’s M-rated game play, because I know what kind of kid he is. As a researcher, I’d like to study this further – and I’m concerned that people will jump to the unsupported conclusion that playing M-rated games promotes bullying.

In your article “Children and Video Games: How Much Do We Know?” for the Psychiatric Times you state: “We found that 68% of boys and 29% of girls aged 12 to 14 years included at least one M-rated (for those aged 17 years and older, often because of violent or sexual content) game on this list of frequently played games.” I was surprised to learn that such a high percentage of young adolescents had access to games rated mature. Are parents unaware of this or have they given implicit agreement to allow these early teens to experience these games? And how important are these ratings for parental decision-making processes?

Among parents we surveyed, ratings had the most influence on their decision to buy or rent a game for their child. As one focus-group parent said, “I see the ‘E,’ I know it’s for everyone. When I see the Teen, I know the 10 year old, he can’t have it. Then I see Mature: that’s when I say, ‘Okay, I’m going to read to see exactly what’s going on here.’” Parents were less clear on the details of the rating system.

Several things probably drive the high rate of M-game play:

· Young teens play the games when parents aren’t around – at a friend’s house, or in their bedroom.

· Not all violence is equal in parents’ eyes; for example, they are less concerned about shooting “trolls” or aliens than realistic-looking humans.

· Many (but not all!) parents see game violence as a bigger risk for other people’s kids. One mom said, “I know that there are a lot of kids out there that do act out – I’ve read anyway – from movies or games. I don’t have any fears of my son going out and doing things that’s in the game. I talked to him about it in the past, and he’s like, ‘I’m not that stupid.’” And she is probably right.

GrandTheftChildhood.comIn that same article, you state: “a child plays basketball or plays the piano for 4 hours a day, we may describe him as a dedicated athlete or musician. But if that child takes the same approach to playing video games, spending hours each day at the computer, and reveling in the details and strategies of play, we may worry about an addiction.” Can you categorize or summarize for parents what might be a healthy versus an unhealthy (an addiction) approach when it comes to video game play? Is this a function of time, of the type of game played, or something else?

To put it simply: If your child is doing well in school, has friends, does his chores without too much fuss…he probably needs few restrictions on his game play. If he stops spending time on other activities, has a drop in grades, is increasingly isolated, plays games instead of sleeping…this needs looking into. The video game play may be the cause of problems, a symptom of problems (such as depression), or a bit of both. Talk to a pediatrician or mental health professional.

Ultimately, in your research did you find any pluses from video game play, specifically those violent or shoot-em-up games that concern parents? If so what were those pluses and did they help adolescent’s in some ways in dealing with the difficulty of teen years?

There are a number of potential pluses. Here are just a few:

· Some violent game play seems to improve visual-spatial skills – but it’s the fast, unpredictable action, not the violence, that does it.

· Video game skill can give kids social status; this is especially valuable to kids who have disabilities or ADHD.

· Games help some kids cope with negative feelings. As one said, “If I have a bad day at school, I’ll play a violent video game and then, it just relieves all my stress. If you ever got a bad test grade or had a fight with a friend or something, my advice would be, play a violent videogame.”

Lastly, why do you think so many adults (politicians included) are convinced that these games have to be detrimental to the mental health of teens? Is it an aversion or fear of the specific content? Is it a lack of understanding as to why kids like the games? Is it just a simplistic response to try to explain away other societal issues?

All of those play a role. It’s upsetting to see a group of boys laughing as they watch one game character literally rip the guts out of another. But when you know more about the context, motivations and other factors involved, you may see this differently. Also, for politicians it’s an issue that they can campaign easily on, even if the scientific data don’t support their claims.

Exposed Myths
Dr. KutnerIn addition to our interview, we offer here excerpts from the web site of Grand Theft Childhood. One of the most interesting aspects of their site is the author’s findings relative to several statements held by most people as factual. Kutner and Olson insist many of these statements are in fact “myths.”

One such statement or myth is that the growth in violent video game sales is linked to a growth in youth violence across the country. According to Kutner and Olson, the fact is that “Video game popularity and real-world youth violence have been moving in opposite directions. Violent juvenile crime in the United States reached a peak in 1993 and has been declining ever since. School violence has also gone down. Between1994 and 2001, arrests for murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assaults fell 44 percent, resulting in the lowest juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes since 1983.”

A second such myth is that Girls do not play violent video games like Grand Theft Auto. According to Kutner and Olson, the fact is that “Our survey of more than 1200 middle school students found that 29 percent of girls who played video games listed at least one M-rated game among the games they’d ‘played a lot’ during the previous six months. One in five GameSpot.comspecifically listed a Grand Theft Auto game. In fact, among these 12- to 14-year-old girls, the Grand Theft Auto series was second only to The Sims in popularity.”

Yet another purported myth involves the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that sought to link Seung-Hui Cho’s violent behavior to video game play. Note Kutner and Olson, “Media darling and pop psychologist Phil McGraw, appearing on CNN’s Larry King Live, stated, Common sense tells you that if these kids are playing video games, where they’re on a mass killing spree in a video game, it’s glamorized on the big screen, it’s become part of the fiber of our society….The mass murders [sic] of tomorrow are the children of today that are being programmed with this massive violence overdose.” According to Kutner and Olson, “The official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel specifically dismissed the purported links between Cho’s use of video games and his extremely violent behavior. In the chapter on Cho’s mental health history, video games are mentioned on only three pages. When he was nine years old, he was enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do program for awhile, watched TV, and played video games like Sonic the Hedgehog.”

And yet another myth debunked is that school shooters fit a profile that includes a fascination with violent media, especially violent video games. According to Kutner and Olson, “The U. S. Secret Service intensely studied each of the 37 non-gang and non-drug-related school shootings and stabbings that were considered ‘targeted attacks’ that took place nationally from 1974 through 2000. (Note how few premeditated school shootings there actually were during that 27-year time period, compared with the public perception of those shootings as relatively common events!). The incidents studied included the most notorious school shootings, such as Columbine, Santee and Paducah, in which the young perpetrators had been linked in the press to violent video games. The Secret Service found that that there was no accurate profile. Only 1 in 8 school shooters showed any interest in violent video games; only 1 in 4 liked violent movies.”

Next up, given the findings of Kutner and Olson, what advice do these experts provide parents and educators regarding teens playing violent video games.

Author: Tom Hanson,, 17th March 2008

[More from this author soon.]

Article available here.

March 25, 2008 at 10:44 am Leave a comment

Shoot-em Up Video Games – The Cause of Greater Anti-social Behaviors in Teens?

If you are a parent of a teen today you are no doubt concerned about what you hear regarding violent video games. Generally speaking, there appears to be a wide-spread consensus that such games are the bane of society and the source of growing anti-social and risk-taking behavior in teens.At the same time, if you have discussed the issue at length with other parents you are also likely confused about violent video game play. Because, quite frankly, many teens are playing such games without the slightest indication of any negative impact on their psyche or their mental health never mind a propensity to act in a violent way towards others.
Now comes the work of Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, the authors of the breakthrough book, “Grand Theft Childhood.” In their text the authors indicate that the politicians and even some health professionals may in fact have it all wrong.

One Who Has Previously Raised Concerns About Such Games
As a parent of two grown daughters, my early exposure to computer video games consisted of two very distinct categories. First, there were the earliest creations. PacMan, Donkey Kong, and the bubbly Mario all graced our computer and television screens. My children enjoyed these games, fervently trying to improve upon past accomplishments as they sought to find a way to reach the “next level”. These games, played individually or by two people together, were available to our children as a reward when other tasks were completed.

GameSpot.comLater came the Sony’s PlayStation interactive games. The games that I became most familiar with were those that combined graphic caricatures of real professional athletes with very authentic strategies. Madden football or basketball were games that enticed teenagers and grown-ups alike. Though I never played them I was also familiar with the other popular game options based on skateboarding, skiing stunts, and the obnoxious world of professional wrestling.

I must admit, when I first became aware of shoot-em up games I had in mind games where a player might shoot spaceships out of the sky. Somehow I missed the initial release of the Grand Theft Auto series, becoming aware of the game only as Grand Theft Auto3 was to be released.

I was absolutely astonished to learn of the details within this game series. Using a joystick, the gamer controls a virtual thug. Basically, if it involves criminal-like behavior, the action is available to you as the game player through the virtual character you control.

The gamer can have his thug hijack cars, even police vehicles if he desires to. The gamer’s thug can rob a bank or opt to run a crime-laden vigilante organization.

As for random acts of violence, the gamer can bash into the rear end of a car plodding along too slowly or provide his/her thug a baseball bat as he roams the streets of a virtual city. On impulse, the game player can have the thug take the bat and strike any of the pedestrians he encounters, be they unsuspecting elderly people minding their own business or street-walking prostitutes soliciting customers.

A Failure to Understand the Lure of Such Games
Upon examination of the game I was at least relieved to see it carried with it a mature rating. The game certainly was not for young children. But upon further examination I personally couldn’t help ask who this type of game might be for?

GameSpot.comAt the time that Grand Theft Auto3 was the rage, Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe published an article that featured interviews with some admitted game aficionados. What gave me the greatest concern were the words of the game players themselves.

Each indicated Grand Theft Auto contained graphics and interactive options that were so realistic that gamers felt immersed in the world the game simulates. According to Ms. Weiss, a 23 year-old computer programmer from York, England acknowledged the enjoyment the game gave him, especially after a grueling day of work. He stated, “Some people play squash after work. I just squash pedestrians.”

Weiss also noted an Emerson college freshmen reportedly calling GTA3 more exciting than other shoot-em ups. It’s a “different kind of violence,” she said, “because there’s no real good intent to any of it”.

Upon reading that article, I went on to write an op ed article for my local papers noting my concerns about these games. As a parent and educator, I noted the tremendous difficulty I had understanding the comments of the adults that Weiss spoke with. I also wrote how I could not comprehend what playing such games could do for the emotional psyche.

And lastly, for this writer, the concept of an interactive game that involves violence against people was even more troubling than the movies of Hollywood. My rationale was that the decision to make this rogue character act violently was based upon a conscious choice by the game player.

Simply stated, I found the unconscionable acts available to the player in the Grand Theft Auto series extremely troubling. At the time I was horrified by the thought that there might be many parents who thought of the bubbly Mario when thinking about video games. I expressed great concerns that many parents might be completely unaware of the content of this game, or even that such games exist.

Recent Developments – Contradictory Viewpoints
University of MinnesotaSoon, studies began to emerge that gave further rise to other concerns about such games. A University of Minnesota Professor and researcher released a number of articles noting some troubling findings. In one such study, Professor Sonya Brady, Phd, indicated that “violent video games create more permissive attitudes toward risky behaviors — such as using drugs — in youths who play those games.”

Over the past couple of years we have heard a number of politicians and children’s mental health experts rail against these games. In addition, many more reports had been released that indicated correlations between violent acts in school and a desire to play violent video games. Essentially, all of the material making its way before the public appeared to reinforce my personal view points regarding these games.

It was then that I stumbled across the work of Kutner and Olson, two researchers who happened to question this conventional wisdom. Back in 2004, they gathered together several researchers for a two year, $1.5-million multifaceted study of violent video games and children.

Their study involved researchers from a variety of fields: child and adolescent psychiatry, adult psychiatry, public health, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, educational psychology, and public policy. The goal was to examine the issue of violent video games from a broad set of perspectives.

It should be noted that unlike the prior work of Dr. Brady, they conducted a study instead of setting up an artificial experiment. For their data, they sought to “study real families in real situations.”

The researchers noted that much of what they uncovered surprised them. They noted, “The data were both encouraging and, at times, disturbing.” But they also noted, “It’s clear that the “big fears” bandied about in the press—that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world; that they will engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games—are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form.”

GrandTheftChildhood.comAcknowledging straight up that the findings surprised them proved to be the one hook to get this writer to read further. A second aspect, that Kutner and Olson note that “violent juvenile crime in the United States reached a peak in 1993 and has been declining ever since” created further questioning of my current assumptions.

As I delved further, I found a realistic treatment of an exceptionally complex topic and a study/book worthy of a thorough examination. Next up, we share with our readers an interview with Dr. Olson and a look at the various myths dispelled by her and Dr. Kutner’s research.

Author: Tom Hanson,, 16th March 2008

[More from this author soon.]

Article available here.

March 22, 2008 at 12:38 pm Leave a comment


The purpose of this blog is to provide insight into the impact of computer games and pop culture, and effective ways of incorporating the positive surplus into learning experiences.

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