review: Kutner & Olson’s “Grand Theft Childhood”

by on April 14, 2008 · 23 comments

Grand Theft Childhood cover Don’t judge a book by its cover (or its title, for that matter). I’m usually faithful to that maxim, but I must admit that when I first saw the title and cover of “Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do,” I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “here we go again.” I figured that I was in for another tedious anti-gaming screed full of myths and hysteria about games and gamers. Boy, was I wrong. Massively wrong.

Lawrence Kutner, PhD, and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, cofounders and directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, have written the most thoroughly balanced and refreshingly open-minded book about video games ever penned. They cut through the stereotypes and fear-mongering that have thus far pervaded the debate over the impact of video games and offer parents and policymakers common-sense advice about how to approach these issues in a more level-headed fashion. They argue that:

Today, an amalgam of politicians, health professionals, religious leaders and children’s advocates are voicing concerns about video games that are identical to the concerns raised one, two and three generations ago with the introduction of other new media. Most of these people have the best of intentions. They really want to protect children from evil influences. As in the past, a few have different agendas and are using the issue manipulatively. Unfortunately, many of their claims are based on scanty evidence, inaccurate assumptions, and pseudoscience. Much of the current research on violent video games is both simplistic and agenda driven. (p. 55)

They note that these groups, “probably 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 continue:

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 children 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. That should make sense to anyone who thinks about it. After all, millions of children and adults play these games, yet the world has not been reduced to chaos and anarchy. (p. 18)

Exactly. [It’s a point I have been making for many years in essays like “Why Hasn’t Violent Media Turned Us Into a Nation of Killers?” as well as my PFF study on “Fact and Fiction in the Debate Over Video Game Regulation” and my book on “Parental Controls and Online Child Protection.”] They go on to note that many game critics:

…may be asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions. For example, 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. (p. 18)

They point out that some kids who play some games obsessively may indeed be to susceptible to certain negative influences, just as they might from reading certain books or listening to certain speakers. But it would be wrong to generalize this problem and say that all kids are, therefore, equally susceptible to the same influences. They argue that most kids play games—including violent games—for perfectly rational, healthy reasons: to engage escapism or role-playing, for example. Other times, violent themes can be used to convey messages or morals. I love this passage from their chapter on “Why Kids Play Violent Games”:

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.

While the stories and songs may be different, the underlying themes are generally the same in cultures throughout the world. Ogres, monsters, sexual infidelities, beheadings, thievery, abandonment, cannibalism, drownings–such was the stuff of children’s literature long before video games. (p. 118-19)

They conclude, therefore, that “children are drawn to violent themes because listening to and playing with those frightening images helps them safely master the experience of being frightened. This is an important skill, perhaps even a life-saving one.” They also argue that “Video games give free rein to fantasies of power, glory and freedom. That’s quite different from the mundane lives of most children.” (p. 121) In this sense, Kutner and Olson’s argument is very much consistent with the work of Gerald Jones, who wrote the brilliant book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. In that book, Jones argued that:

One of the functions of stories and games is to help children rehearse for what they’ll be in later life. Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions as well—one of which is to enable children to pretend to be just what they know they’ll never be. Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden to them is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.

To some of us, that seems completely sensible and consistent with what we know about child development from our historical experiences. How is it, then, that so many people—including many other psychologists—could think otherwise and make sweeping, outlandish claims about the negative impact of video games on children? Kutner and Olson provide detailed answers in their brilliant chapter on “Science, Nonsense and Common Sense.” I wish I could reprint the whole thing here and make every politician and gaming critic read every word of it because it provides the definitive deconstruction of much of the modern “science” surrounding the impact of violent media on kids and society. They begin by noting that:

Scientific research is like solving a jigsaw puzzle in which you don’t know if you have all the pieces; the pieces that you have can fit together in many different ways and you’re not sure what the finished picture will look like. (p. 57)

And that is more true than ever when the subject of the scientific inquiry is the human brain and the impact of visual media upon it. There are countless other inter-personal and environmental influences that impact the psychological development of a human being, especially a child. How is it that we have allowed some to weave such simplistic causation theories together and blame media for the woes of the world?

Part of the answer lies in the belief that experimental studies conducted in artificial laboratory environments (using noise blasts or small electric shock tests, for example) have produced conclusive proof of a clear causal connection between exposure to violent media and real-world acts of violence or aggression. But Kutner and Olson point out some of the problems with this theory:

[T]he 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. (p. 65)

They also note that lab experiments are rarely compared to real-world data regarding violence or aggression:

For whatever reason, the various experts who cited the 1990s increase in crime as evidence of harm from media violence are not rushing to take back those statements in the face of reduced crime or the more direct explanations for the temporary rise. Nor are they addressing the dramatic growth in the popularity of video games, including violent video games, during the years when crime rates were plummeting. (p. 61)

The also point out that:

Violent video game play is extremely common, and violent crime is extremely rare. This makes it tough to document whether and how violent video and computer games contribute to serious violence… Criminals are also much more likely to have past exposure to other factors, such as poverty, alcoholism, family violence or parental neglect, that are know contributors to violent behavior. (p. 66)

And there are other problems regarding who is studied in these experiments and how they are studied. Most obviously, when you are dealing with the study of children, it is difficult to get parental permission to involve them in the study. This leads to questions about the sample group, how they were chosen and what we know about them and their pasts. Also, because children are the subjects of study, their developmental limitations also create unique difficulties. Kutner and Olson note that:

[Kids] don’t read and write as well as adults do. They get bored and make things up. They have trouble remembering or estimating potentially important things, such as how many hours they play video games during a typical week. At what age can kids be expected to fill out questionnaires or give accurate responses? Can older kids accurately recall what they not only last week, but what they did a few years earlier? (p. 67-8)

Moreover, can we trust that they are always telling the truth, or are they tailoring their responses and actions to what they believe the researchers want them to say or do? Having been a subject in several experiments during some college psychology classes back in the mid-80s, I remember how some of my colleagues and I would often leave the laboratory and joke about how we essentially told the researchers what they wanted to hear just to get our $20 bucks and get out of there quicker. In most cases, we caught on to the hypothesis they were trying to test pretty quickly, and that influenced the decisions we made or the answers we provided. This works the same way with kids. If you sit them in a room and show them a video of a guy punching a Bobo clown doll in head and then put those kids in a room full of a bunch of Bobo dolls, sure enough, a lot of them will pop the Bobo dolls in the nose. No duh, right! That’s pretty much all those Bobo dolls were made for; getting popped in the nose! Shockingly, however, early studies of media violence used this method and jumped to sweeping “monkey see–monkey do” conclusions about the impact of television and movies on the aggressive behavior of children in society. How could educated people believe such drivel?

In other words, there are complicated and controversial issues surrounding laboratory experiments in terms of WHO and WHAT is being studied and HOW it will be studied or measured. That leads to some of the problems mentioned above, especially when noise blasts or the punching of Bobo dolls in a lab environment are extrapolated to account for complicated real-world effects that could have multiple influences / causes.

Finally, what about the video game industry’s responsibility to parents? And what about the gaming industry’s private rating and labeling body, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Kutner and Olson discuss many of the same industry-provided parental control tools that I have summarized in my book on the issue. And they have some suggestions for how the ESRB’s rating process might be tweaked and potentially improved, but they also rightly note that:

No [rating] system will ever be able to scrutinize and label all potentially offensive or upsetting content. The more complicated a system becomes, the less likely busy parents are to understand it and to actually use it. Given the constraints, we thing the ESRB has done a good job. (p. 186)

That’s in line with my own conclusions, as I noted in this essay on “Video Games, Ratings & Transparency“:

What critics consistently forget—or perhaps intentionally ignore—is that media rating and content-labeling efforts are not an exact science; they are fundamentally subjective exercises. Ratings are based on value judgments made by humans who all have somewhat different values. Those doing the rating are being asked to evaluate artistic expression and assign labels to it that provide the rest of us with some rough proxies about what is in that particular piece of art, or what age group should (or should not) be consuming it. In a sense, therefore, all rating systems will be inherently “flawed” since humans have different perspectives and values that they will use to label or classify content.

Much ink is spilled over how rating systems can be improved. Everyone seems to have their own ideas about what “the best” system would look like. But, at the end of the day, someone has to (1) create a standard and (2) enforce it as broadly as possible so that (3) the public accepts and uses it. The ESRB has done that quite effectively in my opinion. In fact, in many ways, although it is the newest of all industry content rating and labeling schemes, the video game industry’s system is in many ways the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective ratings system ever devised by any major media sector in America. Is it perfect? Of course not. Improvements can always be made, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the ESRB system (1) is highly descriptive, (2) rates virtually all game content sold today, and (3) is widely understood and used by game consumers and parents today. We should not underestimate that accomplishment.

Kutner and Olson also provide a litany of other useful tips and strategies for parents who are worried about their children’s exposure to certain games, or just how much time they spend playing games. But they conclude with the following sage advice:

For most kids and most parents, the bottom-line results of our research can be summed up in a single word: relax. While concerns about the effects of violent video games are understandable, they’re basically no different from the unfounded concerns previous generations had about the new media of their day. Remember, we’re a remarkably resilient species. (p. 229)


I highly recommend Kutner and Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood. It is must-reading for anyone who is serious about studying the debate over video games, child development and the public policy surrounding them. It is the most sensible thing ever penned on the subject.

[Note: The authors have also developed this user-friendly website to accompany the book. It does a nice job of summarizing many of the myths they address and debunk in the book, but make sure to buy the book, too.]

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