We’re at a point in history when, if gamers are to maintain credibility, we need to acknowledge both the good and bad in our passion. Grand Theft Childhood ($25, Simon & Schuster) by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson is a fair and comprehensive study of games and violence, and we would do well to pay attention to its conclusions.
The good: After thorough research, the team utterly dismisses the outrageous claims about games inspiring real-life violence. For example, gaming gadfly Jack Thompson states outright that since Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho played Counter-Strike in high school, the game was responsible for the acts he committed: “These are real people that are in the ground now because of this game. I have no doubt about it,” Thompson explained. Kutner and Olson, as well as the Virginia Tech Review Panel and the FBI, are having none of it, stating there is no linkage between criminal violence (particularly school shootings) and violent games.
The bad: 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.
Kutner and Olson refuse, however, to make a conclusion about which direction that cause/effect relationship travels. Are aggressive kids drawn to M-rated games, or do the games make them aggressive? Even with their large data set, Kutner and Olson are reluctant to blame games as the sole factor that affects children’s behavior. Logic dictates that no 13-year-old should be playing Grand Theft Auto, the most played game among boys (and the second most played among girls, who preferred The Sims by a slimmer-than-expected margin), simply because they’re not psychologically equipped to parse the violent, amoral, and satiric elements of the series.
Grand Theft Childhood is a refreshing mixture of hard science and common sense. I approached this study expecting more heat than light and came out illuminated. It’s going to be a vital element in the upcoming debates as politicians attempt to score points by cracking down on violence in gaming.