Crispy Gamer

Print Screen: "Grand Theft Childhood"

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If there was an annual prize for making gamers feel better about their hobby, Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson would probably have the 2008 award locked up already. "Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games" has been heavily promoted on gaming blogs for months, even though it only became available from Amazon in late March. The book tells gamers what they've suspected and talked about for years: Violent videogames aren't as terrible as much of the hyped media studies research would have you believe. Even if gamers already knew this stuff, it's always nice to have scientists on your side.

Kutner and Olson are research psychiatrists based at Massachusetts General Hospital and both are Harvard faculty members. They are also husband and wife, parents of a teenage boy who, like most teenage boys, plays videogames. Motivated by both personal and professional interest, they were curious about the impact of violent games on their son. The punch line, already well-known in the gaming world, is that the assumed research consensus on the connection between violent games and violent children rests on conflation of other media results, poorly designed studies, and asking the wrong questions to begin with.

The authors spend a lot of time on how to conduct a proper research study, chapters that many people will skip over in favor of the chapter on how gaming is just the latest target of crusaders to protect the children, or in favor of the chapter on how politicians keep fighting against the clear constitutional protection afforded games in the United States. But the research chapters are the core sections of the book. Here is where Kutner and Olson show a mainstream audience what a good research study looks like.

The chapter works especially well because they are under no illusions that their own research is able to overcome all the problems with studying the effects of violent media on children. How do you isolate cause and effect? Can you rely on the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to provide accurate descriptors for research purposes? Not all children are equally articulate or honest. What should be the statistical significance level; i.e., at what point do you interpret your findings as not the product of chance?

Of course, these are the types of questions that should be asked of all games research, not just that which criticizes violence in games. (Gamers are notorious for praising every flimsy research finding that tells them what they want to hear while decrying any finding that might make games an object of fear.) So when the authors take care to qualify all their results, it gives the reader some confidence that they know how tenuous anything they say about children will be.

One of these tenuous findings is that there may be a connection between "excessively playing" M-rated games and aggression, but not the type of aggression that people most talk about. There is no proven connection between school shootings and violent gaming, but the authors do suspect a link between M-rated play and bullying. Does this mean that bullies are more likely to play M-rated games or that M-rated games lead to bullying? They're not sure, and the connection is not significant to the high limit they set themselves (less than one percent chance of the finding being random). Plus, there are differences between boys and girls; boys who don't game at all are more likely to be in trouble because gaming is social in teenagers. It is a currency of conversation, and isolation from this social scene could indicate other adjustment issues.

It is important to note that Kutner and Olson are not entirely dismissive of the effects of sustained game exposure on 13-year-olds. The sub-subtitle of the book is "And What Parents Can Do," and the final chapter is a list of recommendations on how parents should deal with the issue. If there wasn't any problem at all, then this chapter would certainly not be necessary, and the recommendations are as much about media literacy and product awareness as they are about violence. The authors spend time on how corporations use games to target children as consumers. They talk about racial and gender stereotypes in games. Obesity is, naturally, a concern. You could sum up the book's argument as "Games can be part of a balanced diet." Their concern isn't games as games, but games as part of an unstructured media consumption lifestyle. That is where parents can and should intervene.

The book isn't perfect. It repeats the now tired and inaccurate story that the Christian-themed Left Behind game is primarily about gunning down non-believers. The authors conclude that the ESRB is the best we've got, in spite of all the criticisms that they concede are accurate and relevant. And the shift from a discussion of violent games to one of gaming in general for the closing chapters is so abrupt, the studies of media violence are examined with a fine-toothed comb while the studies on advertising or racial imagery and children are passed over without comment.

"Grand Theft Childhood" is, overall, a valuable contribution to the public debate over the consequences of new media on children. More importantly, it's a valuable contribution to scientific literacy, going into great detail on how social science research works. It is also a great relief to have someone on either side of the debate put gamer arch-nemesis Jack Thompson in proper perspective; he is relegated to two brief mentions. In the big picture, he's just not that important.

As valuable as Kutner and Olson's work is, it is very unlikely to make any difference whatsoever. As they demonstrate in their historical chapter, attitudes towards new media are shaped by cultural conservatism, fear and demographics. Violent youth crime declined as games became the pastime of choice for most young men, but this has done nothing to halt the efforts to find that magic law that both restricts access to violent games and passes constitutional muster. Psychosocial science has, in general, been a sideshow at moments of imagined crisis; two Harvard psychologists can't turn the tide of sensationalist cable news hypochondria.

In Other Words

David Hadju's "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is the perfect companion piece to "Grand Theft Childhood." In America's postwar period, media hysteria over crime comics was fueled by pseudo-science and forced comics into the realm of juvenilia, a ghetto they would not escape for decades. Hadju does more than simply repeat the familiar tale of how Fredric Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocent" alerted parents to the homoerotic overtones in "Batman" and "Wonder Woman." He talks about how the comics industry was unable to defeat the push for self-censorship and what the fight against comics tells us about mass culture.

Most importantly, Hadju tells the story of Wertham, an educated man with good motives who saw something he did not understand or appreciate and convinced himself of its inherent wickedness. "Grand Theft Childhood" tells this same story in a couple of pages; "The Ten-Cent Plague" gives you the complete account.

"Grand Theft Childhood" is published by Simon & Schuster. This review is based on a copy purchased by the writer.