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.
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.
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.
In 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.
In 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 specifically 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.