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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.

GrandTheftChildhood.com“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.

GameSpot.com

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.

5 comments

1 Bernard { 05.18.08 at 5:11 pm }

Just play the game before you comment. I’m not saying that your opinion will change, but don’t be so ignorant about what you’re talking about. Do me that favor…will ya?

The Xbox 360 has great parental controls, timers to keep children from playing video games all day long, and it has to be played on a TV…a TV that can be monitored by parents. This game is for adults, it’s just too bad that most parents would rather the government, the ESRB, and video game companies actually PARENT their children.

2 Sean { 05.18.08 at 5:42 pm }

The issue of video game violence is a non-issue. To assume that your children are just empty sponges waiting to be filled with whatever evils a dreaded videogame may fill them with is a level of disrespect bordering on child abuse.

This may come as a shock to most of you but your children are not stupid. I want to say that GTA is a game NOT MEANT FOR CHILDREN. If you let your kids play it, it’s your own problem, not mine, not the ESRB’s, and certainly not the media’s. I know that’s been said repeatedly since the days of D&D, but no one seems to listen so forgive me for repeating it. I suppose the fact that it mentions crime in the title doesn’t give it away.

Secondly, violence does not necessarily pidgeonhole a game as being for mature audiences. In fact, maturity has nothing to do with it. Many violent games, movies, and books that I enjoyed when I was a kid I can’t stand today. Why? I was a kid. Kids like gross things, they like violence. It’s not escapism, it’s not cathartic, its just the way it is. Get over yourselves and stay the hell off of my tv. I’m sick of this debate.

3 muhazir { 05.19.08 at 3:01 am }

do the best for your children. don’t care…let him play the game

4 Peter { 05.19.08 at 5:04 am }

would like to know who funded their research, of course.

5 Ace { 05.20.08 at 3:16 am }

It was funded by the US Dept of Justice. They had reseachers such as child and adolescent psychiatry, adult psychiatry, public health, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, educational psychology, public policy and an evolutionary biologist. There was no politics involved. No hidden agenda, no Republican or Democrat influences nor any liberal or conservative point of view. ACTUAL SCIENTISTS DOING REAL RESEARCH, but most importantly unbiased in their research and the results they received. Read the book, it’s awesome.

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