Two Harvard researchers have sought to turn conventional wisdom on video games on its head. Violent games do not necessarily make monsters out of children, they argue.
Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, a husband-and-wife team at Harvard Medical School, detail their views in 'Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do.'
Their claims have provoked a lot of criticism in the West. But they are insistent their methodology is sound and hence their findings valid.
The pair said they reached that conclusion after conducting a two-year study of more than 1,200 middle-school children about their attitudes towards videogames.
It was a different approach from most other studies, which had focused on laboratory experiments that attempt to use actions like ringing a loud buzzer as a measure of aggression.
"What we did that had rarely been done by other researchers was actually talk to the kids. It sounds bizarre but it hadn't been done," Kutner said.
But the data did show a link between playing mature-rated games and aggressive behavior. The researchers found that 51% of boys who played M-rated games — the industry's equivalent of an R-rated movie, meaning suitable for ages 17 and up — had been in a fight in the past year, compared to 28% of non-M-rated gamers.
The pattern was even stronger among girls, with 40% of those who played M-rated games having been in a fight in the past year, compared to just 14% for non-M players. One of the most surprising things was how popular mature games were among girls. In fact, the 'Grand Theft Auto' crime action series was the second-most played game behind 'The Sims', a sort of virtual dollhouse.
They also found that playing videogames was a near-universal activity among children, and was often intensely social, nothing anti-social, please.
They found that the preteens and young teenagers they surveyed weren't interested in violent games per se. They were attracted to games because they had complex plots, interesting characters and engaging environments. It just so happens that many of the games that meet those criteria also include violence. But they did not like to play purely violent games like Postal or Manhunt because they found them boring.
Cheryl Olson goes to the extent of observing, "I personally do not know of a case of a child hurting someone due to copying a violent game, and we definitely know that children are far more influenced by the real people in their lives."
They seek to draw a parallel to concerns over violence in TV shows. Kutner said, during a discussion, "It's interesting that no one these days is advocating that television news stop reporting on violent crime because children might copy it. Yet those concerns were raised a generation ago with respect to the violence in comic books, and several generations ago with gangster films. There were great concerns in the 1950s that comics would turn teenage boys into rapists and in the 1930s that adolescents would blow up trains all over North America...."
But nothing of that sort happened. More important, the couple found the kids they surveyed were acutely aware of what was fantasy and what was real.
One of the things they said that they really liked about the games they played was the "unreality" of the game environments.
"It gives them a chance to do things that they're unlikely to do in the real world, whether it's being a secret agent or being the coach of an NFL team....They told us that one of the things they learned from playing M-rated violent games was that engaging in criminal activity has bad consequences. They said that they would never engage in these behaviours in the real world because of both what they believed in and the consequences of these actions," Kutner said.
Coming down hard on campaigners against violent games, Kutner said, "The melodramatic claims by some pundits and politicians about violent video games turning typical children and teenagers into violent or antisocial people in the real world simply don't hold water. We need to get beyond those simplistic statements.
"It's much easier to position yourself as a politician who will "protect innocent young children from this evil corporate monster" than to deal effectively with core issues that we know are associated with real-world violence, such as poverty, violence in the home, dangerous neighbourhoods, and so forth."
So what is their message? One can afford to let one's children spend hours before the console playing, burning, killing, smashing to their heart's content?
No, wait, their findings are nuanced they claim.
"Note that our research focused on basically healthy children attending public schools. If your child has developmental delays, a very aggressive temperament, emotional issues or difficulty perceiving context (such as sarcasm), games may affect them differently.
"If your child is playing games alone for hours, this could be a sign of problems such as depression — some children "self-medicate" with games to forget their troubles. If your child's time with games is out of balance with the rest of his/her life, that's a concern.
"For most young teens, moderate amount of game play, and occasionally playing violent games, are a normal part of childhood today," they say.
That is one way of protecting themselves against the charge they are speaking up for the vide games industry.
Larry Kutner is the author of five previous books about child psychology while Cheryl K. Olson is a public health researcher and practitioner and was the principal investigator of the first federally funded, large-scale research project in the U.S. to take an in-depth look at the effects of electronic games on preteens and teenagers.