What is the Deal with Video Games and Violence?

In 2004, Lawrence Kutner, PhD, and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, cofounders and directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, started doing research on the effects of video games. With $1.5 million in federal funding from The US Department of Justice, Kutner and Olson set off on an mission to review all of the literature on the subject and then to conduct independent research in order to discover whether there is any real scientific evidence to back up the claim that violence in video games causes real life violence. Their book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do was just released on April 15th. An excerpt of the book is available here from Simon and Schuster.

I have not read this book, but it looks like a good one for parents, educators, and helping professionals concerned about violence in video games and violence in society. Olson and Kutner also share about their personal experiences with video games in the first chapter of the book:

Our Journey as Parents

The prolific scientist and author Isaac Asimov famously stated, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny…’ ” So it shouldn’t be surprising that our first step into what would become several years of full-time research was our casual observations of our son, who liked to play video games.

One of us (Cheryl) is a public health researcher specializing in media influences on health-related behaviors. The other (Larry) is a clinical psychologist and journalist specializing in child development and parent-child communication. We’re old enough to have been teenagers at a time when the few video games available had titles like Pong and Space Invaders. But we’re young enough to feel very comfortable working and playing with computers and other technology.

Neither of us were “gamers” a few years ago; one of us is today. (The other can take it or leave it — a sure sign of a generation gap.) Our teenage son, Michael, had first played simple computer games in childcare when he was about three years old. Those games had crude graphics and agonizingly repetitive (to an adult) music. They involved completing simple tasks, such as lining up an animated fire truck with a mark on the screen so that the cartoon firefighters could rescue a cat in distress. [full text]

ADDENDUM: In response to a parent’s comment on my other site (Kmareka.com) I found this piece that summarizes some of Kutner and Olson’s advice to parents.

From the Psychiatric Times:

Advice for parents

What can clinicians tell parents about the use of video games? First, we all need greater knowledge about the form, content, and epidemiology of video game use, and media in general. Research is needed on whether all violence in games has the same impact; how developmental stages influence game use; whether game play may be a healthy form of sublimation; and how much playing is too much. Second, parents should become familiar with Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) age symbols and “content descriptors” found on game boxes and advertisements. Parents also need to know that potentially important information, such as the context, target, and goals of the violence in their children’s games, is not provided by the ESRB; they may need to ferret out more details to help their children make appropriate choices. The Table presents suggested guidelines that can be offered to parents to help them establish a plan for the use of video games at home.

It should be noted that for most well-adjusted adolescents—who are doing well in school, sports, other extracurricular activities, at home, and with peers—there can be minimal limits on video games. Parents need to consider what is best for the optimal development of their child, commensurate with their own set of values and ideals.

Mental health professionals need greater knowledge about the role and function of media in family life.18 The ubiquitous presence of multimedia content has elevated media literacy from a nice-to-have frill to an important basic skill for our children. Clinicians should routinely incorporate media use (and misuse) in their histories. What exposure is there to television, movies, the Internet, and video games at home? Are these media supervised or unsupervised? What access to media do children have at home and with friends?

Watching or playing for just 1 or 2 hours will probably not provide enough information to understand the content of a game. Checking game reviews and images on a commercial Web site (such as Gamespot.com) can help parents determine whether that game is a good match for their child. Ratings are not enough. For example, the difference between T (teen, for those aged 13 years and older) and M ratings may not be violence, but whether blood and bodies disappear—making violence look clean and consequence-free.

Parents may also visit nonprofit game sites such as Commonsense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org), which offer reviews and evaluations of games, including issues such as sexual content, violence, language, message, social behavior, commercialism, drug/ alcohol/tobacco use, and educational value. The Coalition for Quality Children’s Media, a collaboration among the media industry, educators, and child advocacy organizations (www.kidsfirst. org) can help parents become more familiar with the video games their children are playing. GetNetWise (www. kids.getnetwise.org), a coalition of industry and advocacy groups, offers an online safety guide that provides advice tailored to children’s ages and likely activities (including chat, e-mail instant messaging, and newsgroups). The site also reviews the technologies available to families to restrict access to Internet content.

Finally, parents can help by encouraging critical thinking, including talking to their children about alternative, nonviolent solutions to problems. They can also encourage skepticism; for example, by talking about the consequences of media story lines if they were to happen in real life.