In the preceding GamePolitics article we covered University of Michigan Professor Brad Bushman’s criticism of Grand Theft Childhood.
The book, written by Harvard researchers Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, downplays the effects of video game violence on adolescent behavior.
We also contacted the authors for comment on Bushman’s attack on Grand Theft Childhood. Dr. Cheryl Olson shared these thoughts (and provided several of the links):
I don’t mind other researchers criticizing my work as long as they don’t engage in personal attacks… Brad Bushman is absolutely entitled to air his views.
Unfortunately, Dr. Bushman has some of his facts mixed up. In the 2001 Surgeon General’s report on youth violence, exposure to TV violence was actually near the bottom of the list of influences on real-world violence – so low that it was relegated to an appendix!
He theorizes that teens are more likely to identify with video game characters than TV or movie characters. That’s plausible, but I could just as easily argue the opposite; boys told us repeatedly in focus groups that they enjoying taking the bad guy role in a video game specifically because they don’t want to behave that way in real life. Also, because video games require active control and participation, players are constantly reminded that the game is merely a game.
Dr. Bushman’s statement that video games directly reward violence is only partly accurate; anyone who actually plays video games knows that players are not always rewarded for acting violently, and in fact are often penalized immediately or later on (even in parts of Grand Theft Auto IV). The content and consequences in video games are extremely varied, which is one reason that studying their influence is so difficult.
Finally, regarding his experimental study of Dutch teenagers playing a game for 20 minutes in a lab: Those teens are fully aware that no researcher will allow them to act in a way that causes permanent physical harm to someone. Dr. Bushman may be a bit too credulous – a view that is supported by a quote from that Surgeon General’s report.
Co-author Dr. Lawrence Kutner added:
I respect Dr. Bushman and his work. We even complimented him on p.84 of our book for his research on the effects of Biblical violence… In this case, however, I believe that his logic is faulty.
Our research is on video games and real-world violent behaviors. His reply is about television violence and various measures of aggression. We call some of that research into question in our book, as well. But even so, we’re talking about apples and he’s talking about oranges.
Finally, I’m disturbed by his unwarranted and cynical first-sentence description of children "with summer vacation giving them the freedom to play their favorite video games hour after hour." This reinforces that myth that all children are helpless in the face of the temptation of video games, and plays into the games’ characterization as inherently bad, even evil.
Video games are a medium, just as books, music and films are media. Our research showed that teen gamers had an appreciation for and strong interest in plot, character development, and graphic techniques when they played video games, and that these were far more important than violent content when it came to selecting their favorite games.
If a child were to spend the summer only playing video games, I would see that as a likely sign of deeper problems (e.g., significant emotional issues, a poverty of options in the community, etc.) I would have the same concerns about a child who spends the summer only reading novels or only playing basketball.) But the vast majority of kids will play video games along with a range of other activities.
Are there things we should be concerned about with respect to video games? Absolutely. We need to do more research on those teenagers and young adults who are behaving violently in the real world, and who are engaging in criminal activities, to see if and how video games might play a role in either contributing to or predicting these behaviors. We need to be concerned about subtle shifts in values and in perceptions of the world that a range of media, including video games, may cause.
Mostly, we need to start thinking about and exploring these issues in a more sophisticated and nuanced way.