Grand Theft Childhood Authors Respond to U of Michigan Prof’s Criticism

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.


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  1. Mr. Blond ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Does anyone have some ointment for the burn Bushman just got?

    Sadly, though, many parents will only stop at Bushman’s side, and will ignore or shoot down Olson and Kutner. Also, groups like Common Sense Media and Commercial Free Childhood will do some selective display and only show Bushman’s comments, and omit the rebuttal.

  2. Paul Farinelli says:

    Aw, good to see Kutner responded to Jack’s idiotic little speech in a more mature nuanced way. Too bad that’s not quite the response he deserves.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dr. Bushman: "Second, players of violent video games are more likely to identify with a violent character. If the game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer. If the game is third person, the player controls the actions of the violent character from a more distant visual perspective. In either case, the player is linked to a violent character."

    It would be great if people would take into consideration the context of the games violence.  Many games have you playing as a protagonist.  They are violent because someone is trying to kill them, or blow up the world.  You are trying to stop them and often you can only do that by killing them.  Its not all that different in the real world when trying to stop evil people.

    "Third, violent games directly reward violent behavior".  Again, when I am the good guy I am rewarded by saving the world, universe, friends…etc.

    Is violence in defense of oneself bad?  Or what about violence that is an attempt at bringing about good events.  It seems if the argument is that kids will identify with the violent game character then they will also identify with the game characters morals.  In most games its good vs. bad.  Although GTA gives you the choice to do terrible things Niko does want to protect his friends and family and the storyline has him killing other bad guys.

    I am also curious how his experiment was conducted.  Were the boys sitting in a room and randomly blasting each other with sound?  Or did one boy start something and the others responded.  When they realized they didnt go deaf did they maybe keep going thinking it was fun?  The first time you go skydiving you will be very worried about it, but you do it once and the fear goes away and it becomes a lot of fun.

    There are many ways to explain this behavior.

  4. Paul Farinelli says:

    Oh God, is the only way that you can argue with the authors of Grand Theft Childhood to call them "retarded"? You are such a fool, and no I don’t mind calling someone such as yourself that.

  5. KayleL says:

    That is what I call ‘Terrorist or Freedom Fighter Controversy’. People are going to be one side, or the other. They would be defencive, and ignore the other side.

  6. James Gunn, un-hypocritical truthsayer, and you're not says:

    Sigh… Jack, you are really making my head ache with the levels of stupid you exude…

    No one is saying that the first amendment should be "shredded", except you…

    Why would i want censorship? I like my games, I like living in a semi-libertarian democracy, i like looking at "obscene" images of naked women, i like being able to express my views…

    In fact, most of us here detest you two reasons; your a lying, egotistical, opportunistic S.O.B, that represents the Christian religion at its worst, and you have a hypocritical attitude towards the first amendment; e.g. screw other peoples right to speech, except I, John Bruce "The Messiah" Thompson…

    So seriously, enough with the double-think, we arent the one’s trying to destroy the 1st amendment, you are… you want unconstitutional restrictions on a form of speech, we dont. We arent the bookburners.

    And before you say all that hateful bile about your "mistreatment" at the hands of the florida bar, comparing them, dennis, the readers at this site, industry "schills", to Hitler, Goebbels and nazi skinheads, saying how hard done by you are, remember this, the issue with the bar wasnt about your 1st amendment rights, it was your deceitfulness, ad-hominem attacks, and poor conduct as a lawyer. You broke bar regulations. Essentially, you are not the messiah, you are a very naughty boy!

    No-one is saying stimuli around us doesnt affect us, but that its highly unlikely that video games have any effect on people. A person who goes and commits a violent crime isnt doing it because of video games, they are more likely doing it because they have an illness, were neglected, live in poverty, were under the influence of drugs, were ostracised and humiliated socially, etc. Its quite simple what is being put across by the Cheryl Olson, and Lawrence Kutner, this is not a case of black and white causation, that children will become more violent playing violent games.

  7. Conejo says:

    Doctors Olsen, Kutner

    you have just convinced me that i need to own a copy of your book.

    Here are we — and yonder yawns the universe.

  8. mogbert says:

    Dang these guys are awesome. Even in rebuttal, these guys sound more in control and more professional then those naysaying them.

    In all circumstances I can think of, real world observations trump those of labratory observations. It’s all well and good that in labs we come up with "X causes Y", but if you get in the real world and X seems to be inversly proportional to Y, then the studies need to be looked at for signs of bias.

  9. Kincyr says:

    "you are not the messiah, you are a very naughty boy!"

    Monty Python reference FTW!

    岩「…Ace beats Jack」

  10. Paul Farinelli says:

    I promise you all, now that Kutner has responded to JT’s little tirade against them, you will not see him posting in this story again. He’d rather call them names behind their backs; he’s not the type who’d know how to actually counter their points with logical arguments, the only weapon he has is name calling, misrepresentation, and gross exaggeration.

  11. TBoneTony ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Real world study trumps scientific lab study

    That is because children who play videogames are real people, NOT animals.

    Grand Theft Childhood took Videogames out of the science lab and into the real world study, GREAT JOB GUYS!!!!


    And stuff you Jack,

  12. Anonymous says:

    So when you crack at having been disbarred and take out a number of people with a gun … will it be because of the video games you keep buying and taking pictures of, or because of the violent Biblical passages you keep reading over and over again?

    I’d like to know which blame game you’re going to be pulling by year’s end. Thanks!

  13. Let me make an observation that is so obvious and so rational that of course no game addicts would get it:  If ideas and images and concepts don’t matter–don’t influence anyone to do anything–then why in Hell did Olson and Kutner write a book anyway.  Because, hey, nobody is influenced in any fashion by anything, right?   Ideas don’t matter?  The video game industry buys advertising, which includes images, even though it couldn’t possibly influence anyone to buy a game, right?

    This is why Olson and Kutner are in effect retarded as logicians.


    Mr. Thompson, you’re setting up and attacking a straw man. We make no such statements about media having no behavioral effects. In fact, our research was the first to show a dose-response relationship for playing M-rated games and having some common behavioral problems. (I recommend that you read the book before attacking its contents.)

    What we object to are simplistic conclusions about a cause-and-effect relationship between playing violent video games and real world violent behaviors among typical teenagers when those conclusions go well beyond the data. We also object to the leaps of faith in much of the questionable experimental research on video game effects, the confusion of aggressive thoughts, aggressive actions and violent behaviors as outcome variables, and the unquestioned extrapolation from decades-old television research to video game behavioral results.

    It’s this low level of analysis that leads to the name-calling and ad hominem attacks from both sides of the pro-game and anti-game rift. I can excuse it much more easily when these words come from impassioned but naive teenagers than when they come from adults who are professionals and should be functioning at a higher level of discourse.

    Calling two Harvard-affiliated researchers "retarded" does not advance your case. Neither does referring to the supposed irrationality of "game addicts." This is not the more sophisticated and nuanced thinking that I referred to above.

  14. Jack Thompson, Attorney ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Let me make an observation that is so obvious and so rational that of course no game addicts would get it:  If ideas and images and concepts don’t matter–don’t influence anyone to do anything–then why in Hell did Olson and Kutner write a book anyway.  Because, hey, nobody is influenced in any fashion by anything, right?   Ideas don’t matter?  The video game industry buys advertising, which includes images, even though it couldn’t possibly influence anyone to buy a game, right?

    The First Amendment can be shredded because, hey, communications of all kinds have no impact and are of no consequence, so let’s ban them because the marketplace of ideas and images and stimuli, in whatever form, move no one to do anything, right?

    This is why Olson and Kutner are in effect retarded as logicians.  They say that ideas have no consequences, and that is an idea they are pushing.  They are absurdists, and only Bushman carries the day because his position is that what you put into your head can indeed affect what you think and what you do.  What a concept:   A brain actually works.

    Olson and Kutner, you embarrass yourselves.  Jack Thompson



  15. Andrew Eisen says:

    It amazes me that I have to explain this to you.

    No one is saying that ideas, images, and concepts have no influence or bearing on an individual’s decision making.  Of course they do, but they do not force anyone to behave in any particular way.  How an individual interprets and acts on information is that person’s choice and responsibility.

    Commercials don’t force people to buy products.

    Books don’t force people to believe certain ideas.

    Violent imagery doesn’t force people to behave violently.


    Andrew Eisen

  16. Rodrigo Ybáñez García says:

    Jack, you can´t even face the fact there is people who actually desagree with you, even if they believe that children must be protected from violent video games, too.

    You are the one who lives in a fantasy world, not any of us. You are not a functional human being. Please get help.

    —————————————————————————- The cynical side of videogames (spanish only):

  17. black manta says:

    So your response to Olson and Kutner’s work, two people who happen to be a lot more educated and sensible than you, is to simply write them off by calling them "retarded?"  Classic, Jack.  Just classic.

    Jack, you can deny what this book says all you want.  The fact of the matter is it blows away everything you, Bushman, Grossman and all the others have ever said about video games.  You know it and you just can’t stand it.  So like the child you are, you lash out.

    I like to think that holding a copy of this book in front of you would have the same effect of holding up a crucifix in front of a vampire; as you’d cringe and hiss as you back away from the Truth that you absolutely cannot stand.

  18. Erik ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Hey, lets turn Jack’s ignorant misinformed logic back on him!


    Okay, so Jack says that if someone hears or sees something in a medium then they are bound to repeat that action, as though they had no free will.  Ergo what if Jack didn’t predict Columbine, but instead caused it.  Perhaps Dylan and Klebold heard him talking about violence and Jack’s words forced them to be violent.  Therefore seeing as Jack talks about violence a lot, he very well should be held accountable.


    Quick Jack, better sue yourself.  Its the one case you might actually win.


  19. Kincyr says:

    the same can be said about your holy bible Jack. By your logic, your religion is fake.

    岩「…Ace beats Jack」

  20. GRIZZAM PRIME says:

    Wow, that was one awesome strawman! You realize that that’s totally not what they said, right? Nobody here has ever said that videogames have NO effect. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be speech. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be interested in them. What the book says is that games do not lead to real world violence. Not even Bushman said that. He said that videogames lead to agression (in the form of noise blasts). As with most studies like his, he fails to criticize and check his own work, as well as properly state how long these supposed increases last. Are they permanent or temporary? The other criticisms were layed down by Olson and Kutner, so I won’t need to go over those. Oh, and resorting to calling everyone retards just makes you sound like a retard. Very nice. Very very nice.


    -If shit and bricks were candy and tits, we’d all be livin’ large. For information on games and psychology, look up: Jonathan Freedman(2002)Block & Crain(2007)Grand Theft Childhood, by Harvard Medical School researchers Larry Kutner and Cheryl Olson

  21. Shoehorn O'Plenty says:

    "communications of all kinds have no impact and are of no consequence"


    The myriad of communications from the Florida Bar, in particular the one about requiring your subsequent filings being approved and signed by another Bar member, certainly had no impact on you…


    "If ideas and images and concepts don’t matter–don’t influence anyone to do anything–then why in Hell did Olson and Kutner write a book anyway."

    Ideas and concepts do matter and influence, the problem is that uneducated plebs like yourself jump to conclusions about how they influence people. They wrote the book to address that.

  22. DavCube ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    That’s because they’re not spreading ‘ideas,’ Mr. Thompson. They’re spreading FACTS. Not that you’d care about little things like ‘truth,’ ‘justice,’ ‘the American way,’ ‘christianity,’ or anything disastrous in this world that doesn’t have you at its epicenter.

  23. Deadman Reaper says:

    "What a concept:   A brain actually works."

    Your Right a brain actually does work………EXCEPT in your case jack these gentleman have actual hard work and research behind them you have lies and half truths hmmm who am I going to believe??????

  24. Anonymous says:

    Keep in mind that the Surgeon General of the United States in 2001 was David Satche, who IIRC, came by the placement because Clinton fired Elders because she disagreed with his views…


    Screams credibility, I know.

  25. tallimar says:

    dr kutner: "Mostly, we need to start thinking about and exploring these issues in a more sophisticated and nuanced way."

    Very well said doctor. *applauds*

  26. Anonymous says:

    If these two were in the room at the moment, I would give both a hug and offer to buy them drinks at the nearest bar. Seriously I’ve been waiting for someone offical to say things to this effect.

  27. kurisu7885 (can't log in) says:

    "a poverty of options in the community"

    This is a major problem in my own community, and anythign there is to do isn’t in a reachable distance, or you have to pay for it, or it’s over crowded. I’m willing to bet my community isn’t the only one with this problem. You give kids something to do, they are less likely to cause trouble, and those who do still cause trouble would have regardless

  28. Timmay! says:

    That’s the same problem we have in my town.  I try to run some youth activities through my church, but there’s only so much we can do.  I see the same kids all the time sitting around on a street corner, or the stoop of a store when it’s closed later at night, I see the same kids walking around town, just aimlessly wandering the streets.  They do absolutely nothing all day, I don’t see them at the park playing basketball, I don’t see them skateboarding on the sidewalks or the streets, they just stand there or sit there.  This are the ones I worry about, they’re the ones who are more likely to do something destructive when they get tired of doing nothing.

    Every time I see them I wonder if they have anything they could be doing at home, readnig a book, watching TV or a movie, playing a videogame.  And you’re 100% right, the kids who want to start trouble will start trouble regardless of what options they have.  Kids and teens are more likely to cause trouble when they’re in a group with nothing to do..

  29. CyberSkull says:

     Even in a well off suburb like the one I grew up in, there wasn’t a lot going on. Is it any wonder that I became a hardcore gamer?

  30. Arashi says:

    I think that Dr. Bushman can open his mouth and put his foot in it now.  Kutner and Olson rang loud and clear on this.

  31. CK20XX says:

    What I like most about this response is how prompt it is.  I love to see authors on the ball like that, ready to protect their works and those influenced by them.

    Perhaps what Dr. Bushman is trying to say is that everything we see and experience becomes part of us and will affect us in some way.  And that’s true, if I may try to give him credit as a researcher and concerned individual.

    But …hm… you know… why is it that most people who oppose video games are so afraid if them?  That’s so… so… primal.

  32. To avoid confusion, here is the specific part of the Surgeon General’s report Appendix that I was quoting to suggest that Dr. Bushman was too quick to believe comments made by teens in his experimental lab-based study. (See the last sentence in particular):

    Although the experimental methods used in these studies enable researchers to test causality more readily than other research methods, the findings may not necessarily apply to all real-world settings. Because experiments are narrowly focused on testing specific causal hypotheses, they do not examine the effects of all factors that might be present in more realistic situations. This means that some real-world influences might actually lessen or even eliminate the aggressive reactions observed in experiments. For example, while television, film, and other media contain a variety of antisocial and other messages, most laboratory studies to date have exposed study participants primarily to violent materials. In addition, participants may react differently in the laboratory when they realize that their expressions of aggression will not be punished. Any summary of these experimental results should also acknowledge the argument raised by some critics that many study participants provide the responses they believe the researcher wants.

  33. Austin_Lewis says:

    Very good work, I must say.  Dr Bushman was quick to comment and slow to think it through, methinks.  Also, thanks for that link, I need it for other works.

  34. Clever ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    "In addition, participants may react differently in the laboratory when they realize that their expressions of aggression will not be punished"

    Would it not also be logical to say that subjects assume a degree of safety in a laboratory setting that might allow for more far reaching behaviours that wouldn’t occur elsewhere? In the example Dr. Bushman gave of having his subjects blast others with a loud noise, I think it would be fair to say that their thinking may have been more along the lines of "There’s no way this bloke in the white coat will actually allow something bad to happen so I’ll give it a go…" rather than "I’m going to destroy this guy’s ears!" I wonder how easy he made the choice not to perform the task… If we take his sample size as being reflective of the population as a whole and his outcome as evidence of a propencity for excessively malicious behaviour then we would expect to see, as is the case with most other "vidja games kill" research, the entire planet ruled by teenage gangs ala some sort of Mad Max apocolypse. Obviously I’m not qualified to analyze someone else’s work – I’m just a lowly game developer after all – but it would seem he’s failed to properly sterilize the lab environment from what he assumes are real world outcomes…

  35. gamepolitics says:

    GP: Thanks for adding that. I left your citation from the SG report out of the story for space reasons, so I’m glad you jumped on here to help clarify your point.

  36. Kincyr says:

    "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."


    岩「…Ace beats Jack」

  37. Rodrigo Ybáñez García says:

    The "you are retard" defense is the only tactic Jack knows. And it is like a pair of googles… they do nothing!

    —————————————————————————- The cynical side of videogames (spanish only):

  38. Anonymous says:

    That’s if this nose goblin is even the real Jack Thompson…Post doesn’t have the characteristic slashes, the ending "Attorney, and you’re not", no talk about his all improtant "award" he is receiving tomorrow…I’m calling bull**** on this one.

  39. BearDogg-X says:

    Dr. Kutner, that is what we call "ownage".

    Jack Thompson simply refuses to practice what he preaches about "growing up and getting a life".

    Hell, that’s why he’s losing his law license for ten years later this summer.

  40. Quinlyn says:

    Dr Kutner…

    Thank you for taking the time to write a response here.

    I also wanted to thank you for taking the time to actually look into this issue and finally give a face of a reasonable human being looking at the facts.  We who play video games are always seen as juvenile, uneducated and "game addicts" by the main stream media as well as specific lawyers from Florida.  We have lived through taunts, insults and pretty much every form of humiliation because of our chosen hobby.  While in no way am I trying to recruit you to the dark side of video gaming – thank you for having an open mind and conducting a study without a preconceived notion of the outcome.

    Many of us gamers are very passionate about our hobby mainly because we have been so misrepresented in the main stream media.  A perfect example would be the "Sex-box" scandal that Fox News reported.  People like Jack Thompson and others in the main stream are always looking for ways to turn what we see as a recreational past time into a evil vile entity, a corruptor of the innocent and destroyer of worlds.  We get frustrated and I will admit sometimes are unable to express that frustration in a manner that promotes dialouge rather than conflict.

    Not sure if you will ever see this or read it but know that there is someone out there that thanks you for your efforts.

    Also – I really have to laugh at the way you professionally responded to such an immature post by someone who is supposed to be a professional :).


    Quinlyn 🙂

  41. Anonymous says:

    This, I’m afraid, Dr Kutner, is typical Thompson, the man only understands the term ‘professional’ in a ‘I’m not going to be…’ kind of way.

    As for the insults and vague ‘hints’, that’s all he’s got left, but then, I’m not certain if that isn’t all that he had in the first place.

    I’ve lost count of how many years he has acted like this, but I’m sincerely looking forward to some adult conversation of the role of Media in our childrens lives once he is disbarred.

  42. PHOENIXZERO says:

    Similar in my area too, even better is that the town was going to build a youth/community center but then built a senior center instead. So the only things to really do around here if you’re in school is pretty much get high or drunk, pregnant or someone pregnant or get in trouble. The main town in my county did build a skate park though with gas prices and how far away it is, it’s probably not feasable to anyone here to go there and hang out every day.

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