Book Review: Grand Theft Childhood

I came across Lawrence Kuthner and Cheryl Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Games (And What Parents Can Do) while doing some research for an article on the psychology of video games. The book is the end result of a research program by the authors, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice weirdly enough, focusing on violent video games and kids. Kuthner and Olson claim to be impartial researchers who don’t have any particular axe to grind on the issue, unlike activists, politicians, professionals working in the games industry, or gamers themselves. Their aim, they say, was to let their data do the talking.

The data in question are those collected by the researchers from surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews with kids and their families. Right away any reader who has taken anything beyond a Research Methods 101 class could tell you that this is a limiting factor –self report data are subject to a range of biases and using only one or two methods of data collection represents a substantial flaw in any program. But that’s not to say that the data are worthless or that the conclusions the researchers (who readily cop to these limitations) draw from them can’t be used to inform continuing research or draw some conclusions with the right caveats.

And the claims that come out of all this make a certain amount of sense: kids are vulnerable to some of this stuff, but bullying and warped senses of gender or race roles are more likely outcomes than sociopathic killing sprees. Some kids are more vulnerable than other on account of good old fashioned individual differences. Actually, girls play and enjoy violent games, too. Kids think guns and weapons are cool, but what they really like are chances to develop skills, make choices, and interact with other people. Some games may only be single player, but kids build social relationships around them by talking about their common experiences. There is a ratings system in place (the ESRB) but it’s pretty flawed and kids are savvy about how to acquire restricted games. Anyone who has a reason to lie to you about the effects of violent games on kids and culture may very well be. That kind of stuff.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and a pretty quick one. There are some chapters, like the one drawing parallels between the uproar over violent games to past uproars over every other media you can think of, were a little too long and turgid, and despite claims to be impartial the researchers occasionally pinned their political views onto their sleeves, it is a pretty impartial look at the topic that doesn’t toe any particular line. It’s not the last word on the subject, but I hope that other social scientists pick up on these research programs and build on them.

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