[SOUND OF VIDEO GAME – GRAND THEFT AUTO IV] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, wow! BOB GARFIELD: Brooke? BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s bad. BOB GARFIELD: Brooke? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. Hold on a second here. I think I just crashed into somebody. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay. I'll read it. Grand Theft Auto is, of course, the video game that involves carjacking, drugs, prostitutes and a virtual city with every last detail. [SOUND OF VIDEO GAME - GRAND THEFT AUTO IV] MAN: Ooh! WOMAN: Ow! BOB GARFIELD: Brooke is murdering her way through the fourth installment, which is expected to pull in 400 million dollars this week, after it was released to blindingly glowing reviews. MAN ON VIDEO GAME: Ugh! [SOUNDS OF GRAND THEFT AUTO IV CONTINUE] BOB GARFIELD: Brooke, you were supposed to actually have done this last night. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, Bob, but what happened last night is I got stuck in a loop and I was just wandering the streets of the city and I got so lonely. The only way you can communicate with people is by punching them, and I just punched for two hours. BOB GARFIELD: Play. Just play. MAN ON VDEO GAME: Ugh! BOB GARFIELD: The ecstatic reviews for the game have been matched by stories warning parents about the extreme violence – and the sexual content. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, forget about it. I give up. Turn it off. [GRAND THEFT AUTO IV SOUND OFF] The Chicago Transit Authority is removing ads for the games from their buses, and pundits have spent the week weighing in on how the game will activate the inner child psychopath. But is there any proof that violent video games breed violent children?
Lawrence Kutner, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Harvard, conducted a two-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, looking into the relationship. After interviewing 1,200 middle school students and 500 parents, his short answer is – no. LAWRENCE KUTNER: Well, when we look at violent youth crime, that's been going down significantly over the past 10 to 15 years, and video game play has gone up, and gone up exponentially. So for the general population, there clearly is no relationship there, that one does not cause the other. And probably one does not prevent the other, either. They’re just independent.
We did find that those boys and those girls who played almost exclusively M-rated or violent games at age 12, 13, 14, were at greater risk for getting involved in fights and being bullies and things like that.
But for boys, what we found is those who did not play video games at all – it's still a small number of them – were also at greater risk. And that's fascinating. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So for certain kids, if you play a lot of violent video games, you could be in trouble. And for other kids, if you don't play any video games, then that could be a marker for trouble. So there's some sort of sweet spot of video game playing that suggests everything's going to be okay? LAWRENCE KUTNER: Well, most kids play some video games, and most 12-, 13-, 14-year-old boys play some M-rated games. But if you go to the extremes, you would seem to be looking at kids who aren't fitting in one way or another.
And it was interesting. A year ago, when you had the shootings at Virginia Tech, immediately after that you had the politicians and pundits on the air talking about how this was clearly caused by video games.
Well, if you look at the actual report issued by the State of Virginia that investigated this, when Seung-Hui Cho was nine years old, they say that he didn't like violent video games. His suitemates, the kids that he shared a dorm room with, said that he didn't play video games at all, and that really surprised them, because everyone else did.
And that was right in line with our findings, that the boys who don't play video games at all are left out socially. It's a marker that there's some social problems there. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did your research suggest that, in fact, violent video games could help some kids resolve issues that might otherwise result in violence? LAWRENCE KUTNER: In the interviews we did, several of the kids said that they would be angry at a particular classmate or other kid at the school and go into a video game, set up an avatar that looks kind of like that kid, and have a fight with them in the game. And at the end, they said, you know, I felt better. And several of them also said that, you know, now I didn't feel the pressure to actually fight the kid.
Now, that's a hint. We don't know if that's what's going on. But most kids, when they play a game, feel better at the end of the session. They're more relaxed.
If your child is more wound up or more angry at the end of a session, that's a sign that there may be something wrong, that it's something you should pay attention to as a parent. That kid's at greater risk for other issues. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the difference among different ages? Surely playing Grand Theft Auto is going to affect a 17-year-old differently than a 12-year-old. LAWRENCE KUTNER: We were studying 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds. And when we've talked to the boys, and you ask them, should you playing this game; what age is okay? – and they give a predictable answer. You know, they give their age or a year younger. [BROOKE LAUGHS]
And we knew that. And then we'd say, well, what if you had an eight-year-old brother or sister? Would you let them play the game? Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Well, why not? And they give exactly the same reasons that their own parents give about them, that they can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, they might act impulsively.
But what was really interesting – what they were protective of, and that was cursing. That's what they wanted to shield the younger kids from, because that's what they knew their siblings could actually do.
One other thing we asked these 12-, 13-, 14-year-old boys, is there any game you should not be allowed to play? And a response we got several times was The Sims. Well, you know, The Sims? That's sort of weird. And they said, well, they kiss. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah. LAWRENCE KUTNER: Well, that's something that's scary in the real world to a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old boy. They had no problem, again, with blowing up buildings or, you know, driving around fast cars, but being kissed -! BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay Larry, let's talk about sex. With games [LAUGHS] like Grand Theft Auto, one of the biggest complaints is violence, but there is sexual content, and people worry about that, too. And although the effects are hard to measure, there can't be anything good about 12-year-olds playing a game that involves sex with prostitutes – followed by running them over. LAWRENCE KUTNER: The impression that a lot of people have is that it's all about violence and sex, whereas what we've found from the kids is that they were not attracted to the violence and graphic sexual content in the game. As a matter of fact, the games that were purely violent games, like Postal and Manhunt, not a single kid said they liked playing. They found it boring. What they want is complex characters and very interesting, intricate plots, and a lot of those games happen to be M-rated.
And many of the kids we talked to who played Grand Theft Auto were not familiar with some of the sexual stuff that gets touted about by the pundits. You know, there are so many ways of playing the game that they didn't, you know, they didn't run across that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the less dramatic, potential negative consequences? I think a lot of parents worry that playing too many video games could make your attention span shorter or maybe even spark ADD or ADHD. LAWRENCE KUTNER: I know of no evidence that shows that playing video games causes ADD. What we do find is that those children who have ADD will often be able to spend much more time concentrating on a video game than they can in a classroom because they can sit still for this more than in a traditional school situation.
And what it seems to be is the game is nonjudgmental. This is very different from what they interpret is going on in school. And so they can make a mistake, recover, and not feel like they're being blamed for something because the computer, or the console, is infinitely patient in their eyes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a history of new forms of youth entertainment getting vilified as they go out of the gate. We spoke last week about the hearings regarding the safety of comic books in the '50s. Is this another parallel moment in history? LAWRENCE KUTNER: It seems to be that. In the 1930s, the big concern was gangster films. You were not allowed to show the dynamiting of trains in those films out of fear that teenage boys would blow trains up all over the country.
In the 1890s, the big concern, especially for teenage girls, was the new medium of that time, and that was the paperback novel. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much do you think this fear of video games has been fueled by the media and how much have the media simply been reflecting the concerns of parents? LAWRENCE KUTNER: I think it works both ways. You know, there has been a lot of concern by very, very well-intended people. The problem has been - are we really focusing on the main causes of violence or is this just an easy target? And it's such a great political issue if you're running a campaign that it's hard to resist.
But the scientific data do not support the dramatic claims that have been raised. It's a much more nuanced issue. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lawrence Kutner is co-author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games. Thank you very much. LAWRENCE KUTNER: Oh, my pleasure.
by The Count Five