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Playing the Blame Game

By — Greater Good Magazine
Updated on Apr 27, 2010

Video games stand accused of causing obesity, violence, and lousy grades. But new research paints a surprisingly complicated and positive picture, reports Jeremy Adam Smith.

Cheryl Olson had seen her teenage son play video games. But like many parents, she didn't know much about them.

Then in 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice asked Olson and her husband, Lawrence Kutner, to run a federally funded study of how video games affect adolescents.

Olson and Kutner are the co-founders and directors of the Harvard Medical School's Center for Mental Health and Media. Olson, a public health researcher, had studied the effects of media on behavior but had never examined video games, either in her research or in her personal life.

And so the first thing she did was watch over the shoulder of her son, Michael, as he played his video games. Then, two years into her research—which combined surveys and focus groups of junior high school students—Michael urged her to pick up a joystick. "I definitely felt they should be familiar with the games if they were doing the research," says Michael, who was 16 at the time and is now 18.

Olson started with the PC game Max Payne, which, she says, had an "engaging film noir-style plot" and "lots of shooting." Later she moved on to Star Trek: Bridge Commander, which turned out to be more realistic than she expected. "I found it really stressful, in my role as the captain, to have the crew members stand there watching me expectantly as I tried to figure out the controls and give them orders before the ship exploded," she says. With his father, Michael played James Bond games. "He would thoroughly trounce me," recalls Kutner, a psychologist.

Olson and Kutner—who are publishing a book based on their research, Grand Theft Childhood? this spring—were entering a brave new world of play that is closed to many parents. For millions of kids and quite a few adults, video games are central to their play and imaginations. Today the American video game industry makes almost twice as much as movie theaters, and consumers spent $18.85 billion on video-game hardware, software, and accessories in 2007—triple what they spent in 2000. Several authoritative studies, including Olson and Kutner's, have found that 70 to 80 percent of boys and approximately 20 percent of girls now play video games on an average day.

Their popularity—and the bloody, pyrotechnic action of some games—have fueled a wide range of fears. Politicians, pundits, preachers, and many parents accuse video games of displacing more wholesome, traditional forms of play and contributing to ills such as childhood obesity, poor school grades, and, most of all, kid-on-kid violence. Their fears echo earlier concerns about movies, comic books, rock and roll, and hip-hop, which all provoked opposition when they first appeared.

As a result, advocacy organizations like Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence and the Parents Television Council have pressed for laws limiting video game violence. Since 2001, federal judges have rejected nine attempts to regulate video games, citing First Amendment protection. Censors abroad have had more luck: Last year, both the British Board of Film Classification and the Irish Film Censor's Office banned the game Manhunt 2 for its "unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying."

It is hard to argue that a game like Manhunt 2 is good for kids. And yet according to the market-research organization NPD Group, only 16 percent of all games sold in 2007 shared Manhunt 2's rating of "M" ("Mature") for violent or sexual content, while 57 percent of games sold were rated nonviolent and safe for children. Video games today are defined by their diversity, ranging from the innocent quests of Donkey Kong to the complex strategy of Civilization to the amoral brutality of Grand Theft Auto. Even video games with violence in them—like movies and books with violent content—are not all the same. What's more, new research shows that individuals experience the violence differently.

Indeed, the more one examines the range of games on the market today, as well as the considerable amount of research devoted to studying them, the more one realizes how difficult it is to generalize about the games and their effect on kids. "It's a lot more complicated than people think," says Olson. "We've been worried about the wrong things and maybe overlooking some more subtle things that we might want to give more attention to." Kutner adds, "This is so pervasive in our society that it's something we need to pay attention to, even if we don't have kids, because it influences how people think, just as mass media of all types over the past couple hundred years have influenced how people think."

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