The truth about violent video games
MGH researchers dispel myths
about why children play violent video games, which children are
at risk, and offer practical advice for parents
BOSTON - April 28, 2008 - With this week's release of Grand
Theft Auto IV, millions of parents are deciding whether to give
in to children's pleas to buy the video game and are worried about
how to set limits. A new book by Massachusetts General Hospital
(MGH) researchers, Grand
Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games
and What Parents Can Do (Simon & Schuster), may be just
what parents are looking for.
The book's common-sense advice is based on a two-year, $1.5 million
research program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, as well
as a review of relevant studies from around the world. Authors Lawrence
Kutner, PhD, and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, are a husband-and-wife research
team at MGH's Center
for Mental Health and Media, part of the hospital's Psychiatry
department. They are also the parents of a teenage boy who plays
Using extensive surveys and focus groups with 7th and 8th grade
children and their parents, Olson and Kutner studied how and why
children play video games and looked for patterns of play linked
to greater risk of school or behavior problems. A survey of over
1,200 children showed that - although most of children's top-ten
games were rated Teen (for ages 13+) or below - Grand Theft Auto
was by far the most popular game series among boys. In fact, 44
percent of them reported playing at least one game in the series
"a lot in the past six months." Surprisingly, Grand
Theft Auto was the second most popular series among girls, after
The Sims. The Grand Theft Auto games are rated Mature,
meant for ages 17 and older.
"Parents told us they were concerned about violent games,
but frustrated by their lack of knowledge and their limited control,"
says Kutner. He cites the comments of focus-group participants,
who lament that their children appear to have access to Grand
Theft Auto at friends' home or other locations.
Here are some answers to key questions, drawn from the book Grand
What attracts children to Grand Theft Auto games?
"Boys' comments suggest that the open environment, rather than
the violence, may be the key to the series' appeal," says Olson.
"They liked the freedom either to carry out missions and win
the game, or to explore the wide variety of places, vehicles, weapons
Will playing Grand Theft Auto lead children to imitating
the behavior depicted in the game
"In focus groups, boys told us repeatedly that they liked the
'unreality' of games such as GTA," says Kutner. "As one
said, 'You get to see something that, hopefully, will never happen
to you. So you want to experience it a little bit without actually
What problems may be linked to M-rated game play?
Playing Grand Theft Auto is not appropriate or risk-free
for all teens, Kutner and Olsen stress. Younger teens may not be
mature enough understand the game's satirical content. Another concern
is exposure to sexist or racist behavior and language.
Kutner and Olson's research team found that children who routinely
played Mature-rated titles such as GTA were at higher risk for aggressive
behaviors and school problems, and the more such titles a child
played frequently, the more likely he or she was to be involved
in these problem behaviors. However, the reseachers note, while
the risk of problem behaviors increased, the actual percentage of
children involved in them remained quite low.
What can parents do to monitor game play and minimize problems?
- Get familiar with the content of the game. Parents can find
plot details, screenshots, videos and reviews at WhatTheyPlay.com
or at web sites aimed at game players such as Gamespot.com.
Talk with your child about aspects of the game you like (such
as humor) and aspects that offend you or go against your values.
- Since video game consoles located in bedrooms are associated
with more M-rated game play, keep game consoles in common areas,
such as the living room. This also allows parents to monitor game
content over time; objectionable behavior or language may not
appear until higher levels of the game.
- Ask older children and adult relatives to consider the appropriateness
of their own games. M-rated game play is more common among children
who often play with older siblings.
- Because GTA games are so flexible, watching how children choose
to play may give insights into their thoughts and feelings. "Our
research found that many children play Grand Theft Auto
to deal with stress or get out anger; others enjoy competing with
friends," says Olson. If your child seems more angry or stressed
after playing a violent game, consider locking the game away until
he or she is older.
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