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Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do Hardcover – April 15, 2008

3.2 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kutner and Olson, the husband-wife team who founded the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, wanted to know if video games are, as commonly argued, responsible for a rise in social violence. New entertainments, from dime novels to motion pictures, have always made great social scapegoats; they've all been attacked as injurious to public morals on the basis of little or no evidence. With video games, it's hard to evaluate the kinds of violence in the games, even harder to measure the relationship between playing a violent game and engaging in real-life violent activities. Kutner and Olson's own study of some 1,300 middle-school gamers in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, while limited, produced interesting insights. Most boys do play video games, especially mature-rated games not to train to become psychopathic killers but often to test boundaries and to experiment safely with risky behavior. Many use games to develop social skills, release stress and relax. Kutner and Olson advise parents to be involved with their kids' game playing, just as they should be with their other activities. While not profound, the authors, in a calm, evenhanded approach to a problem many parents find frustratingly difficult, address many social fears and make them less scary. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do

Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do is a controversial, opinionated book that discusses the effects of computer gaming on children. The authors, Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, are knowledgeable and have written extensively about the topic.

As the title indicates, many of the authors' findings may come as a surprise: chiefly, they believe that exposing children to violent games is not as risky as the public has been told. Moreover, they argue that much of society's concern about children's computer use has resulted from junk science, hypocritical pundits, and politicians who waste millions of dollars legislating a nonissue. Grand Theft Childhood is intended to remedy these concerns by critically reviewing the literature, discussing the authors' own research findings, and giving parents advice--lofty aspirations, which the book fails to accomplish.

The book consists of 229 pages of text plus end notes and an index. It is organized into 9 chapters that cover a remarkably wide array of topics. Included is a well-written chapter that reviews the history of media violence in American novels, films, and comics. Next, there is a review of selected research about computer game violence. In the chapter titled "Science, Nonsense and Common Sense," papers written by preeminent figures in the field such as Brad Bushman, Craig Anderson, and Dave Grossman are savaged, sometimes unevenly. Another chapter is devoted to the authors' research. The book closes with sections on how the content of games is rated in the United States, on politics and gaming, and with advice for parents.

The text is written for parents and, as such, is nontechnical. For example, terms such as "cross-sectional study" are defined in everyday language. The book often employs breakout sections in which topics are further explored or an expert is interviewed. This method is used too frequently and distracts the reader with what is often insubstantial material. Otherwise, the editing is superb and the writing is engaging.

While the authors demonstrate a good mastery of complex literature, the book has problems. One deficit is that the authors seem to know their cases through mass surveys or "focus groups." When it comes to specific cases, their clinical understanding seems less insightful. For example, on page 212, the authors report being consulted by the mother of a 22-year-old man who is "addicted" to video gaming. The authors conclude, "Clearly, the young man had some major problems. The obsessive video game play was much more likely a symptom than the root cause." Kutner and Olson do not seem to understand that while the computer use can often be a symptom of other disorders, it can also be a serious, self-perpetuating problem in its own right. The computer use is often an early defense against despair, but it can also socially isolate, perpetuate false feelings of power, and socially de-skill people; it can become its own source of pain and isolation. In persons such as this young man, if there are coexisting diagnoses (and there almost always are), eventually these diagnoses and the excessive computer use intertwine so completely that it becomes unclear--and in some ways irrelevant--which came first.

In another example, the authors discuss, by name, a man who shot and killed himself in front of his computer. They dismiss the event on the basis of a magazine article that reported on it. They write, "It's much more likely that his obsessive video game playing was a reflection of his other, more profound problems--a way he tried unsuccessfully to handle the intense emotions and stress he was feeling--and not the root cause of his suicide." Having discussed the suicide with the man's mother at several conferences, I found Kutner and Olson's synopsis disturbingly trite and inaccu-rate. Moreover, the ethical breach of publishing the man's name and speculating as to his diagnosis from afar was disturbing, to say the least.

A third issue results from the authors' own study of 1254 seventh and eighth graders in Pennsylvania and South Carolina schools. Their study found that children who were exposed to violent computer games became substantially more violent. Among other things, children who used violent computer games were "much more likely to get into physical fights, to hit or beat up someone, to damage property for fun, or to steal something from a store." The relationship was even stronger for girls. This seems, most directly, to contradict the thrust of the book's argument. While the authors were correct in explaining the many reasons that this link may not mean causality, they leave out the possibility that violent or obsessive gaming can indeed be dangerous.

Overall, the book is well-written, engaging, and interesting. It is unfortunate that in an effort to make an all-inclusive text that is accessible to a wide audience, the authors' reasoning often becomes flippant and simplistic. --Psychiatric Times, Jerald Block, M.D. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/display/article/10168/1349837


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; English Language edition (April 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743299515
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743299510
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,186,604 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. J. Ferguson on April 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover
As a video game violence researcher myself, I have grown accostomed to considerable hysteria surrounding video games (as I write this GTA IV is about to come out, to much fanfare). Unfortunately, much of the hysteria and bad information comes from psychology as a discipline where poor research methods have been "given a pass" in support of outdated dogma and social engineering. Thus it is refreshing to see a book such as Grand Theft Childhood, which deftly cuts through the politics and dogma, discusses the research in a way parents can understand, and offers concrete directions for the future.

Drs. Kutner and Olson do an excellent job of discussing the history of moral panics which consistently surround new media and how the recent controversy over video games fits into this historical context. Each new media, from novels, to movies, to comic books, to television, to jazz, rock and roll and rap, to Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter faces public hysteria, usually from "elders" unfamiliar with the new media. We look back on these past panics as just that...panics...yet somehow we never seem to learn the lesson. None of these media forms touched off a wave of violence...nor has video games. Violent crimes in the US, including among youth, have dropped to 1960s levels, even as violent video games become overwhelmingly popular. Are we worried about nothing?

Drs. Kutner and Olson do an excellent job discussing the research, pointing out the significant methodological flaws, related to poor definitions of "aggression" and "violence", to the use of invalid measures of aggression, to some scholars who "cherry pick" data to support their views.
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Format: Hardcover
I've been a gamer for about 19 of my 23 years of life. As such, I've grown more and more frustrated at the misguided and misleading attempts of religious groups, politicians, and "watchdog" groups that purportedly have the best interests of children at heart. Few people seemed to truly be interested in figuring out the truth behind violent video games and violence in general. Perhaps this is why I'm so shocked that Grand Theft Childhood seems to be the first one to try a really simple idea: why not talk to the gamers themselves? It was refreshing, for a change, to hear the opinions of young people who actually play games.

GTC goes more in-depth than that, though. The first chapter does an excellent job of tackling the myths from both sides of the issue. The book then goes on to make parallels between complaints about violent video games and complaints about violent media in general over the last several hundred years. It explains how little effective research has been done on the correlation, and more importantly, the causality, between violent media and violent behavior.

The book freely admits that its research merely scratches the surface: this should immediately cause anyone to be skeptical of claims of a definitive link or vindication of violent media. Gamers, you will find a lot here that confirms what you already believe. Parents, you will learn more about the world of your children and practical ways you can keep up with it. Skeptics, if this book encourages you to look at the issues more critically, then that's a win.

I can't recommend this book enough to anyone who plays games or is worried about games.
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Format: Hardcover
The research done for this book was obviously well-done and carefully considered. Instead of drawing premature conclusions, the authors really explored true cause-and-effect relationships of video games, social interactions, parenting, and violence.

One of the most amazing parts was the research about kids that did NOT play video games at all. It showed how video games, especially in moderation, can help kids with social interactions and help them try out social and life situations in a non-threatening and low-risk environment. With today's games being simulations as much as they are games, it has really changed the impact that video games can have on people.

The section on parenting and video games was one of the most impressive and thought provoking. When situations are presented that allow a child or teen to teach their parents how to play games with them, it can really improve the child's social skills and relationship with their parents.

If you are looking for a source to back up either your love or hatred of video games, this may not be the right book. But if you're looking for an interesting, thought-provoking, and impartial look at video games and their real effect on children and teens, this is a great book.
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As I scrolled the other reviews on this book, I had to check periodically to make sure the reviewers read the same book I read.

While the book thoroughly trounces the idea that political, and more importantly parental decisions should be made based on any existing research, it does not seem to give a pass to anyone (including the authors themselves.)

I did not read anything that offers a vindication of any sort to the 'anti-Thompsons' who believe that kids must play games in order to be better than their non-gaming classmates.

What I've taken from the book is that until much MUCH more research is conducted, the only research that I can trust is sitting with my own children, watching them play and discussing their reactions.

I guess my primary disconnect with most of the other reviews is the opinion that the authors 'really socked it to the politicos' and are giving the gaming industry some kind of free pass to make and market anything they desire to children.

That's not what I read.
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