Do violent games breed violent kids?

Major Harvard study rejects one-size-fits-all prescription

A major study in the US has managed to find some sensible middle ground between the alarmists who claim that violent games automatically breed violent children and the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil defenders of violent video games as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun.

Funded by the US government to the tune of $1.5 million, the study was conducted by Dr Lawrence Kutner and Dr Cheryl Olson – a prominent husband and wife team from Harvard University who are also the co-founders and directors of the Harvard Medical School Centre for Mental Health and Media.

Far from being yet another two-bob exercise in finding the right facts to suit the argument of a particular side and fill out some newspaper column inches, Kutner and Olsen’s study was undertaken over two years from a purely academic point of view.     

Different approach

In contrast to nearly all previous studies, the two authors rejected the idea of concentrated empirical tests and instead decided to speak directly and at length to their research subjects – approximately 1200 of them – to question them about their attitudes towards games – both violent and non-violent.

The conclusions the pair reached were first published in July 2007 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, and have since appeared in a number of other academic publications.

Their findings are also about to be published in a parent-friendly book entitled Grand Theft Childhood: the Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games.

The aim of the book, according to its authors, is to steer the focus away from hysterical headlines and instead offer parents practical advice on how to identify and limit the risks violent games may – or indeed may not – pose to their children.

One size doesn't necessarily fit all

Significantly, the book avoids a one-size-fits-all approach to the subject and instead focuses on the ways that different children will react differently to the same violent material.

It’s this non-universal approach to the subject that’s perhaps most significant. The failure to recognise that not all children react in the same way has been all-too-familiar fault with the vast majority of studies into the effects of violent video games in the past.

Sitting on the fence?

However, the study’s findings don’t always sit quite so neatly on the fence. In fact, the study did reveal how there is a correlation (but not necessarily a connection) between violent video games and aggressive behaviour in boys and girls.

Specifically, Drs Kutner and Olsen found that 51 per cent of boys who played mature-rated games (for age 17+) had been in a fight in the past year, compared to 28 per cent of non-mature-rated game players.

In girls the contrast was even higher, with 40 per cent of girls who played 17+ games having been in a fight in the past year, compared to just 14 per cent for non-mature players.

In a recent interview with GameCouch, Drs Kutner and Olsen hinted that there was no simple, universal explanation to why this was:

“The causes of aggressive behaviour are extremely complicated; teasing out the specific contribution of video games is near impossible, especially since kids who are already aggressive seem to prefer violent games and movies,” they said.

“Instead, we focused on identifying markers of risk: patterns of game play that were associated with problem behaviours that parents … could spot,” they added.