American Psychological Association
Boston, August 14-17 2008
James Bray, a former APA President, began by introducing Dr. Kutner, who is well-known to media psychologists and known to many as the author of those wonderful NY Times columns called Parent and Child, which inspired me and which I used as "handouts" to give parents, before the Internet began its rule. Dr. Bray noted the fortuitous coincidence of Grand Theft Auto the video game being released at the same time as Dr. Kutner's book, which refers to this very game, and related phenomena. Bray called this "an important book" which sheds some light on a multi-billion dollar industry which has its share of both defenders and detractors. With that, he gave the podium to Dr. Lawrence Kutner, leaving him with THE question to consider, so it seems, "Are video games good or bad for kids?"
Lawrence Kutner: The answer is 'yes'. Obviously it's not so simple or one dimensional. [There are some who think "letting out violence" through games is healthy, "cathartic", cleansing; others think it teaches disinhibition, anti-social modeling, &/or dissociation.]
The media, said Dr. Kutner, have historically embraced, collectively, what turned out to be alarmist spin, reminiscent of the days of Congressional testimony in 1949, where our country's legislators were upset about several comic books of the day - now classics - which they were convinced would lead to all sorts of terrible consequences by "glamourizing" violence and influencing teens. Long before that, in fact there was big concern about "the terrible influence of the new media: the paperback novel". Dr. Kutner concluded that, aside from looking at individual events and people, there is a cultural context too, in which "the media" always seems to panic, historically, when new media types are introduced.
Next, Dr. Olson was introduced, as co-author of the Grand Theft Childhood book (with Dr. Kutner) and as a distinguished Harvard professor with some very interesting findings coming out which are relevant to "media psychology". Dr. Olson clarified first that her doctorate is in public health. She is working as a researcher, along with Dr. Kutner, in a medical setting (Mass. General).
She offered a "condensed book version" which gave a sense of where some of the research has focused, and is headed, in an environment where there is a push for public policy. Studies have already been done which look at the relationship between violent games and "cop killing". As more refined studies are done, however, it seems that the media are often innaccurate in the reporting. One of the early findings was that contrary to what people may have thought, the killers in the Columbine High School assault were really "not into video games".
Like Dr. Kutner, Dr. Olson too is interested in learning more about the power of context. She explained that she "wanted to explore what patterns of behavior could be observed" in speaking with parents, teachers, and others. What she found is that "there's no information out there on what is 'normal'." And looking still at context, parents were asked what they were most concerned about, in terms of influence on their children. It was not "video games" as some monolithic entity. In fact, people (adults and teens) do look at specific games and evaluate the context for, and type of, violence. "There's a difference between killing aliens and zombies", in a fantasy context, versus graphically decapitating people.
Next question: "What about different kinds of violence in the context of different kids?"
[Yours truly picked up on this later, asking about different types of personalities and tendencies to dissociate/disinhibit from game-life into real-life, etc. Another question.]
Dr. Olson described her study of video games and young teens (age 13 and 14), which involved an extensive survey of over 1250 7th and 8th grade students from both high and low socioeconomic status environments in Philadelphia and South Carolina. A similar survey was completed by approximately 500 of the teens' parents. Drs. Kutner and Olson had also run some focus groups with approximately 50 boys and 25 parents. It was not until after the survey results, however, that they realized how many girls were frequent players of GTA as well (i.e., "played a lot over the past six months"). [Thank you, Dr. Kutner, for further clarifying this!]
The study yielded a great deal of data and the researchers, Dr. Olson explained, are still combing through it in myriad ways. "In our 32nd summary", she said with a smile, it was found that 2/3 of boys had an "M" score of equal/greater than 1*. The #1 attraction in video games for the boys, was Grand Theft Auto, followed by sports-based videogames.
For girls, #1 was The Sims, and #2 was Grand Theft Auto. (Some of the boys berated Sims as being yucky, people-oriented stuff, with kissing... And then there's the debate about the boys exposure to the GTA "main message".) Dr. Olson shared that it was a shame that the earlier focus groups were only on the boys, because she now thinks, as girls were also interested in Grand Theft Auto, it would be fascinating to look at whether girls and boys play the games differently [or have different experiences or goals!].
One interesting finding was that the more "M" games* -- those rated with "mature" content -- which the girls played, the more likely to find reports of social problems, especially bullying. Boys who played a lot were less likely to be bullied.
Other questions arose as patterns and surprises emerged. Could some of the game-playing frenzy be "self-medicating for depression?" Very complex, obviously.
Next, the larger issue of motivation became a focus. [See last year's presentations by Zimbardo, Beck, Farley and others, about group and system pressures leading to evil, hate, and horror.]
Motivation is very complex: Why are games played, for example, and why are specific ones chosen? It can be a group experience, an individual may be looking to deal with stress, "get your anger out", etc. Dr. Olson has heard reports by teens of how, if they were really stressed and angry, they'd get the cheat codes for a game and just blow everything up. At the same time, some reported they learned that actions have consequences which attend bad behavior. In sum, it's all still a "sandbox-type environment". We're still learning, and there's so much to learn in a rapidly changing social and world context.
Next Dr. Kutner spoke, beginning where Dr. Olson had left off, describing several other findings - and questions - which have emerged from the study, and particularly from the focus group feedback. For example, boys were asked, "Are there any games you shouldn't play?" The boys said SIMS. The researcher asked why, was it not violent enough? But the answer was actually "They do things with people" (as opposed to fantasy), like kissing. There was a big disagreement in one focus group. How old should one be before playing such games? One said 8, one said 100. If you could invent a game, what would it include? "Cool costumes", "I'd rule the world", "No homework"...
Now as to the big media response, it was fortuitous that Grand Theft Auto 4 was released at precisely the same time as the book, with the game becoming the most popular game EVER. But, in keeping with history apparently, the level of debate about violent media's impact on behavior still remains superficial, at least in the popular press. It's a "hot topic" nonetheless.
What often happens is "distorted coverage" gets picked up by the "blogosphere" (a word Kutner said would have just stymied his editor at the NY Times years back), and travels from one person to the next, akin to the old game of 'telephone' with a new distortion or omission/substitution with each new relay, until the report gets back and "it's not at all anything I would recognize".
Dr. Kutner shared that he too is fascinated by some of the focus group feedback. One student wrote back (about a book which was named), "I'd buy this book if I could read". Both he and Dr. Olson also got some inappropriate personal attacks and/or overtures. [Such is the nature of adolescence and response to authority?]
Journalists sometimes have reasonable expectations about ways in which video games can exert a "good" or "positive" influence. What is most expected? Better hand-eye coordination, for example. But it can also offer young minds a chance to set up a society via a game. "Video games are a medium and they can be very useful".
With that, James Bray took the podium again (I'm not being literal!) and shared his own observations of a 16-year old son as he actively relates to others using new media. Now he invited audience questions.
QU: What about the context, the peer context? [Peer pressure, etc.]
A: (Kutner) - Teens were not only drawn to games which portrayed "good versus evil". In fact they were found to be attracted to the complexity of characters. [Avatars for alter-egos??] For boys, the playing seems to be a marker of social competence.
A:(Olson) - Moral choices are engaging too. You can become a good guy or bad guy.
Also one learns problem-solving skills. [This is a hallmark of intelligence for Sternberg, as he would speak about later today.]
Q: Didn't the Columbine shooters model from Doom?
A: Yes but... this game has been shown to relate to motor skills and shooting [but not to induce imitative behavior]
[My Q on disinhibitition/desensitization; A: Interesting point, ripe for research.]
James Bray commented that from his perspective within a medical school, obesity is presenting as a big problem. That may be one outcome which is not good from video games. Exercising only the thumbs while eating snacks doesn't bode well.
Dr. Olson commented that in fact TV "seems to be a greater contributor" to the public health environment, as it is a passive activity and one which is constantly presenting ads for junk food.
Dr. Kutner concluded as did Dr. Olson, that the dynamics are complex. We're living in a time when violence is up again, after years of a downturn beginning in the 90's. There continue to be new research directions (e.g., Savage) but still, in general the overall body of evidence is not conclusive. The best 3 predictors still seem to be violence at home, violence in the community, and being dropped on one's head.
Something to think about.