Grand Theft Auto Is Good For Kids - No It's Not

The problem of using science to determine whether or not violent video games like Grand Theft Auto do harm to our children is neatly summed up in one article on Scientific American - there's always good news and bad news.

In an article titled "Grand Theft Auto Is Good for You? Not So Fast...," Scientific American's Dara Greenwood takes apart a recently published paper from Grand Theft Auto co-author Dr Cheryl K. Olson, addressing each point with research from other scientists that conflicts with her findings.

Olson's paper, "Children's Motivations for Video Game Play in the Context of Normal Development", explores the role video games play in the development of today's children. She claims the question of whether or not they should play is now moot; now we must deal with the effects.

The debate has moved from whether children should play video games to how to maximize potential benefits and to identify and minimize potential harms. To do this, we must understand what motivates children to play electronic games and what needs the games meet.

In the process of writing the paper, Olson surveyed 1254 boys and girls in seventh and eighth grade, asking them what motivates them to play video games. Here are the results:

The most popular game series among surveyed boys and one of the most popular with girls? Grand Theft Auto, of course. The appeal of violent games can't be denied, though according to Olson, it can be explained.

"When we asked preteen boys whether violence makes a video game more fun, some agreed that they enjoyed games featuring over-the-top violence "that you can't do in real life." But some also noted that violent games were more likely to include action, challenge, and options. It is interesting that multiple regression analyses of our survey data from seventh and eighth grade youth did not find a relationship between trait anger or aggressive personality and greater use of Mature-rated games."

Overall, Olson's latest paper focuses on the positive aspects of video game violence. She cites the example of one young player who creatively solved the problem of finding taxi passengers in Grand Theft Auto by running them over first. See? It encourages problem solving.

A win for the 'violent video games don't harm our children' column, right?

Not so, says Greenwood.

As much research as Olson can dig up about the positive aspects of violent games, Greenwood finds equal evidence that violent games are harmful. Why dig? Greenwood says:

As laudable as it is to debunk negative stereotypes about non-violent game play, it is less laudable to gloss over the negative effects of violent video games. Olson's rosy spin on violent video games positions her on one side of a heated academic debate with staggering stakes in policy and industry.

There are two sides to this debate. More importantly, there are different groups craving different outcomes of this research, and when you're dealing with something as mysterious as the mind of a child, it's all too easy to sway findings in one direction or another.

Greenwood cites various reports over the years that have leaned towards video games doing more harm than good. From a 2001 study that found violent games increase aggressive behaviour and decreases prosocial behaviour, to a 2008 study that showed people who had just played a violent video game were less likely to react to a violent situation than those who had played a non-violent game.

There are too many factors. Too many variables. This is a fight no one can win. The human mind is a complex machine, and just because we understand one of them doesn't mean we understand all of them. It's nice to think that a scientific survey could produce exact results and end this debate once and for all, but it's just not possible.

Greenwood ends the article with her opinion on how to put an end to the violent games debate once and for all: get rid of them.

No media psychologists worth their salt would conclude that violent video games will turn your children into gun-toting sociopaths. Instead, violent media may affect us in countless subtle ways, increasing hostility and apathy to those around us. Rather than straining to rehabilitate an antisocial genre, why not go in search of non-violent but equally exciting, challenging, and enjoyable games? Let the multi-billion dollar gaming industry respond to social pressure and create non-sexist, non-racist, non-violent games that confer as many developmental benefits as violent games apparently do.

Is genre-cide the answer?

Grand Theft Auto Is Good for You? Not So Fast... [Scientific American - Thanks Aaron!]


    I think the games industry could look at making some PG versions of the ultra violent games. Kids would love to run around in Red Dead Redemption or GTA, it would be possible to re-purpose those games to have far less violence and still have really fun missions.
    A lot of the fun just comes from the world itself and immersing oneself in it. Kids under a certain age do have issues with separating imagination and reality, and would like to let my daughter drive around liberty city, but there is no way in GTAs current iteration to let her do that. She would like something a bit more challenging and realistic than Viva Pinata to play though.

      i think its the fact that games like GTA portray dealing drugs to be a 'cool' thing thats the problem.

        It's society as a whole that does this, media reflects it and then propagates it.

      Consider a PG version of L4D2. With no blood, no dismemberment, and bodies that disappear into thin air, it's still MA15+. How much more would need to be removed for it to be PG? It's barely worth playing in its MA15+ form...

      Even with squeaky rubber hammers and nerf guns (which admittedly might be entertaining for a short period), I think it would still struggle to get down that far. As kKgari suggests, there's much more than just how graphic the violence is. Thematically, L4D2 is still a game about the zombie (infected, sorry) apocalypse. GTA is still about crime and the social underworld.

      As one of my colleagues puts it, no matter how much of the swearing you take out of a Billy Connolly sketch, it's still not age-appropriate, because the themes involved still tend to be adult themes. George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" skit would be meaningless without the swearing, because it's *about* swearing.

      As much as it's important for there to be 'family friendly' video games, they should be created for that purpose, not re-purposed adult games. You either end up with something that is still inappropriate for children, or has so much of its 'essence' removed, that there's nothing left of what made it a good game in the first place.

      One of the better examples of trying to re-purpose a game style from recent(ish) years is The Simpsons: Hit & Run. It was, basically, a G version of GTA. But what made it a decent game were the Simpsons parts, not the GTA-inspired parts.

      Unfortunately, at the end of the day, you're never going to be able to make everyone happy, even if there's not a single drop of blood in a video game anywhere. There are a lot of people who are just philosophically opposed to the medium as a whole. One senior member of the South Australian Democrats, during the state election campaign, expressed his opinion that driving games should be banned, because they promote reckless driving.

      Greenwood's article suggests that games should be made without all the 'bad stuff', with a focus on conferring developmental benefits. But the point of games is not developmental benefits. They might be an added bonus, but their real purpose is entertainment. It is unrealistic to believe - or even hope - that the games industry will stop making violent games. Non-violent games can be fun, indeed. They can be enjoyable in the same way as an expertly prepared vegetarian meal. They are both, arguably, healthier than the alternative.

      But the meat industry is still going strong because: . For some people, a vegetarian or vegan diet is fine. Good for them. But steak. Chicken. The magical creature that provides pork, ham, bacon. And just as sometimes salad just won't cut it, a virtual rampage can be incredibly fun and cathartic. Not only does it not hurt anyone, but you get the video-game equivalent of animal protein - something a vege-gamer diet just can't reproduce.

      And now I'm hungry.

        I like the food analogy, nice one.

      Try Jak 2 & 3 on PS2 (developed by Naughty Dogs)

    The age group in this study are too young for these games. And we thought Australia had a useless rating system for games...

    Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is rated M by the ESRB. According to the ESRB this game is suitable for 17 year olds and over.

    Why are these children allowed to play games not rated for them? Further more, why are they performing a study on these children if they are not suitable to play them?

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