Book Review – Grand Theft Childhood

Gamers rejoice! For now when opponents of gaming challenge us and quote the Bible, we had a Good Book of our own!

Okay, forgive the hyperbole. However, in Grand Theft Childhood : The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson have put out the most robust and well-written book defending games we as a community have seen. While books like Don’t Bother Me Mom–I’m Learning! and Everything Bad Is Good for You have defended games as useful in personal and social development (rather than a hindrance), they haven’t had the weight of original research behind them like GTC. Kutner and Olson, cofounders of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, coordinated their study with the Harvard Medical School for a two-year span. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the core of the study (and the book) was survey results and interviews collected from almost 2,000 children and parents in the Eastern US. Previous research was also considered by the study. The writers have done their homework, and the result is a 272-page book that looks at everything from childhood development to politics as they relate to games.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to Destructoid readers that the vast majority of children play games as part of their social development. There isn’t a causal relationship to be found between video games and violent behavior. Almost all kids and adults are more than capable of telling the difference between real-world violence and the actions of a digital character. On and on the list goes of facts that seem obvious to people who are obsessive gamers (or at least into them enough to read community blogs on a video game website). Nevertheless, these findings aren’t hunches based on personal experience. They are the results of a long, well thought out and incredibly well conducted study.

While some of the above may not sound interesting to folks who aren’t parents, there is still plenty in this book to draw in readers. Where Grand Theft Childhood really shines is looking at the culture in which video games exist and the censorship which they face regularly. Kutner and Olson devote chapters to history of censorship of “new” forms of entertainment (starting with serials and penny gaffs in the 1800s), violence in other media, industry self-regulation and anti-gaming legislation. There is no doubt that the writers have taken a decidedly pro-game slant, and the ease and skill with which they cut into the “research” of the anti-game crowd (like the airhorn study Rev mentioned in Podtoid 51) is a joy to read. Even greater than that is the complete evisceration of politicians, interest groups and certain silver-haired attorneys, backed up by research and legal precedent. As a legal junkie, the contents of the chapter “All Politics is Local” are enough to give me ammunition any debate of “games as free speech” and keep me very warm at night.

Grand Theft Childhood is not only a very significant book for our industry, but is a damn interesting read. The book is not flawless, of course. In presenting their findings with a pro-game slant, the authors have opened themselves up to arguments that they “twisted their findings” or “have an agenda.” And of course, readers will find some parts of the book more interesting and personally relevant than others. With all this in mind, I still can’t recommend the book enough. In a nuanced and highly intelligent book, Kutner and Olson have made a strong counterpoint to the venomous and unreasoned anti-game rhetoric in the popular media. While it may not be the Good Book for gamers, its definitely a start in defending our pastime.

Grand Theft Childhood – $16.50 (+S&H) – 272 p

[Originally posted on Destructoid.com on 05.06.2008]

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