Have you heard the one about the 3,500 research studies that show a positive relationship between media violence and violent behavior? It’s an old cudgel often used to bludgeon the gaming industry in the debate about violent games.
It also turns out to be a complete fabrication. Those 3,500 studies simply don’t exist. In extensive research for their own study, Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson (founders of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital and professors at Harvard Medical School) searched the available literature and found only about 300 studies on this topic. In their new book, Grand Theft Childhood, Kutner and Olson conclude that most of the previous studies were either inconclusive or flawed, with none providing the smoking gun linking media violence and real-world violence in an incontrovertible cause-effect relationship.
They decided to go looking for the link themselves and created what is arguably the most far-reaching and thorough study yet. The results may not be what either side of the debate wants to hear, but after reading their results, it’s hard to deny that Kutner and Olson’s report is scrupulously fair—and that it’s a bombshell.
They begin by making the crucial distinction between youth violence, which they define as an attack on a person or thing with the intent to injure or break it, and the less easily defined aggression, which includes antisocial behavior, bullying, and delinquency. Their research reveals two key facts that are relevant to the debate.
First, there is no link between young people who play violent games and actual violence. In fact, as gamer culture has grown, incidents of violent crime have dropped significantly. They also debunk the myth that school shootings such as the ones that took place at Columbine (blamed on Doom) and Virginia Tech (Counter-Strike) were caused by games. Instead, they learned that Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho didn’t play games in college, which tallied with one of their more interesting discoveries: Kids who don’t play games are the social outcasts and misfits. Games help kids fit in and form relationships. Their study did, however, find a connection between aggression and violent games, and we’ll explore that in more detail next month.
Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is an editor at large for Games magazine.