Features & News

Interview: Cheryl Olson

April 21, 2010, Author: Giuseppe Nelva

The conflict between gaming and parenting, or more properly, between gamers and the media-fueled negativity bias against gaming has never been as strong as it is nowadays. Every day we see, on TV and newspapers, a new article that tries to pass gaming as the new blight upon civilized society, or as a terrible danger to the mental health and education of the younger generations.

Won’t someone think of the children? Someone actually did, as Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D. and Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D wrote and published a book named Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. In order to research the way games and media violence affect the children, they did something that many others actually forgot to do: they talked with the children themselves and found out some quite interesting facts.

Cheryl Olson found some time in her busy schedule to answer to some of our questions, showing that gamers like us do have someone on the other side of the fence to relate to. Is there even a fence or is such a divide is just a convenient invention of the media and politicians and can be easily crossed?

Q.  Hello Cheryl, and welcome to This is my Joystick. We would like to thank you for your willingness to speak with us, and we’re very thrilled to have you as a guest on our gaming site.

Gamers that have read your book “Grand Theft Childhood” are usually very surprised by what they find. Many expect the usual rant against videogames, and are welcomed by a very balanced analysis that can probably be defined as a bridge between the world of gaming and that of parenting. I guess we’re used to being seen as the children of the Devil, so we are surprised when it doesn’t happen. What prompted you and your co-writer, Dr. Lawrence Kutner, to write a book on such a controversial subject?

“The book was based on a two-year, $1.5 million U.S. government-funded research project. Unlike most academic research, ours was meant from the start to help parents, teachers, doctors and policymakers understand what’s normal, what’s unusual, and what patterns of children’s electronic game play are associated with a higher risk for behavior or school problems.

Our findings suggest that games can be both healthy and problematic, but in ways that are hard to get across in a few sound bites on the news. We published academic papers on our findings, but those are read by a limited audience of researchers, not by everyday people.

We felt it was important to give intelligent people who haven’t been involved in research a chance to see how media violence studies are planned, carried out and interpreted so they could judge for themselves what makes sense. We also wanted parents to know what young teens told us about the role of video games in their lives, and what other parents said they were concerned (or happy) about. A book seemed like the best way to achieve these goals.

I must say that when I got involved in video game research, I didn’t realize how extremely controversial it was. Once I got into my studies, I felt morally obligated to correct myths and misinformation that make parents worry needlessly, and may cause them to overlook more subtle but real problems.”

Q. Now a question that will sound pretty banal, but I can definitely tell you that many are curious about that. Do you play any video games? If you do, what are the games and genres you actually enjoy? If you don’t, do you have any gaming friend or relative?

“My 20-year-old son is a PC gamer, and I’ve watched him play for many years, starting with children’s games such as Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo, and on to Age of Empires and Civilization, Starcraft, Star Wars games, and later GTA: Vice City, Max Payne and Hitman.

I felt that it was important for me as a researcher to have some understanding of games, and especially to be familiar with the content and context of the more popular violent games. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know that Max Payne is at core an anti-drug game, and that the Hitman games have an interesting backstory and focus on killing bad guys who have hurt other people.

I tend to like games with stories or humor. When we got a Wii, I bought Rayman’s Raving Rabbids just because I liked the rabbids so much.  In recent months, I bought Bioshock and Portal to play on my son’s PC. Most often, I “collaborate” with my son,  because then I can enjoy the story and graphics without being slowed down by my lack of skill. I have started playing a few games on my iPhone; we’ll see how that goes.”

Q. When you researched for your book, you came to some results that many would find definitely surprising. To what extent did you expect the results that you elaborated in your book? Is there something that you found, yourself, more surprising or puzzling than the rest?

“A number of our findings went against common wisdom. One surprise was how many young teenage girls played Mature-rated video games (meant for ages 17 and older). About a fifth of girls rarely or never played video games. But another fifth had played a Grand Theft Auto game “a lot in the past six months.” Based on some of their comments, I suspect that girls play these games differently and for different reasons than boys. For reasons of time and money, our focus group discussions included only boys. I’d love to do more research on girls and games to better understand this.

I was encouraged to see how sophisticated 13-year-old boys were in their understanding of violent games. They could enjoy playing bad guys without wanting to be them. As one boy told me, “When I play violent games like (Grand Theft Auto) Vice City, I know it’s a video game and I have fun playing it. I know not to do stuff like that, because I know the consequences that will happen to me if I do that stuff.” I was especially struck by how protective these boys were of younger kids; in fact, their concerns about video game influence were almost identical to those of their parents. Their biggest concern was not violence; it was “swears.” Another boy said, “I don’t like my little brother or sisters to watch me play Vice City because they might swear at other people, ‘because of how they do in Vice City. They always give people attitude and take swears at other people. That could make my family look bad, like my mom isn’t raising us regular.’

One somewhat disturbing finding was the correlation we found between playing a lot of Mature-rated games and an increased risk of bullying others. This was especially true among girls. Even so, most children who play M-rated games are not bullies and this was only a correlation; it’s impossible to show cause-and-effect from a one-time survey. The lesson is that kids who most often play games with violent content need to be watched more closely for signs of problems.

More recently, I’ve started to look at what role video games, including violent games, might play in normal child development. Given that the typical young teenage boy plays violent games, and that the youth crime rate has gone down rather than up, it makes sense that these games are meeting needs; such as testing out different identities, healthy competition, building social skills, and dealing with difficult emotions such as anger and fear.”

Q.  In your recent interview on CNN about an extremely controversial game, I personally had the impression that you didn’t tell the anchorman what he was expecting to hear, and he sure seemed quite annoyed by that. What do you think about the way the mainstream media and politicians deal with gaming?

“We have developed a mental “frame” that video games are bad for children, or at best are a waste of time. So every new research report or crime anecdote gets reported within this frame.

These fears are like those raised in the late 19th century by cheap British and American adventure novels, by gangster films in the 1930s, crime comic books in the  1950s, and violent television in the 1970s. To modern eyes, most of these “traps for the young” seem quaint or tame. It’s much easier to blame a simple and obvious target such as violent media than complex factors, such as witnessing real-world violence or growing up in poverty, which are well-known risk factors for youth aggression. It’s also more rewarding for a politician to pass a law against violent media than to tackle complex, long-term social issues.

To be fair, many older adults, including politicians, have never played video games. They may know only what they have heard others say about how terrible video games are, or they may have seen videos or screenshots of the most violent game content and assume all games are like that.

For people who are upset about social change, video games are an easy target to blame. I think that these attacks on video games will lessen over time, as young people who see such games as a normal part of life grow older and attain positions of social influence.

It’s important for gamers and the game industry to try to “reframe” the issue by pointing out that electronic games are a normal part of modern life, that people of all ages play video games, that most video games are innocuous, and that, just as not all books are suitable for children, some video games need to be kept out of children’s hands. The fact that electronic games are called “games” (instead of “simulations” or another serious-sounding label) does not imply that they are all OK for children to play!”

Grand Theft Childhood Cover

The cover of Grand Theft Childhood

Q. In your book you write extensively about the myths about the effects of gaming on children. What is one such myth that you would define the most negative and maybe detrimental?

“Many adults still don’t realize how complex and creative video games are today. In their minds, games are about shooting, like old arcade games from the 1980s, but with increasingly sophisticated renderings of blood and gore. Therefore, they assume that teens who play video games must be attracted to mindless violence, which may stimulate them to act violently, or at best, waste time better spent on reading and  schoolwork. If you look more closely, even video games not labeled “educational” teach useful life skills such as planning and strategy, recall of information, visual-spatial skills, teamwork, and often even reading. They can also expose kids to new interests; my son’s interest in history, politics and social anthropology was fed by games such as Age of Empires, and even silly games such as Tropico.

A more serious concern is the persistent belief that video games cause real world violence, including school shootings. We reviewed dozens of studies on video game (and television) violence, and there is no good evidence that violent media exposure causes real-world violence or crime. One problem is that most studies don’t actually measure exposure to violent content (they look at how many hours people play) and they don’t clearly define violence or aggression (e.g., they may count kids rough-housing on the playground, with no intent to hurt anyone, as aggressive behavior).

The Secret Service and the FBI have studied school shootings, trying to identify a “profile” of potential shooters and prevent these tragedies. They weren’t able to find a profile. The only thing these shooters had in common was male gender and (often) a history of treated or untreated depression. Some were bullies and some were victims of bullies; some were good students and some not. Many did watch violent films or play violent games, but the average teenage boy today does this, too.

However, people still believe there is a link. They also think that school shootings are much more common, when in fact it’s the news coverage that has increased, not the number of incidents. This is due to the exploding number of cable news and Internet news outlets, constantly looking for new content.”

Q. Violence, not only in gaming, but in all kinds of media, has become more and more graphical and realistic, partly because some technical limitations came to pass, and partly because some taboos have fallen with time. Just to make an example, in old cartoons violence was depicted in a very comical way. Think about the Warner Bros classics. The poor Wile E. Coyote ended up smashed, minced, exploding, falling from deadly heights and generally prey to all kinds of normally lethal and quite bloody occurrences. Despite that, he always walked out without a scratch, or maybe with just a big bump on the head. Nowadays in an average animated production outside of the usual Disney movies such actions would have much more graphical and realistic consequences. The same “evolution” happened with video games. What do you think of the difference between these two kinds of portraying violence? Is the first one really safe for kids? Is the second one really a problem?

“Some researchers have worried about the effects of cartoon violence on kids; in fact, one of the better-known longitudinal studies of TV violence (following kids over time) included Road Runner cartoons on their list of most-violent programs. I think the fact that most parents grew up with these shows, and they and their friends did not act out such violence in real life or refuse to believe in the laws of physics, reassures parents that cartoon violence is not a big concern.

Also, children today seem to enjoy more sophisticated stories in their cartoons, not just the same old steam-rolling and exploding. Many researchers feel it’s important for children to see the consequences of actions, even in cartoons and that children too young to “get” cause and effect should have their TV watching restricted. In my experience, children are pretty clear on fantasy vs reality.

Too much of anything can be a problem, of course, and children left in front of violent cartoons for many hours a week might well be more aggressive, but that might have more to do with the lack of other healthy activities and exercise. Research shows that in a surprising number of homes, the TV is left on almost all the time, and this is linked to a higher risk for problems.

Similar to the situation with TV cartoons, I think as gamers become parents, there will be less concern over cartoon-type game violence. There may be greater concern over realistic violence, especially when it’s linked to moral issues such as war, sexism/racism, or benefiting from crime.

“Realism” is a complex concept; realistic graphics by themselves don’t necessarily make a game feel more real, and some games with simple graphics can feel real due to complex characters and realistic dialogue or situations.”

Q. One of our readers, a mom of two adorable twins, asked us to relay a question that I actually find very interesting: What makes a greater (and possibly detrimental) impression on a developing mind? Graphic depiction of nudity and/or sex or violence?

“There seems to be a European/American split on this issue. American parents tend to be very upset about any nudity in games, but more tolerant of violence (especially if it involves aliens or orcs). I personally would be more concerned about games featuring demeaning treatment of women (as in some Def Jam games, for example) or violence aimed at religious/ethnic/racial minorities, than exposure to minor nudity.

There is actually very little sexual content in commercially available games; game consoles from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft do not allow adult-rated games to be made for or played on their systems, so in practical terms parents need to worry more about exposure to violent content. (In non-rated Internet games, sexualized violence would of course be the worst thing for kids. If child-accessible rape games actually existed, I would be very concerned.)

One issue that makes video game research so complicated is the lack of a clear, shared definition of “violence.” Some people think any sentient creature hitting another one with anything (eg, fuzzballs hitting each other with marshmallows) counts as violent. Others are only concerned about violence against realistic-looking human characters. I am most concerned about games that allow mindless killing of everyone in sight, or extreme methods of killing that appear to cause suffering (eg Manhunt, Postal). Fortunately, those games are not very popular among youth. Notice that Grand Theft Auto games include no children or animals (so none can be killed), and maintain a cartoon-world feeling despite realistic-seeming dialogue; this gives players a sense that they can safely take on a gangster identity (like an actor in a play) and that the game violence is comfortably separated from real life.”

Q. Many gamers belonging to the first and second generations are now definitely old enough to enter the parenting adventure. Gaming is for sure not the only hobby that could partly clash with the needs of having a family. Besides reading your book (one thing that every parent with a gaming offspring should probably do), what advice would you give to a dedicated gamer that’s now sitting across the fence between gaming and parenting?

“Thanks for the kind words about the book 🙂

First, play games with your kids. Find things that you both can enjoy. Young teens who took our survey (and boys in focus group studies) said that they rarely played with a parent, and most would like to. I think more families are playing together now that systems such as the Wii make games more accessible to casual players. If your child is a bit older, ask him to teach you how to play a level of his favorite game. It’s a healthy thing for parent/child relationships for the child to teach the parent something for a change. It’s also a chance for parents to learn more about their child’s interests and strengths.

When you buy games, look for ones that encourage kids to plan and problem-solve (that could be Zoo Tycoon or a Legend of Zelda game). Choose some that allow for collaborative play, with you and/or with friends.

Notice how games affect your child emotionally. A lot of young teens we studied used violent games to cope with angry feelings. That’s probably healthy in moderation, but might be a problem in excess. Some teens use zombie-type games to master fears, playing over and over until they beat the game completely. If a game seems to upset your child, put it away until he’s older. Keep your games with grown-up themes or scary content someplace inaccessible, and only play them when the kids are in bed.

Don’t worry too much about how much time your child spends with games if she has at least one good friend, does well in school, takes out the trash the 3rd time you ask, etc, but be alert to signs of problems. If your child often misses sleep to play games, loses interest in other activities, or is doing poorly in school, the game play may be a problem or, it may be a symptom of another problem, such as depression, that the child is trying to cope with.”

Q. Nowadays we have multiple rating systems that should prevent minors to play games that aren’t suitable to their ages. Are those rating systems effective? What would you do to increase their effectiveness? Do you think shop owners and clerks should be legally responsible to enforce those rating systems?

“No rating system will please everyone, and if it’s too complicated, it will just be ignored. The US/Canada rating system (ESRB) is clearly better than the systems used for movies, TV and music in terms of the detailed information it provides. Parents seem to value it; among  parents we surveyed, ratings had the most influence on their decision to buy or rent a game for their child.

As one focus-group parent said, “I see the ‘E,’ I know it’s for everyone. When I see the Teen, I know the 10 year old, he can’t have it. Then I see Mature: that’s when I say, ‘Okay, I’m going to read to see exactly what’s going on here.’ Parents need to check more than just the age ratings or content descriptors to see what’s appropriate.

Research on TV violence suggests that violence by itself is not a problem; it’s the context, goals or target of the violence that makes a difference in how violent content may affect kids. One problem with game ratings is that they don’t tell you about those things; they rate violence in terms of blood and guts.  In focus groups, parents said they want to know who is being attacked (zombies or orcs vs. realistic people), if the violence is over the top (shooting vs. decapitating or lighting on fire), and if violent behavior is rewarded or punished.

For example, the SWAT series (a basically pro-social game, where you try to avoid all loss of life) has the same rating and most of the same content descriptors as the Hitman series. Most parents are much more comfortable with an M-rated game that’s set on an alien planet vs a game set on present-day Earth with violence against realistic-looking people. To their credit, the ESRB web site has recently added more detail about game storylines and content to their ratings information.

You need to know your child’s personality, and use your judgment. For example, survival-horror videogames can be too intense and upsetting for children, and for many teens, too. I think it’s best to steer kids away from violent games until they are older, because they don’t have the maturity or life experience to understand, for example, the satirical content in Grand Theft Auto (Some 12-year-olds might be OK playing with a parent or adult relative).

The other advice I give to parents is to keep TVs, game consoles and computers out of children’s bedrooms. It’s amazing how many kids have this stuff in their rooms. My research showed that kids with bedroom computers/consoles played games more hours per week, and played a higher proportion of M-rated games. The main concern is that electronics interfere with sleep, which is critically important for health and academic success. If you can’t keep stuff out of bedrooms, at least use the parental controls, and confiscate the controllers, handheld games, and cell phones at night.

I don’t think shops and clerks should be held legally responsible and fined or jailed for selling games with inappropriate age ratings, but I do think they should be trained about what the ratings mean, and suggest a substitute game if a parent wants to buy an M game for their 9 year old. This  is just good business.”

Q. Speaking about rating systems, different regions have their own. The US have the ESRB, Europe has PEGI, and so forth. Sometimes this kind of approach brings to discrepancies, especially due to some peculiar differences. For instance the ESRB rates Mature (M) games as inappropriate to minors under the age of 17 (and the AO rating, that would entail the need of being 18 is very, very rarely used), on the other hand PEGI has a 16+ and a 18+ rating. What do you think of those  discrepancies and of the possibility of having a single worldwide rating system (at least between regions that share similar cultures like Europe and the US).

“Logically, a shared rating system seems reasonable, but on a practical level, it would be difficult. The ESRB system is purely voluntary, with no force of law behind it. U.S. retailers choose not to sell AO games, and most ask their clerks to check IDs before selling M games to teens. Games cannot be banned, in contrast to European systems.

Also, in the US “adults only” is almost always viewed as involving sexual content rather than “mere” violence. (An exception: Manhunt 2 would have received an AO rating for violence, but some content was removed so it could get an M rating.)”

Grand Theft Childhood Korean


Q. To my knowledge (I admit I might be wrong), your book is only available in English. Personally I think that such a revolutionary approach to gaming and parenting should be available everywhere. Are there any plans to translate it in other languages and publish it in other countries?

“So far, the book has been translated into Korean (see attached photo), Japanese, and Lithuanian. We’ve had requests from readers for other languages (especially German), but no publishers have come forward to ask for those translation rights. Interested publishers can email me, and I’ll connect them to our literary agency. I would love to see the book more widely available.”

Q.  I know that this seems like I’m trying to have you work in my stead, but given the unusual way you approach the argument, it wouldn’t surprise if there was a question that you would love gaming journalists to ask you, but that never gets asked. Is there one? Can you tell us what question would it be and answer it?

“Gaming journalists ask lots of good questions! It’s mostly TV reporters who ask dumb things. I find myself correcting the same myths over and over. They also want me to be pro-game or anti-game. I’m neither; I’m pro-common-sense.”

Q. This concludes our interview! I would like to thank you for your time and for agreeing to share your views with our readers. Also, I’d like to encourage you to send them a final message, if there’s anything more you’d like to share.

“I’d like to say thank you for the kind comments I so often get from gamers, and encourage you to be skeptical, including about things that I say. When you see research reports in the news, ask yourself questions such as; Who did they study? For how long? How did they define “violent”? How did they measure exposure to violent content? Do these findings apply to the real world?

If you’re interested… I recently produced some videos for parents, with funding from Activision. (They did not tell me what to say; it’s all based on research.) You can see the videos here.”