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The Adult Crime Game Kids Love

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Get ready: There's a new Grand Theft Auto game about to roll out this week, and we're probably in for a burst of discussion about violent video play.

I've never found it likely that bloody video games cause bad behavior in kids, but then again, I'd also never pass any of my old copies of the games to a child. So I'm a little unsure about how to react to a recent study showing that the game is more popular than any other among 12- to 14-year-old boys.

"GTA IV" is almost inevitably going to be one of the biggest game releases in a year that is already looking like a prosperous one for the industry. Market research firm NPD said that Americans expect to spend less on entertainment this year, yet they're also going to spend more than ever on video games. Video game sales jumped 57 percent in March, compared with the same month last year, according to the firm.

The Grand Theft Auto franchise is practically an industry unto itself. Electronic Arts has attempted a hostile takeover of the game's publisher this year with an offer valued at $2 billion. One analyst has even speculated that the new game could dampen opening weekend ticket sales for "Iron Man," the comic-book-inspired action movie starring Robert Downey Jr. The film premieres a few days after the game's release.

Like its predecessors, Grand Theft Auto IV is rated "M" (for "Mature"), and stores are only allowed to sell it to folks ages 17 and up. The game industry's ratings board has even spelled out the types of content that could make parents squirm. The game, to be released Tuesday for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, hits all the hot buttons: It contains "blood," "intense violence," "partial nudity," "strong language," "strong sexual content" and "use of drugs and alcohol."

The game's developer, Rockstar, has mostly kept quiet about the storylines of its latest game, set in Liberty City, a satirical version of New York City. Previous installments of the best-selling games have all followed the paths of young strivers who go from rags to riches, building careers as gangster kingpins. On the way, there tend to be a few zillion explosions, flattened pedestrians and rival gangs that need to get squeezed out.

Rockstar did not respond to requests for comment last week. But one of the game's writers, Lazlow Jones, who has also appeared as a radio deejay in the games, spoke on a local D.C. radio station this past week and put it as plainly as possible that the game is "too intense" for kids:

"If you let your child play this game, you're a bad parent," he said. "The thing is, Rockstar does not want kids playing this game."

By Jones's definition, it looks like there are some, ahem, "bad parents" out there, at least according to that recent survey of 12- to 14-year-olds on this subject. The authors' research team asked 1,250 kids to name some video games they'd played in the past six months. GTA was at the top of the list for boys, way ahead of the Madden football games and Microsoft's sci-fi blockbuster, Halo. Among girls the same age, the game was No. 2, behind the Sims.

But here's the not-so-terrible news, according to the study's architects: Even if your kid does play the game . . . well, it might not warp him or her for life. The study was conducted by a husband-and-wife team who are co-founders of the Center for Mental Health and Media and serve on the psychiatry faculty of Harvard Medical School. The findings are published in their new book, titled "Grand Theft Childhood."

Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson say that although some studies have claimed to show a link between video games and violent or aggressive behavior, most research in this area has been flawed. Some studies dating back to the '80s looked at now-vintage arcade games that don't remotely resemble modern video games. Some studies followed the behavior of only a few dozen kids. Many of the studies don't define what constitutes violent or aggressive behavior, and many confuse short-term and long-term behavior.

You'll sometimes see kids coming out of an action movie making kung fu moves against one another, said Kutner, as an example of the type of thinking behind some of the studies they looked at. "But that doesn't mean they're going to do that against the sweet little old lady down the street," he said.

In any case, Olson said, real-world statistics paint the picture as vividly as any research. "In some ways, it's common sense," she said. "Game playing has been going up and violence has been going down."

Olson said parents should keep an eye on whether their kids only play M-rated games, however. "We're not saying that games are great and your kids can keep playing whatever they want," she said.

I don't have any doubt that people can learn from video games. I played one of the previous GTA titles to such an extent that I knew my general way around parts of Miami during a vacation there; my only previous experience in the city had been playing a satiric, virtual counterpart, Vice City. I didn't run over any pedestrians, however, or steal any cars.

Though I'm not exactly worried about GTA warping the mind of my 7-year-old stepson, I'm glad that he's so young it's not a question yet. At this point in his life, he won't even come into the room if he suspects I'm playing a scary video game.

Funny thing about "Grand Theft Childhood." I had picked up the book expecting that a tome with such a provocative title would take a dimmer view of the influence games have on kids.

Olson said she and her husband wanted the title to be phrased as a question ("Grand Theft Childhood?"), but "publishers don't like question marks."

She said she hopes that folks who want to think there's a link between violence and video games read the book -- if the title hooks them in, so much the better.

"We didn't want to preach to the choir," she said.

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