Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Getting Their Game On

Usually I don't review mainstream trade books, but Grand Theft Childhood by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson of Harvard's Center for Mental Health and Media at the Massachusetts General Hospital merits some attention from academics as one of the few good books on the market about digital parenting that synthesizes actual research and presents it to the public in a responsible way. (In this area, I liked the recently published Parenting, Inc., which slams the consumerism of supposedly "good" media influences from the edutainment industry as well.)

Much of Kutner and Olson's book is devoted to the scientific method and explains the basic of academic research to nonspecialists: what defines statistically significant results, how is "validity" determined, how can causation and correlation be separated, etc. They also look at the possible effects of non-gamelike exposures to violence from authoritative cultural discourses, such as the evening news and even The Bible, with a detailed examination of one study by Brad Bushman that was published as the paper "When God sanctions killing; Effect of scriptural violence on aggression."

Of course, in addition to appreciating its references to and explication of actual experiments, I like the fact that the book seems to agree with several of my 10 Principles for the Digital Family and provides in depth explanations of many of the precepts that are dear to my heart: 1) Play with Your Child (chapter nine), 4) Be an Adbuster (chapter six), 5) Distrust Ratings (chapter seven), and 6) Raise the Issue of Inappropriate Behavior Appropriately (chapter five).

I appreciated that Kutner and Olson aren't merely apologists for the videogame industry either. In the past, I've argued that some of the arguments put forward about the educational value of videogames ironically use the same mimetic logic about how games inspire imitation that game enthusiasts reject when it comes to games and violence. Although Kutner and Olson seem to take Aristotle's side of the argument more often than Plato's when it comes to the old debate about the effects of media upon the young, by looking at catharsis as well as imitation, they make their argument even more nuanced by pointing out that different populations of young people respond differently to the characters and the stories with which they are presented.

In their chapters "Déjà Vu All Over Again, and Again" and "All Politics is Local," the authors also lambaste the misdirection of high-profile legislative hearings and the opportunism of politicians on both sides of the aisle when lawmakers ignore research and first amendment issues and uncritically join the chorus of anti-digital media rhetoric. Although they miss out on what I have called the "SonicJihad debacle," they get plenty of other embarrassing legislative moments in their pages. This kind of "government by acclamation" certainly deserves more critique in parenting research circles, since it doesn't teach the civic values about deliberation and participation that are really important to our kids.

(Thanks to Ian Bogost for suggesting the book.)

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