The Winner: The Video Gaming Industry. The Loser: Our Kids

For the record, I’m not big on censorship. I believe that the free expression of speech guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of our Constitution is a vital part of what makes our country great. And it’s worth fighting for.

Even so, I was very disturbed by the Supreme Court’s June 27 decision to overturn the California law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors. The Entertainment Industry, on the other hand, was ecstatic.

In a 7 to 2 vote, the court ruled that under no circumstances can the government be allowed to protect children by limiting violence in the media. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that young people have been exposed to depictions of violence for centuries. “There is no tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence,” he said. “Certainly, the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — have no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed.”

The assumption on the part of the court seems to be that video games are no different from books, movies or plays. But they ARE different. Video games literally require the child to commit virtual acts of violence in order to progress in the game. The child is not an observer, but rather a participant, and a different part of his brain is activated.

When a child plays a violent video game, he is not only being desensitized to violence, he is being rewarded for engaging in violence himself. Each act of violence earns him points, and the one who wreaks the most havoc wins. These “games” train him to commit conscious, deliberate acts of unspeakable violence, virtual or not, and to feel good about them.

This is exactly how we train children to use the toilet, to sleep through the night, to use manners and to treat each other with kindness and consideration. We let them know what they must do in order to get rewarded — whether that reward is an M&M, a sticker, a pat on the back or an enthusiastic thumbs up — and they perform as required. It’s basis is in Behavior Learning Theory and it works.

Perhaps the justices failed to consider this when they argued that violent video games were no more dangerous to impressionable minds than the story of Hansel and Gretel. Grimm’s Fairy Tales may be gruesome but they stay the same no matter how many times you read them. The villan is clearly identified in the story and the reader (or passive observer) is led to root for the children who are at risk.

In a violent video game, the child is asked to be the one who does all the things that are depicted as bad and evil in the book. The outcome is different each time they play. They are expected to kill, maim, and destroy people and property and are rewarded each time they do.

The court made a serious error in lumping violent video games into the same category as network TV shows and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. They also lost a golden opportunity to highlight the differences and in so doing, to make a start in addressing a burgeoning social problem.

Scalia, in writing for the majority, argued that certain categories of expression, namely obscenity, incitement, and fighting words, are excluded from 1st Amendment protection. According to him, violent video games fall outside these narrow categories and thus cannot be banned. What?? Have these people ever actually played one of these games? Are they really going to argue that they don’t incite anything? Or that “fighting words” are not part and parcel to the game itself?

The court’s decision also puts the gaming industry in the position of policing itself. So now it’s up to them, the ones making all the money off this garbage, to make sure the games don’t get too nasty. Does anyone believe that they will suddenly become concerned about the impact that their products have on the hearts and minds of the kids they are marketing to? Really?

Big money is involved here and with that comes greed. Remember Wall Street? Enron? Whose best interests were taken care of there once the government stopped watching? Think this is any different?

So lets see — with this ruling, who’s being protected? Clearly not the young, vulnerable members of our nation. Instead, it’s large, money-making corporations and their “right” to sell violence directly to children. And this is being done under the guise of freedom of speech. Is anyone else a little uncomfortable about how this ruling stretches the notion of freedom of speech to the breaking point?

Somebody needs to protect children from products that can seriously harm them until their brains are developed enough for them to do it on their own. Parents must absolutely be the first line of defense here. But it sure doesn’t look like they will be getting any help from the Supreme Court.

And unfortunately, the consequences of that failure to protect will be reaped by society at large. Think Columbine. Does that bother you as much as it bothers me?



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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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