The Supreme Court has ruled that barring the sale of violent video games to minors violates the First Amendment. This ruling should be applauded, and I agree with the Court that the nature of content does not override the protections of the First Amendment.
Moreover, the ruling puts to rest the junk psychology that has been regularly promulgated throughout the culture with absolutely no scientific support that playing violent video games fosters violent behaviors. While there have been many acts of violence from people who also play video games, the connection between the video games and the violence has never been established, largely because there is no way to control in testing for other kinds of pathologies or psychological problems. A psychopath, as history has shown, is going to act in a specific way because of mental illness, not because of outside stimulation.
Indeed, there is a growing body of research that shows that violent play actually diminishes the need to act out violently in the real world. Gerard Jones in his brilliant book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence makes the case brilliantly. Children have darker sides and urges, which is only human. Allowing them to express those in pretend play where no actual harm is done provides release and contextualizes such behavior as inappropriate. Kids know this. They know the violence of video games, “Star Wars” or even Pokémon (where “fainting” is a euphemism for dying that even the youngest kids get) isn’t real, but it serves an elemental, biological need in the realm of fantasy, where no one actually gets hurt.
Anton Scalia (with whom I often disagree) makes the case that violent imagery in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, have been constants in our culture, without a demonstrable link to antisocial behavior. And don’t even get me started on the violence in The Bible or Shakespeare. Moreover, Scalia says that depictions of violence have never been controlled by the government. To have upheld this law would open the door to validating attempts to legislate by opinion and fear rather than rational fact. It would have set a larger precedent than merely banning something because a group of people don’t like it.
Now, will this mean that stores will be flooded with towheaded tots trading their allowances for copies of “Grand Theft Auto” or “Postal 2?” Of course not, though don’t be surprised if you hear that. The ESRB ratings are not going away, and then there’s the role of the parents.
In this, as in everything, the role of the parent to set standards, context and determine what is and isn’t appropriate for their children is still paramount. It is the parent and caregiver’s job to negotiate the realities of the culture and the market and educate their kids about it. Your point of view and your values are among the most important things you can communicate to your kids. It’s your job to know what’s in the entertainment and video games your children are exposed to and to make choices based on that awareness.
You vote with your dollars, and, hopefully, you let your kids in on your thoughts an opinions. Personally, I think any movie with Jennifer Aniston is a crime against the cinema, but I’m not going to ask for a law banning her; I simply won’t spend my money on her flicks. (And I’ll nap when they’re foisted on me on an airplane.)
Oh, and don’t freak out when your kids get exposed to violent video games you don’t agree with. We all know that “forbidden fruit” has an almost irresistible appeal to kids, so an older brother of a kid’s friend is highly likely to give your kids a taste of this kind of game. But here’s the thing: while that may be out of your control, if you’ve set the context for what’s appropriate, they’ll know they’re breaking the rules, and that can actually reinforce the validity of your rules.
So before you get up in arms and holler, “There ought to be a law,” remember when it comes to your kids, there already is a law: yours.