Saturday, October 30, 2010

Should the Government Ban Minors from Buying Violent Video Games?

Next Tuesday, two wonderful expressions of our democratic government will take place.  For millions of us, Tuesday will be the day we vote for our U.S. Congressional Representatives and a host of other state or local officials (the others, I'm sure, have already voted by early ballot).  Meanwhile, in our nation's capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about whether or not the free speech protections of the U.S. Constitution extend to video games.

On Tuesday, November 2, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), which deals with a 2005 California law that restricts the sale of certain violent video games to people under 18.  The law was overturned by the California courts for being unconstitutional, but the US Supreme Court agreed to consider the matter when the state of California appealed the decision.

On one side of the issue are various parent groups, who cite studies that linke playing violent video games to actual acts of violence, and argue that we should restrict children's access to such dangerous items just as we refuse to allow them to buy cigarettes or alcohol.  On the other side are civil libertarians and media groups, particularly the game developers themselves, who argue that with their ever-increasing ability for interaction and interconnectivity between players, video games are a growing means of self-expression for tweens and teens, and denying them access to that media runs counter to their constitutional rights, which have been re-affirmed in regards to books.

For our particular family, this matter is not really an issue; we don't own any game consoles, my son doesn't play many video games, and he doesn't enjoy violent games or activities in general, so I can't see him getting into such games whether or not they were banned.  And I can certainly understand the arguments of the proponents of the law.  I highly recommend the book Stop Teaching Our Children to Kill by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria Degaetano, which makes a chilling case that time spent on violent video games (some of which were adapted from military sharpshooter training materials) not only numbs children to violence but gives them the skills to shoot with deadly accuracy, and was a factor in the mass school killings such as Columbine.

However, while I can't speak from personal experience, it also seems that the video games industry is evolving and has created some interesting games that lead players through the consequences of such violence.  The game industry puts forth examples of more-nuanced violent games as "Darfur Is Dying," where the player tries to avoid being killed by militias while in a refugee camp, "BioShock," where the game deals with genetically modified people being used in a bad system that players can choose to either profit from or rebel against, or "Fable 2," where players face the ultimate ethical dilemma--whether they will save only their immediate family from death, or sacrifice their family to save thousands of innocent lives.  Such games, according to game developers, actually allow teens to confront the moral issues surrounding violence and give them better coping skills if faced with violence in their real lives.

So in the end, I have to come down against the proposed law.  I think it would inhibit the free speech that mature middle schoolers and teens should be having about these issues.  And I am always reluctant to restrict civil liberties, which I think are already under seige with the threat of international terrorism.

So if Chief Justice Roberts were to ask my opinion as a parent, I would say the Supreme Court should uphold the lower court decision ruling the law as being unconstitution.  What would you say if he were to ask you?

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