Worst Facts Make Worst Law with Violent Video Games

It’s perfectly understandable that after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., everyone is casting about for an answer to a singular question: why?

As past is prologue, we shouldn’t be surprised that several members of Congress have settled on media violence as the possible culprit, noting stories that Adam Lanza may have “obsessively” played Starcraft and Call of Duty. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is reportedly circulating legislation mandating a study on youth exposure to violent video games.

We shouldn’t move too quickly because of lingering trauma from last week. These are the worst facts, and they will make the worst law if we let them.

Media violence has long been a target of lawmakers seeking a cheap and politically cost-free way to address crimes committed by young people. Calls for studies, hearings, self-censorship, or even actual censorship are easy. Most folks aren’t going to go out of their way to defend stuff that panders to the baser instincts, and lawmakers look like they’re doing something proactive to get at the problem. This is the story that’s played itself out now for decades, all the way back to the 1920s, when movie censorship sought to protect kids by limiting depictions of, for instance, any “inference of sex perversion” and miscegenation.

The problem is, without a mind-reading device, it’s virtually impossible to identify a causal link between exposure to media and any kind of action in the real world. This is doubly true when you’re talking about children’s exposure to violence.

First, lots of people play video games. Simply pointing out that some people who play video games commit violent acts is like saying that because people in prison like television, television must cause crime.

Second, it is certainly possible that people who are predisposed to violent conduct gravitate toward video games that depict violent acts. This is a chicken-and-egg question. As the Supreme Court pointed out (in a decision overturning a California state law criminalizing sales of violent video games to minors), even the psychologists who claim a causal link are only able to come up with weak evidence of correlation. And correlation is not causation. Note that this problem also applies to the slightly more complex question of whether violent video games will make already violent individuals more violent.

The chicken-and-egg question is one of effectiveness; that is, it suggests that even if you prevent kids from playing violent video games, you won’t prevent violence. That’s probably true. But it’s also worth reflecting on why it might actually be unwise to let anyone other than parents make decisions about children’s access to depictions of violence.

Justice Scalia wrote the opinion in the violent video games case, and he made much of the fact that video games aren’t uniquely violent. In doing so, he cited Grimm’s Fairy Tales (which are simply brutal if you’ve ever read the originals), the Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and (notably) Lord of the Flies.

His main point here was that there’s no “longstanding tradition” of restricting children’s access to depictions of violence; had there been one, it might have bolstered California’s argument that the government has an interest in regulating access. That is certainly true, but there’s a larger point that Justice Scalia did not expressly make: sometimes depictions of violence in media consumed by children have cultural and social worth. Lord of the Flies, for example, a book graphically depicting child-murder by children, is required reading in many schools.

Now, why does that matter? Because if it’s true that depictions of violence have cultural, literary or social merit independent of the violence, the government shouldn’t be in the business of policing access, be it by children or adults. If the depiction of violence triggers the power to censor, government can then use that violence as a proxy to censor the underlying message. Lord of the Flies is a particularly good example in that the graphic violence serves a broader allegory about, among other things, human political and social organization (things that a government may very well want to censor).

The bottom line is that both the functional problem (it’s not clear that censorship would do any good) and the fact that violent video games might actually have some social value suggest strongly that parents are the ones who need to supervise their children’s consumption of media. We should not let the understandable reaction to the horrific events in Newtown grease the skids toward government restrictions.

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Is it sane to change the 'law of the land' because of the actions of an insane person? #newton


Is it sane to change the 'law of the land' because of the actions of an insane person? #newton

Preston C.

You know, to be fair, several congressmen and women have already blamed gun culture and the NRA for the shooting.

J. Podraza

Rather than have another government study started, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) should have a member of his staff pick up a copy of 2008 release of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games (and what parents can do) and read it. Chapter Four contains information related to federally funded reports including an FBI report published in 2000, entitled "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective", a 1.5 million dollar study that began in 2004 through the U.S. Department of Justice resulting in a series of papers published in academic journals, and the basis for the book itself.
Note: Chapter Four begins with a quote taken from the FBI report, "For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong." -- H. L. Mencken. A not too subtle indication of what was to follow.


I am disappointed that you couldn't do the public due dilligence and include studies on PREDICTIVE PROGRAMMING and how many hours a small child should actually spend in first person games turning other first person players into hamburger meat? I really want to know how much money you were paid by the industry to write an article with your unqualified opinion and little or no facts on how it affects children's development and coping mechanisms... which extend into social behavior and parenting... HELLO? IS THERE ANYBODY IN THERE? Ah yes, someone with an agenda! SHAME ON YOU!


Toni - Talk about the pot calling the kettle back. You come in here with a comment like that yet have no backing evidence of your own? Ah, the sweet smell of hypocrisy in the morning.


Toni - You come in here with a comment like that yet have no backing evidence of your own? Ah, the sweet smell of hypocrisy in the morning.


There IS a reason why and it ISN'T just Congress. Wayne "kiss my back cheeks" La PIERRE first said it about VIDEO VIOLENCE and KID-ON-KID shootings and anything ELSE as long as it wasn't the goddam bullets from the GUN that killed them all. My FRIEND being one of the dead.

He DID play nothing but violent video games for three years straight, day and night, not seeing anybody or interacting with them but staying LITERALLY hidden in his room playing a video game to improve his technique for being able to kill women and children. He even had a game that was explicitly designed for that exact purpose: Kill as many women and children as you can to see if you can do it. Which he COULD. And DID.

But I'm going to be 100% frank (and see if it even shows up here): Wayne La Pierre and company are a load of conniving, manipulative gun pimps who care about NOTHING other than selling as many guns as possible and don't care to whom they sell them. The man didn't even want to close the loopholes in the freakin' background checks that would have prevented EASY as hell access to guns without even alerting police to the fact until it's too late.

And Stephen King, in his essay Guns, was the one who even brought UP the "gun pimp" image. He used the actual words gun pimp and damn-near came right out and SAID he has no respect for Wayne LaPierre, making me feel at the very LEAST vindicated.
The man is nothing even reMOTEly about "caring that the Second Amendment exists." He's all about money, nothing BUT money and will enter the Fourth Circle of Dante's hell when he's finished with THIS little journey HERE.

And I write these words in memory of Lauren G. Rousseau, whose sunrise began on June 8, 1983 and ended on December 14, 2012 at 9:45 in the morning.


Her thing with buying guns for herself b/c she knew Connecticut law forbade her getting them for her son, then writing on the form paper "I will not transfer this weapon to someone under 21," did WAY more to cause my friend's death than any fuckin' video game.

There were actual laws you could find on Connecticut books that she wantonly ignored, lied about and then disgustingly broke when she gave the weapons to HIM to be kept as his own.
And she signed her own death warrant the day she signed the papers.

That's my final say in the matter.

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