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Worst Facts Make Worst Law with Violent Video Games

Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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December 20, 2012

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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